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What is the Future for Skyscrapers After COVID-19?

Global Insight by Richard G. Smith
A view of the Shanghai skyline

In the most globally connected financial capitals, skyscrapers will continue to serve as a key component of the built environment.

What is the future of skyscrapers after the COVID-19 pandemic? The recent unveiling of Saudi Arabia’s fantastical new master-planned city, NEOM—with its colossal, mirrored walls piercing the clouds—might suggest business as usual after the disruptions of COVID-19 seemed to threaten the skyscraper’s future.

In fact, the story is more complicated, as I recently argued in an article for the journal Futures. Globalization’s need for global cities with highly concentrated financial districts explains why the COVID-19 pandemic will paradoxically only serve to make the world’s leading global cities more essential, valuable, and demanding of skyscrapers than ever before. Skyscrapers outside of global cities, in both the Global North and South, will be less important for globalization after COVID-19. This remains true even for the world’s largest and most expensive skyscrapers, such as those planned in Saudi Arabia.

Recent history provides a useful perspective. After the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, it was presumed that the era of skyscrapers would forever be associated with the twentieth century. As proven targets for terrorists, it was doubted whether cities would allow new skyscrapers to be built. Would people want to continue to work in tall buildings? Would companies want to fund their construction? Would firms want to rent office space, and would people want to live in them? The surprise was not only that skyscraper construction continued, but it accelerated as cities around the world experienced skyscraper booms: from New York and London to Dubai, Shanghai, and Manila, to name but a few.

The COVID-19 pandemic is now another existential threat to the skyscraper. The threat now is about the risk of infection, the need for hygiene and social distancing in a world that is not zero-COVID, and crucially the legacy of the pandemic as the catalyst for a shift to working remotely from home or otherwise. So, with the skyscraper again in doubt it is worth thinking about what help global city theory might give us for understanding what the future of skyscrapers will now be.

According to global city theory, globalization needs global cities with highly concentrated business and financial districts. Financial and corporate service firms cannot solely be digitally-based because they also require face-to-face interaction, collaboration, and joint production within themselves—and between one another—in the most connected global cities to effectively function as competitive businesses. Thus, in the context of COVID-19 we can theorize that advanced service firms will only practice on-site work where and when they must; so that these face-to-face interactions with colleagues and clients will overwhelmingly only take place in the skyscraper-laden financial districts of the world’s leading global cities moving forward.

Skyscrapers elsewhere in the Global North or South, located outside the world’s leading global cities for business and finance, will struggle to remain viable as firms increasingly decentralize the work of their staff away from city center offices. Even as a potentially transient event, the pandemic is nevertheless revealing which skyscrapers firms need to operate going forward; and the prediction of global city theory is that the only essential skyscrapers will be the ones found in the world’s leading global cities for finance and business.

The most important attributes of any skyscraper are usage and location. These attributes are key to providing the fullest answer to the question, “Why skyscrapers after Covid-19?” Extreme variation in skyscraper usage across the world’s cities indicates the fundamentally different logics for skyscraper construction that are in play depending upon any building’s location.

In the most globally connected corporate and financial capitals, skyscrapers—often clustered together—are largely part of a mixed business and residential urban environment where there is acute competition for prestigious, high-value central sites. The skyscrapers in these cities, whilst having individual differences, connect into the “premium” high-value networks of their host city and neo-liberal globalization.

Away from the world’s leading global cities, skyscrapers are built for other reasons. The cities of Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Dubai, and Jeddah, for example, have all branded themselves in recent decades as containing the “world’s tallest skyscraper,” precisely because a super-tall or mega-tall skyscraper addresses these cities’ need to place themselves “on the map” to connect more effectively into such highly competitive globalized markets as tourism, leisure, real estate investment, finance, and business.

Therefore, the tendency for most research and commentary to focus on the height of skyscrapers, or the number of skyscrapers any city contains, is misleading. The success of global cities, financial districts, and the firms within them depends above all else on geography – where you are matters and skyscrapers will be a key component in the built environment of the post-pandemic economies of global cities, as opposed to the vast majority of the world’s cities, precisely because leading global cities will need skyscrapers even more than they did before the arrival of COVID-19 as they alone become more essential (e.g. as established hubs for many professional fields and specializations) and valuable (e.g. for raising venture capital and making global investments) as central locations for the practice of globalization.

About the Author
Associate Professor, Swansea University
Richard G. Smith is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at Swansea University in the UK. His research focuses on global cities, the business of cities, the future of cities, and on the application of continental philosophy for understanding the contemporary world.