Monday, December 4, 2006

Tall Buildings and Income Inequality

First off, thanks to Ben Barros for inviting me to guest blog on this site.  I'm a big fan of the site, and I'm looking forward to many interesting discussions.

Since, like many of you, I'm in the midst of writing an exam (for my Land Use class), I thought I'd start off by just quickly sharing this interesting tidbit I received in my inbox from Alex Marshall, of the Regional Plan Association as part of the RPA newsletter.  In the email, he observes an apparent correlation between income inequality and exceptionally tall buildings.  Here are the key paragraphs of his discussion:

The majority of the tallest 100 skyscapers are in the United States, (35), and China (27). It is a remarkable story to see how China, which a generation ago probably had no tall buildings, now has almost as many as the United States. The other countries in the top 100, in order of the number of buildings they had, were Dubai (7), Malaysia (3), Australia (3), Canada (3), Singapore (3), Saudi Arabia (2), Taiwan (2), Bahrain (2), Germany (2), South Korea (2), Qatar (1), Russia (1), Philippines (1), Thailand (1), North Korea (1), and Japan (1). This list of countries mostly repeats itself when I looked at the top 200 tallest buildings. Again, the USA and China dominated, with a smattering of other countries listed above.

In general, the countries that have the bulk of the skyscrapers fare poorly on the inequality rankings. The United States and China rank quite low in income equality, at 73rd and 85th out of 126 countries. Part of China’s inequity ranking is shown in that it still actually has a per capita income of about $1700 per year, less than Guatemala. Given that, it’s amazing it’s been able to lead the world in production of skyscrapers. Other countries on the top 200 list also ranked low. Malaysia was at 98th; Singapore was at 85th in income equality.

He does not stake too much on this, as there are many other things that might explain the data (e.g., the timeframe of urbanization in the various countries), but Alex posits an interesting mechanism that he thinks might explain the apparent correlation: in more egalitarian societies, people negatively impacted by skyscrapers are able to exert more influence in the political process and prevent their construction more effectively than in more unequal socities, where the monied interests who want to strut their stuff with tall buildings are more readily able to get their way.

Eduardo Penalver

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This is really cool. I'd imagine that there are a lot of other things that come into play -- one possibility is that the tallest buildings are built where in areas of high population density. I suppose there could be a correlation between density and income inequality. But my Mom, who is an urban planner by training, would probably say that the biggest factor as to whether one of these superbuildings is built is the ego of the builder and the relevant people in the local government. So maybe China and the US lead the world in egos.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Dec 4, 2006 7:09:53 PM

The argument is certainly interesting to think about, but I'm a skeptic. First, I doubt the correlation means anything at all (beyond the obvious, and uninteresting point, that only a person or firm with significant wealth can build a skyscraper). Second, Marshall's claim appears to conflict with historical evidence. The modern skyscraper was invented in the U.S., with U.S. buildings (New York City and Chicago) enjoying global dominance from the 1890s through the 1950s. Now China and other countries are capturing a share of the tallest structures, and income inequality has increased in the U.S. since the if the U.S. still had all the tallest skyscrapers, we would have more income equality, right?

Posted by: Jim Smith | Dec 6, 2006 2:02:30 PM

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