It’s become a truism among many sustainability advocates that tall buildings are, by sheer virtue of the density they provide, paragons of sustainability. The most recent addition to this canon comes from Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, writing in The Atlantic (“How Skyscrapers Can Save the City”). Some proponents advocate a wholesale move to super-dense “skyscraper cities,” while others simply tout the green credentials of particular tall buildings, like London’s Gherkin or Manhattan’s New York Times Building.
Indeed, the research does show that places like Manhattan and Vancouver, BC, perform well on ecological criteria: They conserve farmland and natural areas, they have relatively low energy use and emissions per person, and they have relatively efficient use of resources per person (in things like buildings, pavement, etc).
But how much of this is due to the presence of tall buildings? How helpful are tall buildings in and of themselves?
More pointedly, does the research show that there actual negatives that we, as responsible practitioners, must bear in mind?
In a word, yes.
There is a growing body of research on the benefits and drawbacks of tall buildings, and this research gives a decidedly mixed picture. Indeed there are significant negative ecological impacts of tall buildings, as well as other negative factors, and the ecological benefits are not as great as is often assumed. We summarize some of this research below, and offer a sampling of citations.