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Pie in the sky - have we reached peak skyscraper?

2 June 2021 7:15 PM

They are icons on the landscape but very expensive and maybe no longer practical

The boom in construction is unprecedented. Humans have built so much that the mass of our built environment probably weighs more than all the living things on the planet. From Forests to livestock and even us, the buildings we have created are now more massive.

Life on Earth has been building for billions of years, humans far less so, in a book by David Farrier about how cities will fossilise he notes that just 300 years ago only one location on Earth was home to more than a million people. Edo in Japan, now there are over 500 cities greater than a million with Tokyo at an incredible 37 million.

It is hard to get your head around a city that is two thirds the size of South Africa by population. Johannesburg takes up about 1600 sq km, Tokyo is 2200 sq km but is home to 35 million more people than Joburg.

While Japan remains one of the most built up nations on the planet, the progression is that all countries at some point head down the path to urbanise, densify and increase their big infrastructure projects.

Since World War II according to Farrier, we have cast enough concrete to pave the entire planet, land and sea.

The US, Japan and Europe used an enormous amount of concrete to build or rebuild their countries after the war. For Japan it became an obsession fuelled by politics, growth and powerful construction companies ready to pay to get bigger and bigger projects approved.

Transparency International has determined the construction industry is the most corrupt, (page 15) beating out other notorious businesses like mining, energy and even the arms trade.

It may not have set out to be that way, but it has become an industry that uses vast quantities of material with an enormous carbon footprint to produce cement and then produces staggering quantities of building material, concrete, for constructions which are very people intensive and so a large employer which means you need lots of work to keep the entire supply chain busy.

Nowhere has that been more evident than in China. The construction undertakings in China have been so epic that in 2013 it was determined that they had used more concrete in a three year time span, than the US had used during the entire 20th century. From 1901 to 2000 America used 4,5 gigatons of concrete. From 2010 to 2013 China used 6,6 Gigatons.

And that was after they built the largest concrete structure ever built, the Three Gorges Dam which used 27 million cubic metres of concrete and enough steel to build 63 Eiffel Towers.

The size of China’s employees involved in construction is almost equivalent to the entire population of South Africa.

At first the construction was to modernise the manufacturing and transport infrastructure in China to build their economy, next came huge residential buildings to accommodate the millions moving to cities for work. Next were the tower blocks for retail and office work resulting in some very new but completely huge concrete jungles.

Photo by Edward He on Unsplash

Shanghai is the epicentre of rapid growth in super buildings. The tallest building in Africa is The Leonardo in Johannesburg opened in 2019 that stands 227m tall. Its 55 floors are not exceeded anywhere in Africa, Shanghai alone has 30 buildings taller than the Leonardo and one the second tallest in the World is over twice its height. Shanghai tower is 632 metres tall.

The skyline of Shanghai is a mountain range of buildings with well over 20 000 buildings exceeding 11 stories and over a 1000 that exceed 30 stories and even more are on the way.

Even as the pace begins to slow in China, it has begun to focus its building machine to other countries as part of its belt and road initiative to keep the part of its economy that on occasion accounts for a third of GDP operating at full speed.

Similar construction booms occurred around the world at different times for different reasons, but each has come with mixed blessings and costs that increasingly are way higher than expected.

Paris was once the city that showcased the world’s tallest structure using the innovations of steel construction, the Eiffel Tower, it still towers over the city centre with a much smaller business district some distance away that does have skyscrapers but none that are taller than the Eiffel Tower's 324m.

Why might Paris have opted to not build into the sky when they basically started it all?

The reason has more to do with how Paris’s history undermined its future, but rather than being a bad thing, it turned out to be good. Paris central has been mined and tunnelled for centuries, the ground is no longer suitable to construct buildings much taller than 10 stories.

In time the look became accepted and now it is so entrenched you can’t imagine it changing.

Photo by Henrique Ferreira on Unsplash

This is the dilemma facing all growing cities: how to grow, but still remain attractive and open and sustainable for people who want to live there.

One option has increasingly been to go up. More people in the same areas which if built correctly can house many more people while still supplying all the services, amenities and comforts of a big city without needing to travel as far to get it.

Tokyo, Seoul, New York all have a mix of very dense and less dense areas that have managed to accommodate huge workforces in big buildings generating huge revenues for the city allowing for arts and culture to flourish.

The China model, offers developers only leases for land, all land remains the property of the state.

To get the most from the land auctions which are seen as a good way to make money, developers build high. The sale of apartments and commercial space is also seen as a good investment and so China has seen not just a massive increase in available residential and commercial space, but millions looking to invest in new buildings in the hope their prices will continue to rise.

In 2016 the area of unsold property reached over 450 square kilometres. The oversupply might be dropping, but it appears the boom years are over too.

Demand post Covid

China may have weathered the Covid pandemic better than most, but the rest of the world even without the chronic oversupply of high rise units is also facing a dramatic slow down.

The question is will it be just a temporary dip or a shift away from building bigger to building better.

Buildings for people not people for buildings

The ideal is both, but expensive office rentals don’t allow you to give lots of space to one employee, they need to be packed in to the point that the revenue generated significantly exceeds the cost of the floor space. In big built up cities that is a big cost and after the pandemic, many will prefer somewhere less exclusive if it can be more friendly and closer to their homes.

Might Paris have had the answer all along, built up low rise cities with lots of space for walking and parks and priority given to public transport rather than private transport.

In a city that values the car and the street more than a pedestrian, you will need lots of streets and space to put all those cars. For cities that have been removing cars and converting streets back to pedestrian routes, it looks to have a better impact on the city and its inhabitants. Even as apartments shrink, it may open the option for people to spend more time outside using public spaces and engaging with fellow residents.

Here Tokyo may even offer a potential future with life at home being fairly cramped but social life offering a lot more.

The best typically lies somewhere in the middle with personal and public space being shared using materials and city designs to make living in the city a better alternative than commuting to it. Rather than one big city it would be better to have a string of smaller cities, big enough to reap the benefits of living together but limiting the pressures of living too close.

Vaclav Smil an economic analyst and prodigious author that has written over 40 books looking how humanity uses its energy to build civilisation and has spent more time than most looking at all the factors that have allowed us to progress and that may cause us to fail and he notes that issues like concrete's massive carbon footprint or the earth climate challenge can’t be viewed or addressed in isolation. It would be like raising your children but only focusing on their physical development, you need to cater for their mental and social development too. So too, we need to look at cities like children and understand that we will need more than just their height to know they will make good adults.




2 June 2021 7:15 PM

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