Are Skyscrapers and Wealth Inequality Intimately Linked?

New research seems to point towards a correlative between skyscraper-building and wealth inequality.

With the spate of super-tall, super-thin buildings, for super-rich tenants, spouting up in Manhattan recently, it’s certainly a question worth asking: Are skyscrapers and income inequality inexorably linked? That’s the provocation posited by Alex Marshall, a long-time Metropolis contributor, in the most recent issue of Governing Magazine. Marshall, the author of The Surprising Design of Market Economies (University of Texas Press), first noted the correlation between tall buildings and big gaps between rich and poor in a 2006 essay. Then, it was no more than a theory backed largely by anecdotal evidence. In the interim, however, Rutgers economist Jason Barr has been analyzing the data and seems to think (with the possible exception of relatively low-slung Brazil) that there very well could be a connection between the two.

“I believe a city’s skyline is a physical portrait of the distribution of wealth and thus political power in a society,” Marshall writes in a recent blog post. His hypothesis is supported, in part, by some of Barr’s ongoing research. The skyscraper craze that has overtaken Chinese and American cities, for example, neatly illustrates Marshall’s point. One thinks of the so-called “Dubaization” of midtown Manhattan, where a slew of residential towers—some tall enough to eclipse the Empire State Building—are being built at frantic pace. Geared to the global elite, these projects are never expected to be fully occupied. Instead, many of the luxury apartments and penthouses they contain will remain empty for long periods of time, their priviliged views to Central Park to be beheld by none. More consequentially, they drive up real estate values in the area, while contributing close to nothing to the existing neighborhood. As Marshall puts it: “As cool as 1,000-foot buildings may look, they don’t make particularly good neighbors.”

Interestingly, Barr came across an a historical parallel that he lends credence to Marshall’s claims. The last time the U.S. witnessed such staggering levels of inequality was at the peak of the 1920s boom, the same few years that gave birth to the world’s first skyscrapers. This lines up with another attempt to link the state and health of economies with skyscraper production: the now-famous Skyscraper Index. Formulated by economist Andrew Lawrence over a decade ago, the index laid out the compelling narrative of how bust and depressions immediately follow the building and completion of record-breaking skyscrapers. Several examples come to mind, such as the opening of the World Trade Center and Sears Tower on the eve of the 1974 Stock Market Crash.

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Of course it would be overly simplistic to divine doom from the construction of every new supertall building. Barr found that while the original claim held true in a city like New York or Shanghai, it did not in cities in Brazil and elsewhere. But Marshall’s work is nonetheless compelling. Head over to Governing‘s site for his timely and provocative column.

[Photo courtesy flickr user btan168]

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