“The vanity of some local government officials has determined the skylines of cities.”

Sky City 1We used to believe that the presence of tall buildings in the center of a city was the result of a straight-forward cost calculation.  As the price of land went up, so too did the incentive to build higher.  We believed this because we used to think of ‘the economy’ or ‘the market’ as the most basic determinant shaping the urban built environment.  It turns out of course that this is far too simplistic, and just plain naive.  It ignores all sorts of other factors that also condition people’s decisions about what to build where.  Geographer Mona Domosh, for instance, has argued that understanding the urban built environment – and the skyscraper in particular – requires paying attention to a broader range of factors including aesthetics, cultural and gender norms, political agendas, and psychological factors (such as ego!).  Economic factors alone cannot explain why cities look the way they do, and that should be even more apparent when we start looking for explanations for China’s explosively upward urban geographies.  Of the 100 tallest buildings in the world today, 60 are in China.  And in Changsha, Hunan, ground has been broken for what we’re told will be the world’s tallest building, snatching that title away from Dubai’s Burj Khalifa by 33 feet.  Changsha’s ‘Sky City,’ if built as planned, will have 202 floors and top out at 2,740 feet.  That will make it nearly twice as tall as the Empire State Building in New York City.

So why all the rush for tall buildings in China?  And why will the world’s tallest building be located in Changsha, of all places?  An August 12th editorial in the People’s Daily provides one laconic answer:  “The vanity of some local government officials has determined the skylines of cities.”  In fact, Beijing has halted construction on Sky City while central planning officials review the project.  After all, it’s one thing for a city like Dubai or Shanghai to build the world’s tallest building.  But Changsha?  Who do they think they are?  Sky City has become a lightening rod for criticism of China’s ‘tall building fever.’  Cities all over China – including Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Tianjin, and Shenzhen – are all completing new supertowers, all of them taller than any building in the US.

Sky City, on the far right, compared to other recent supertowers, including the Burj Khalifa, New York's Freedom Tower, and a host of Chinese towers nearing completion

Sky City, on the far right, compared to other recent supertowers, including the Burj Khalifa, New York’s Freedom Tower, and a host of Chinese towers nearing completion

A recent New York Times article about the trend notes that market forces cannot explain what’s going on.  Indeed, ‘the market’ alone would not support such an explosion of real estate growth:

“If you let the market decide, I don’t think a lot of these tall buildings would proceed,” said Chau Kwong Wing, a professor of real estate and construction at Hong Kong University. Despite public concerns, there is no sign so far that any of the many very tall buildings under construction in China has been canceled by regulators in Beijing, he and Mr. Zhang both noted.  Sky City is the most ambitious project of all, and so it has become the lightning rod for criticism of the trend. Chinese media have been openly skeptical about the project, questioning its safety, construction speed and the wisdom of relying on prefabricated modules.

The ‘Mr. Zhang’ referred to here is Zhang Yue, the head of Changsha’s Broad Group, which is building Sky City.  Zhang has insisted that the Changsha municipal government is not bankrolling his project, but he also remains vague about his investors.

He declined to identify the buyers except to say that they were in the private sector, not part of the government, and were spending their own money instead of relying on bank loans. That would be an extremely unusual combination in China, where most large real estate developments depend on low-rate loans that politically connected companies and individuals obtain from state-owned banks.

As noted in earlier posts, China has plenty of ‘ghost towns’ resulting from the ‘vanity’ of developers overriding the obvious limitations of China’s real estate market.  And so, while Zhang remains optimistic about Sky City’s prospects as a real estate venture, the People’s Daily is decidedly less so:

People’s Daily was more glum, noting that the Empire State Building, completed in 1931, took about two decades to fill and become a commercial success — and was initially nicknamed the “Empty State Building.”

UPDATE: 8/31/13 – It hasn’t gone without notice in New York City that China has easily claimed the high ground in the skyscraper department.  As pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed piece by Kenneth Jackson, a history professor at Columbia University, only 3 of the 100 tallest buildings in the world currently under construction are in New York.  For Jackson, this is the sign of a city in decline.  But a recent plan by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to rezone part of Midtown to allow for more skyscrapers has been met with considerable opposition, particularly among those who want to preserve more of the city’s built environment as heritage.  Jackson bemoans this trend as a denial of the creative destruction that has made New York what it is today:

Is New York still the wonder city, the place that celebrates the future, the city that once defined modernism? Or should it follow the paths of Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah in emphasizing its human scale, its gracious streets and its fine, historic houses?

The answer for a metropolis competing on a global scale must be no, because a vital city is a growing city, and a growing city is a changing city. When Henry James returned to New York in 1904 after a long absence in Europe, he discovered that the city of his youth had “vanished from the earth.” But in its place a powerful new metropolis was emerging, with a skyline unequaled at the time.

This ephemeral cityscape is something with which urban residents in China are by now well familiar.  Jackson seems to have caught the same bug that China’s municipal officials have: the only way for a city to stay ahead of the game is to tear down the old and build newer, taller buildings.

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Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center – Photo by Tim Oakes

UPDATE 9/4/13 – A Want Daily article today gives us an update on China’s tall building fever.  We’re told that “China has more than 350 buildings that pass the international standard for skyscrapers — over 152m tall — and is home to 87% the world’s skyscrapers currently under construction.”

This means a skyscraper will be completed in the country every five days for the next decade, giving the country 800 skyscrapers — four times the number in the US. Worth noting is that 80% of the buildings are located in less economically vibrant areas.

Like Changsha.  While the article makes a half-hearted attempt to blame this outward spread of skyscrapers on high real estate prices in the largest cities, it quickly becomes apparent that tall building fever is being driven by local governments trying to put themselves on the map:

Having a skyscraper as a landmark not only draws attention but business to the local economy. A landmark building has thus become an important indicator for local government performance, Gu said. The increasing height of skyscrapers shows a local government’s ambition to raise the visibility of its city, though the cost is only now becoming visible with the release of figures showing the enormous debts of local governments.

So, here’s a modest proposal for that coming forest of empty skyscrapers soon-to-be towering over China’s provincial cities:  subsidized housing (and free schools!) for migrant workers and their children.  Make each building an official ‘hukou-free zone!’  Create a forest of vertical gardens!

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