HONG KONG – “When they go low, we go high.” So declared former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2016 Democratic Party convention in the storied American city of Philadelphia.
From here in Hong Kong, that memorable turn of phrase reminds me today less of the ugliness of past political campaigns, and more of the beauty of this city’s striking skyline. In Asia, the march of ever-higher skyscrapers goes on, with developers in China in particular embracing that American dream to build high.
Indeed, those same words from the former first lady have relevance — in a different, economic context in both the United States and Asia — as a new administration in Washington focuses on rebuilding America.
U.S. President Donald Trump is certainly no stranger to skyscrapers. Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York is arguably one of the most famous addresses in the world. In Chicago — site of the world’s first skyscraper — the Trump International Hotel & Tower, completed in 2009, is the second tallest completed building in that city, and the fourth tallest in the U.S.
The United States long ago ceded the title of world’s tallest building to Asia and the Middle East. Seven of the top 10 tallest completed buildings in the world are now in Asia, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. This Chicago-headquartered nonprofit organization founded in 1969 maintains The Skyscraper Center, a database on the world’s tallest buildings.
As of March 2017, the world’s tallest buildings are the Burj Khalifa in Dubai at 828 meters, the Shanghai Tower in China at 632 meters and the Makkah Royal Clock Tower in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at 601 meters, according to The Skyscraper Center. Coming in at number four is 1 World Trade Center in New York at 541.3 meters.
Hong Kong boasts the eighth tallest building — the International Commerce Center. In Southeast Asia, the tallest buildings are Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers; the Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower, in Vietnam; and Bangkok’s recently completed MahaNakhon tower — all at more than 305 meters tall. Abeno Harukas in Osaka is listed as Japan’s tallest completed building at 300 meters.
Cities across Asia are growing outwards and upwards at breakneck speed. This construction boom is likely to continue, according to a report from the World Bank in 2015 that forecast decades of urban growth to come. Despite almost 200 million people already having moved to Asia’s cities in the first decade of the 21st century, the region’s ongoing urbanization is likely only to intensify.
Livable cities, however, need more than skyscrapers. The people, the street life, and the neighborhoods at the bottom of the buildings must not be lost in the shadows of new development. That remains a particularly critical point as city planners across Asia, from Hong Kong to Bangkok, slowly push out street vendors, street-side tailors and cobblers, push carts and food trucks.
As cities build taller, they must keep three key benchmarks for livability in mind — community, resilience and sustainability.
First, communities must be put at the heart of urban development. Urban planners must consider not only the impact of a city’s design and new construction on traffic efficiency or parking spaces, but also on inequality and on human lives.
Amid the rush to maximize real estate returns, developers must also incorporate public, open spaces to build a sense of community, cultivate street life and encourage social interaction.
And that fostering of community should ideally include people from all walks of life and income levels.
Second, cities must build in resilience.
A society or city that is socially inclusive and with strong community bonds leads to a city that is also resilient. An initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation, 100 Resilient Cities, defines urban resilience as the capacity to survive, adapt and grow no matter the stresses or shocks they experience.
Beyond skyscrapers, cities must build in comprehensive security and rule of law, effective public health systems, inclusive housing and labor policies, and diverse transport networks, as well as effective delivery of emergency services. Here, the private sector, including insurance and reinsurance companies, will play a necessary role along with government policies to encourage an enabling environment for resilience.
And third, cities need to grow in an environmentally sustainable manner.
With more and more people moving into cities, tackling environmental challenges is already increasingly an urban issue. Incorporating innovations and technologies in areas such as infrastructure, energy and transport will be essential to building smarter if not “smart cities.” Here again, the contributions and coming together of public, private and not-for-profit sectors will be important.
There are many ways to measure a city’s success. At the Milken Institute, where I serve as that non-partisan economic think tank’s inaugural Asia Fellow, our researchers since 1999 have used a comprehensive, fact-based set of criteria to rank 200 large and 201 small metros across the U.S. as part of an annual Best-Performing Cities index.
The economic outcomes-based index heavily weights growth in employment, wages and technology. More subjective metrics such as quality-of-life and cost-of-living are not included.
This past year, tech still drove the top rankings as cities that excelled in innovation again topped the index, with San Jose, California, in Silicon Valley, claiming the No. 1 spot for the second year in a row. A similar Milken Institute Best Performing Cities China list based on official Chinese economic, jobs, wage growth, foreign direct investment and other data singled out Shanghai, Guiyang and Zhoushan as top performers.
Certainly, not all cities are blessed with the resources that Silicon Valley’s urban areas or Shanghai have as they too face the growing physical, social and economic challenges that are a part of an increasingly urbanized 21st century.
But today, amid the diversity of the world’s changing urban landscapes, on one point there should be agreement.
Livable, dynamic and vibrant cities are greater testament to a country’s prosperity and policy successes than any number of skyscrapers, no matter how big or how tall. As the U.S. rebuilds and cities in America and around the world, including in Japan, build higher, it is what is sustained below that will matter most.
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.
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