Moving Up or Moving Out: Building Construction and Urban Sprawl

by Joel Harper on 2018-03-21 8:38am

Many natural resources are diminishing. This is an increasing concern as populations continue to grow. City planners are feeling the pressure as they attempt to encourage growth while also addressing the need for water and land. For a long time, many cities grew out, extending further and further into the surrounding land. Unfortunately, this has created several problems. Service lines for electricity, water, and sewage have had to be extended along with this growth creating a large amount of infrastructure that must be maintained. The distances across cities have increased which increased the dependence on cars and by extension commute times and pollution from cars. This largely undirected outward growth, often termed “urban sprawl” has a high cost in resources. Many city planners are looking at ways to slow or even reverse this trend. One option is to build up instead of building out.

The issue here is usable space. One method for creating space is to build horizontally. This method employs shorter, individual buildings. This is more the suburban model of building with large tracts of one to two story buildings. Unfortunately, this method uses up a significant amount of available land.

The other method is to build vertically. This is the skyscraper method of growth. Usable space is created by building taller buildings that contain the same amount of floor space as several smaller buildings. The evolution of the skyscraper has followed the evolution of building materials and construction methods. The potential height of buildings today dwarfs what was possible a century ago.

The advantages of skyscrapers go beyond just the floor space. Upward growth of cities tends to concentrate the population into a smaller area. This can reduce commute times. If there is an effective public transportation system, the dependence on cars can be reduced as well. Depending on the way they are constructed, the cost of providing essential services to a skyscraper can be equal to or less than the cost of providing those services to suburban neighborhoods at the edge of a city. This reduced cost can be a result of the smaller infrastructure required to provide the services, energy efficient construction, or a combination of the two.

However, there are also downsides to vertical growth. Tall buildings can create a “canyon” effect at street level. When several tall buildings are constructed near each other it can block out sunlight to such an extent that the streets between then can end up darker and colder than other parts of the city. Wind gusts can also be inadvertently directed down into the spaces between buildings creating powerful gusts affecting anyone at ground level. Concerns have also been raised about the psychological effects living in a tall building. The sense of separation and dislocation from other people could lead to increased risk of depression or anxiety.

One other problem with vertical growth concerns inequality. One of the problems high-rise buildings could solve is the skyrocketing property values in many cities. The lack of available housing and the increasing demand has caused property values to soar. Taller buildings with more space could stabilize or even reduce the cost of housing in a city. However, at the moment, skyscrapers cost so much to build that space in them is often too expensive for the average person leading them to become the exclusive domain of the wealthy. This does little to address the housing shortages and homelessness affecting many cities.

Several solutions have been proposed that advocate upward growth without being dependent on super tall skyscrapers. One city that is being examined is Hong Kong. While Hong Kong does have skyscrapers, the thing that people are taking note of is the fact that the the city has more buildings over 500 feet tall than many other cities in the world. The concept being drawn from this is a city design that utilizes many moderately high-rise buildings rather than a few skyscrapers towering over a relatively short city.

Another solution is multi-use construction. In order to make the most of vertical construction, the idea is that tall buildings should mix residential and commercial uses with the street level being devoted to shops and community spaces that can benefit the people living in the building. Some concepts even suggest constructing high-rise buildings around open or green spaces.

Concerns about the costs and long term effects of urban sprawl have led to city planners rethinking how best to provide the space being demanded by residents. It is possible that future will involve a shift back toward city centers with taller denser, construction. Contractors may need to be prepared for a shift in construction practices that emphasize multi-story buildings designed to house both residents and businesses. Keep an eye on this trend for it may lead to a future that is bigger and taller than we could ever imagine.


Joel Harper is a content writer for In his over five years with the company, he has written on numerous educational topics. Joel is a graduate of Southern Oregon University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife and dog in a single-story house.