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In an era where sustainability and protection of green space is such a sensitive issue, there are strong arguments for building up rather than out. The lecture on vertical cities, presented by Professor Steve Graham, discusses the benefits of high-density, mixed-use buildings and how building up relieves the pressure of urban sprawl on cities in an ever-growing population. It allows cities to realise Jane Jacobs’ (1961) vision of achieving greater density, and also allows architects, planners and cities themselves to make a statement. In this blog, I am going to discuss whether or not this freedom is a good thing.

Could cities one day look like this? – (2012) 

Vanity Height

Lloyd Alter (cited in Graham, 2016) states that “we have to roll back the regulations and let a thousand towers bloom.” He then asks “what are we getting when we throw away height limits and barriers to development and let the developers loose?” Unfortunately, the answer is often ‘vanity height’.

Vanity Height is defined by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CBTUH, 2013) as “the distance between a skyscraper’s highest occupiable floor and its architectural top.” It is becoming a common trend with architects and developers to include as much vanity height as possible in order to increase the overall height of the building. The image below (CBTUH, 2013) depicts the world’s ten tallest vanity heights. Unsurprisingly, seven of them have been built within the last 10 years.

The 10 tallest vanity heights in the world – CTBUH (2013)

To understand the extent to which large percentages of buildings “serve no practical purpose other than to push them into the architectural category of supertall” (Quine, 2013), you need look no further than the Burj Khalifa. With 244m (29%) of its overall height being unoccupied space, you could place the vanity height section alone into a European country, and it would be the 11th largest building in Europe (CTBUH, 2013). This is the result of excessive freedom being given to architects, coupled with astronomical funding (Burj Khalifa cost approx. $4.1bn USD (MENA Infrastructure, cited in Graham, 2016)).

It isn’t just the UAE which is guilty of building excessively high skyscrapers. The CTBUH (cited in Quine, 2013) states that 61% of the world’s “supertalls” (300m+) would lose their status if their vanity height was excluded. The Shard (London) is one example, with 20% of the structure uninhabitable.

Since the start of the 20th century, the height of the tallest building in the world, respectively, has increased by over 400% – from 187m (Singer Building, New York) to 828m (Burj Khalifa, Dubai).

The tallest buildings in the world since 1885 – Gerometta (2009)

The height of the Burj Khalifa was not decided upon based on how much office space it would provide, nor how many jobs it might create. Tamboli (2014, pp 175) informs us that from the beginning, the owner, Emaar Properties PJSC, “desired the tower to be the world’s tallest.” This egotistical approach to vertical cities is a current attitude to designing sky scrapers.

The Burj Khalifa – Google (2016) 

We should still build up

As Professor Graham (2016) highlights, tall buildings have the potential to make cities more affordable and architecturally interesting, as well as increasing sustainability. Shanghai Tower, potentially the ‘greenest’ skyscraper in the world, is a fascinating representation of a modern vertical city. The rapid transformation of Shanghai required the city to address the need for high-density development. The building, “wrapped entirely from top to bottom in public spaces and sky gardens” (Xia et al, 2010), demonstrates how cities can benefit from building up. It houses retail in zone 1, office and commercial space in zones 2-6, a luxury hotel in zones 7 & 8 and an observation deck/public amenities in zone 9 (Tamboli, 2014 pp 156, Xia et al, 2010). This style of mixed-use development is popular both in academia and practice. There is some debate as to whether the Shanghai Tower can be classed as a vertical city. As Howell (2016) writes “a Vertical City is designed to provide all of the necessary functions that a city typically possesses”.

Shanghai Tower – Xia et al. (2010)

Buchanan (2008) highlights the “positive economic impact” of tall buildings stating how “building up means less building out” allowing for “more land to be used for public realm, conservation and environmental purposes”. It identifies that denser neighbourhoods and commercial districts creates a more efficient public transport system and reduces private vehicle transport. Between 1988 and 2006, peak commuters in the high-density district of Canary Wharf (London) increased by nearly 700% on public transport, whereas private vehicle commuters increased by 50% (Buchanan, 2008).

Clearly, there are huge economic and environmental benefits of Vertical Cities, not to mention the fascinating architecture that it brings with it. The underlying message of this blog is that we should aim to create higher-density cities and control urban sprawl by building up, but we shouldn’t be doing it for the sake of the ‘tallest building’ title.



Colin Buchanan and Partners, 2008. The economic impact of high density development and tall buildings in central business districts. [online] London: British Property Federation, pp. 1-15.
Available at: file://campus/home/home06/b3041975/Downloads/Tall%20Buildings%20Report%20FINAL.pdf [Accessed 18 Jan 2017]

Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, 2013. “Vanity Height: the Empty Space in Today’s Tallest”, CBTUH Journal, 2013 (3), pp. 42-43.

Geromett, M. 2017. History of Measuring Tall Buildings. [online]
Available at: [Accessed 18 Jan 2017]

Graham S. 2016. Vertical Cities. Newcastle University.

Google, 2016. Google Images – Burj Khalifa. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 20 Jan 2017]

Howell T, 2016. “The True Definition of a Vertical City” [Blog] Vertical City.
Available at: [Accessed: 19 Jan 2017]

Jacobs J, 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York, Random House.

Quine O. 2017. The height of vanity: Why taller isn’t better and the 10 vainest. [online]
The Independent.
Available at: [Accessed 18 Jan 2017].

Tamboli A. 2014. Tall and Supertall Buildings – Planning and Design, New York, Mc Graw Hill Education.

Vertical City, 2012. A solution for sustainable living. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 20 January 2016]

Xia J, Poon D, Mass D, 2010. “Case Study: Shanghai Tower”, CBTUH Journal, 2010 (2), pp. 12-18.

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