Written in response to Edward Glaeser’s essay How Skyscrapers Can Save the City, in the March 2011 Atlantic Magazine, published as a comment.

Edward Glaeser has written a thoughtful essay on the history of the skyscraper and its role as a space saver in the development of cities with growing populations. He clearly explains the cost of building a skyscraper—up to a certain number of floors, and the less expensive floors above. And he properly, I think, criticizes the Landmarks Preservation Commission in New York City, for marking too many buildings, stultifying growth of new structures that might replace older ones.

However, the notion that constructing ever taller buildings can accommodate ever rising populations within city limits won’t work. It won’t work because planning and erecting structures and deciding on zoning regulations that go with them, et al, are exercises in reason; whereas population growth can be highly irrational.

For example, consider Brooklyn, where I have witnessed a dramatic surge in immigrant population since 2006—perhaps as many as 400,000 new human beings, by one NY Times estimate, mostly illegals migrating from south of the border. Frankly, I did not realize that existing housing stock could absorb so many persons. Maybe they are living 10 to a house, I don’t know. The subways are certainly more crowded. The mayor said, “Let them come.” And they came.

Brooklyn has nothing you could call a skyscraper, not compared with the city, nor should it ever build one. So what should the borough do? Well, it should task federal officials to protect our borders, and call out our elected officials for making New York a “sanctuary city,” in violation of federal law.

Limiting population is the only way to save our cities from infinite expansion, either vertically or horizontally. For a decade, the Empire State Building has once again been our iconic structure. Soon it will be challenged by the a-building Freedom Tower downtown, and some new structure recently approved by the City Council for midtown. Too bad.

Mature cities like London (Parliament and Big Ben), Paris (Eiffel Tower), Rome (Coliseum) understand the value of their icons and don’t insult them, at least not to their face, as the author recounts in his description of Paris at its outer boundaries. Jane Jacobs was right—human scale matters. We are not quite ready for the enormous hives as glimpsed in the film “Blade Runner.”

By Hudson Owen.

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