Why building higher can save cities (and lives)

Why building higher can save cities (and lives)

Besides making cities more affordable and architecturally interesting, tall buildings are greener than sprawl, and they foster social capital and creativity. Yet some urban planners and preservationists seem to have a misplaced fear of heights. This is damaging our cities on both an ecological and on a sociological level. From New York to Paris to Mumbai, there’s a powerful case for building up, not out!

For more than 2,000 years western city builders took the story of the tower of Babel, inside the book of Genesis, quite literally. They wouldn’t dare to tempt God’s revenge, so the tallest structures they erected were typically church spires. For example: in New York city the Trinity’s spire was the highest building until 1890. In 1891 a skyscraper, that eclipsed the spire, was built to house Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. This could be interpreted as the true start of the irreligious 20th century. At almost the same time, Paris celebrated its growing wealth by erecting the 1,000-foot Eiffel Tower, which was 700 feet taller than the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.


The construction of the Eiffel Tower from the 10th of august 1887 till the 12th of march 1889.

Ever since the release of a certain bestseller called the bible, and the accompanying story about that tower in Babel, height has been used both as a symbol of power and as a way to provide more space on a fixed amount of land. For centuries, ever taller buildings have made it possible to cram more and more people onto an acre of land. Yet until the 19th century, the move upward was a moderate evolution, restricted by the cost of building and the limits on our desire to climb stairs. Truly tall buildings only became possible in the 19th century, when American innovators solved the twin problems of safely moving people up and down and creating tall buildings without enormously thick lower walls.

The big breakthrough for the “safely moving people up” problem happened in 1854 when Elisha Otis invented a safety brake for the elevator and presented it at the New York’s Crystal Palace Exposition. This revolutionary technology enabled path-breaking structures, like Richard Morris Hunt’s Tribune Building in New York, to reach 10 stories. The thick lower wall problem was solved by the critical cost-reducing ingredient of the modern skyscraper: a load-bearing steel skeleton. This invention pretty much defines a skyscraper. It enabled walls to essentially be hung on the frame like a curtain. Skyscrapers also rest their weight on a frame that is made of steel, which became increasingly affordable in the late 19th century.

Given the rising demand for center-city real estate, the skyscraper seemed like a godsend. It enabled cities to add vast amounts of floor space using the same amount of ground area. The problem was that those city centers already had buildings on them. Except in places like Chicago where a fire had created a tabula rasa. Cities needed to tear down to build up.

Given the rising demand for center-city real estate, the skyscraper seemed like a godsend.


The demand for space was even stronger in New York than in Chicago, and skyscrapers were soon springing up in Manhattan. In the early 1920s, the New York of slums, tenements, and Gilded Age mansions was transformed into a city of skyscrapers. Builders like Lefcourt erected nearly 100,000 new housing units each year, enabling the city to grow and to stay reasonably affordable.

The relationship between housing supply and affordability isn’t just a matter of economic theory. A great deal of evidence links the supply of space with the cost of real estate. Simply put, the places that are expensive don’t build a lot, and the places that build a lot aren’t expensive. Growth, not height restrictions, keeps space affordable and ensures that poorer people and less profitable firms can stay and help a thriving city remain successful and diverse. Height restrictions do increase light, and preservation does protect history, but we shouldn’t pretend that these benefits come without a cost.



Another advantage of building up in already dense neighborhoods is that you don’t have to build in green areas, whether in Central Park or somewhere far from an urban center. From the preservationist perspective, building up in one area reduces the pressure to take down other, older buildings. One could quite plausibly argue that if members of the landmarks commission have decided that a building can be razed, then they should demand that its replacement be as tall as possible.

Restricting new supply anywhere makes it more difficult for the city to accommodate demand, and that pushes up prices everywhere.


The cost of restricting development is that protected areas have become more expensive and more exclusive. In 2000, people who lived in historic districts in Manhattan were on average almost 74 percent wealthier than people who lived outside such areas. Almost three-quarters of the adults living in historic districts had college degrees, as opposed to 54 percent outside them. People living in historic districts were 20 percent more likely to be white. It’s not that poorer people could ever afford 980 Madison Avenue, but restricting new supply anywhere makes it more difficult for the city to accommodate demand, and that pushes up prices everywhere.

Again, the basic economics of housing prices are pretty simple — supply and demand. New York and Mumbai and London all face increasing demand for their housing, but how that demand affects prices depends on supply. Building enough homes eases the impact of rising demand and makes cities more affordable.

One last fact to consider: carbon emissions are significantly lower in big cities than in outlying suburbs. This leads to astounding real world implications: as of 2007, life expectancy in New York City was 1.5 years higher than in the nation as a whole.

So once could say that it is not a hyperbole conclusion that land-use planning can be a matter of life and death…



Now enter our startup Bao House. At Bao we thoroughly believe that the way the vast majority of the human population will live is going to radically change in the next couple of decades. For example, by 2050 it is estimated that 70% of the world population will live in cities. It will be crucial that this enormous influx of new city citizens has a affordable, easily accessible place to live. The more we read into it and talked about these issues the more we became convinced that the only way to truly solve them is to build up, not out!

With the product that we are developing we aim to contribute to these goals. We believe that we have created a system that aids in building the affordable, ergonomic and ecological homes that our cities will so desperately need in the decades to come.



This article is inspired by the following sources:
1. How Skyscrapers Can Save the City
2. Why Build Higher?

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