Skyscrapers can't save a sprawling city

Robert Steuteville, New Urban Network

In his Atlantic piece, “How Skyscrapers Can Save the City,” Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues against building height regulations that he says raise housing costs and sap economic vitality in cities from Mumbai, India, to New York, New York.

Glaeser has a point — but the “elephant in the living room” that gets little mention in the article, which is excerpted from his new book, Triumph of the City, is sprawl. Mumbai is a textbook case of overly strict height regulations that have harmed the city and its inhabitants, he says. Most of that city has a maximum floor-area ratio of 1.33, Glaeser reports, a low number for one of the world’s great metropolises. For a building covering 60 percent of its lot, a 1.33 FAR means that 2 stories is has high as you can go.

This rule has pushed ever more residents out to slums in the periphery of Mumbai and contributed to almost unbearable crowding and congestion, he notes. It seems reasonable to me that Mumbai’s residents would be better off without such a widely applied limit. He writes:

Limiting heights didn’t stop urban growth, it just ensured that more and more migrants would squeeze into squalid, illegal slums rather than occupying legal apartment buildings.

But the economist also opposes building height regulations in New York, a city with thousands of skyscrapers. If Glaeser thinks any height would be too high, he never lets on — 40, 60, or 80 stories are all good, apparently. He also attacks historic preservation designations, which cover 15 percent of Manhattan and make building newer and higher more difficult. My problem is that Glaeser’s geographic focus, the island of Manhattan, is too limited. While he argues from an economist’s point of view, Manhattan is hardly isolated economically. The island is part of a much larger metropolis that spreads 40 miles to the east, north, and west. The region shares the talent pool and offers residents many choices in neighborhoods, housing, and civic amenities.

Glaeser argues forcefully that building in any part of Manhattan eases housing demand and pressure on green space throughout the city. If so, this principle should also apply to the New Jersey suburbs and smaller urban centers to the west. While Glaeser complains that it is harder to get approval for a tall building in Manhattan than it was 30 years ago, most of the region's development in the last six decades has taken place in the Garden State — along with Long Island, Connecticut, and Westchester County. In New Jersey, 506 square miles of land was urbanized from 1986 through 2007 — the equivalent of 23 Manhattans.

Much of that development took place in parts of the state that are under the influence of the New York regional economy. Two-thirds of the area urbanized in New Jersey from the mid-80s to the recent housing crash was developed in the form of large-lot (1 acre or larger) housing. The FAR of a median-sized house on a one-acre lot is 0.05, which is 25 times less than the Mumbai maximum of 1.33 FAR. (While many of the New Jersey large-lot houses are bigger in square footage than the average house, many are also on larger lots than 1 acre, so I think the comparison is fair). The extremely low-density New Jersey housing is no more the result of a free market than two-story buildings in Mumbai. Large-lot zoning throughout much of the New York region requires it.

Glaeser is outraged by a limit on building in Mumbai that is 25 times more liberal than the regulations for much of the New York region. If the restrictions in Mumbai harm the city and inhabitants, what do these zoning laws do around New York? Glaeser offers skyscrapers as a solution to sprawl, but I don't see it. Tearing down historic edifices to make way for 50-story buildings will do nothing to change the biggest land use issues facing the New York region and other US metropolises.