Saturday, April 09, 2005

Tall buildings

Some years ago, Peter Drucker neatly summarized the evolution of cities in the modern age.

"In 20 years Japanese office workers may still commute, packed shoulder to shoulder, to downtown towers. But no one else in the developed world will. Office work, rather than office workers, will do the traveling. Tomorrow’s big city is no longer going to be the office center.

"The exodus is already under way …

"The modern big city is the creation of the 19th century’s ability to move people. Everyone in Dickens’ London walked to work except the owners, who lived over their shops or their counting houses. But then, beginning in mid-century, people began to acquire wheels – the railroad first, then the omnibus and the streetcar (horse-drawn, of course, for many decades), the subway and the elevated train, the automobile, the bicycle. Suddenly large masses of people could move over great distances to where work was. And the elevator added vertical mobility. It was this ability to move people, that, more than anything else, made possible large organizations, business, hospitals, government agencies and universities.

"By 1914, every single one of the means to move people into an office-centered large city – and to enable the office workers to live outside it – had been developed. But they did not have their full impact until after World War II. Until then only two cities had skyscrapers – New York and Chicago. Now every mid-sized city world-wide boasts a “skyline” and even in mid-sized cities people commute.

"This trend has clearly reached its end, has indeed widely overshot the mark. Tokyo’s office workers have to live more than two hours away just to get a seat on the train. ….

“Information and the Future of the City” by Peter F. Drucker, The Wall Street Journal (April 4, 1989).

The Economist has just published a list of cities with the most skyscrapers ("Tall buildings"). According to Drucker, the ranking must be read in (roughly) the reverse order, indicating the extent to which cities have overshot the mark. Perhaps island cities (downtowns) get special consideration.

"Hong Kong has 7,417 skyscrapers, more than any other city, ... a building must be over 35 metres tall to qualify as a skyscraper. New York ranks second with 5,444 skyscrapers; Los Angeles has just 450 ..."

Of course, downtown boosters everywhere are still pushing to move skylines in the wrong direction. And to get there they revert to some of the worst excesses (and largest subsidies) available to local governments.