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No skyscrapers for you

01 May 2019 | News Roundup

No skyscrapers for you

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio just struck a mighty blow against his own city, if not climate change, by banning the construction of glass-and-steel box skyscrapers and ordering all 50,000 existing ones to carry out an expensive energy retrofit. Supposedly this aspect of the displeasingly named “OneNYC 2050” will help New York City cut its emissions of “carbon pollution” by nearly 30% by 2030 which the IPCC says, if only we could all do it, would… have no effect on global temperature. But it will sure make the Big Apple a less attractive place to live and work.

It’s not supposed to. Indeed OneNYC 2050 has something of the Green New Deal flavour as de Blasio and his colleagues promise to attain simultaneously a range of goals it has not yet been the lot of humans to achieve one at a time, “a strong and fair city,” “a vibrant democracy”, “an inclusive economy”, “thriving neighbourhoods”, “healthy lives”, “equity and excellence in education”, “a livable climate”, “efficient mobility” and “modern infrastructure”. And after lunch, presumably, world peace. As we have noted before, there is a regrettable failure to think in terms of trade-offs amid a large portion of the political class in the Western world.

Hence if you drill down into the “livable climate” section of the “strategy”, once you get past the hoo-hah about “more intense heat, rising sea levels, and more extreme and frequent weather events” you read that “we are taking the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel industry that caused the climate crisis in the first place” (not you citizens driving cars and burning heating oil, heck no, the bad people letting you do it) you read that “Our climate actions will create good-paying jobs for New Yorkers. And we will demand the costs be borne by those most responsible for our climate crisis, and the benefits shared, so no community is left behind.” So there you go. Save the planet and get rich. Who could say no to that? (And if you read their progress report they’re pretty much knocking it out of the park already.)

Now let’s be frank here. There is an aesthetic and even social case to be made against skyscrapers especially as currently designed and built. A lot of people think filling cities with what Tom Wolfe and others called the “Yale box” makes them ugly and inhumane places to live. It certainly has helped ruin the waterfront in Vancouver. And people who think so have every right to prefer places with less utilitarian/futuristic architecture and more local flavour. There are many such places, including countless quaint towns in upstate New York, but oddly enough millions of people prefer the densely-packed boroughs of New York City, where real estate is hard to come by so the developers put up interchangeable vertical human stackers because they are the cheapest way to fit a lot of people into a small space to live or work or both.

It’s the same kind of trade-off that explains why so many offices have those flimsy plastic cubicles instead of oak paneling and leather chairs; it’s better to be employed in a tacky office than unemployed outside a posh one. And if you take a walk around New York, or Tokyo, you will notice that a great many people have chosen to live and work there, with or without reservations about the wind-tunnel canyons and boringly sleek buildings that reduce humans to the scale of ants.

If de Blasio has his way fewer people will choose New York City because fewer will be able to afford it. (Of course when that day comes he will lament it mightily and call for a special commission to investigate why his city has gone into decline.) And again there might be voices raised suggesting that the United States and the world would be better without megacities, especially the “Galactic Metropolis” whose chain stores, architecture and everything else are indistinguishable. But if it is to be so, let it be by choice. Ideally individual choice. But at the very least by policy choices whose architects understood the consequences of what they are doing. Unlike the architects of OneNYC 2050 who warn that “Challenge #1” to the city is “Rising Unaffordability” before congratulating themselves on making that problem worse.

Of course environmental alarmists tell us without CO2 reductions on this scale and beyond, around the world, people will no longer live in Manhattan because it will be flooded. And if so then by all means sacrifice prosperity to save what can be saved of our civilization. But don’t pile costs onto businesses and pretend there aren’t costs, or that whacking those dreadful corporations will cause them to spew jobs like a piñata.

2 comments on “No skyscrapers for you”

  1. What are all kinds of reasons? Like Beijing, New Delhi, Dhaka, Moscow, Mexico City to name a few?

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