New York and Chicago's Century-Old Skyscraper Contest

The cities have been locked in battle since 1885, with no signs of stopping.

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Few people would challenge the idea that New York and Chicago possess the two best skylines in the United States. At present, the two cities account for more than half of all the country's buildings taller than 785 feet. They also boast the nine tallest U.S. skyscrapers between them — five in New York (if you count One World Trade Center) and four in Chicago.

Urban economist Jason Barr of Rutgers University believes this shared skyline dominance is no coincidence. On the contrary, he recently analyzed the history of tall buildings in the two cities and concluded that they've been locked in a skyscraper contest since roughly 1885 (right around the time Chicago began rebuilding in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1871). Barr reports these findings in this month's issue of the Journal of Regional Science.

"The data just supports this idea that New York, for example, will positively add to its skyline when Chicago does," he says.

The idea of a New York-Chicago skyscraper contest has been tossed about in newspapers since the early 20th century. ("The newest thing in the racing field is the skyscraper," wrote the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1901. "It involves Chicago and New York, and as usual Chicago is in the lead.") In theory the contest could be driven by regional economics, with cities competing for employment and industry, or by more personal motives, with major developers each wanting to plant the tallest flag.

But editorial banter and hypothetical reasoning aside, no one had ever studied the question in depth. Barr — whose other recent work has dispelled the so-called "skyscraper index" theory, which says height can predict economic downturns — wanted to see what the data had to say. He focused on two annual indicators of skyline success between 1885 and 2007: the total number of buildings completed each year, as well as the tallest one.

On both counts, Barr found evidence that New York and Chicago responded to extensions of the other's skyline. His measurement of each year's tallest skyscraper was particularly telling: for every 10 meters Chicago increased its buildings, New York boosted its tallest one 1.2 meters; and for every 10 meters New York did the same, Chicago boosted its tallest one 2.6 meters. Barr calls this type of competition one of "strategic complements."

"A 'strategic complement' says it's in my best interest to positively respond — to add more when I see what you did," he says. "If I'm in New York and you're in Chicago, and I watch you build a really great brand new building, I find that it's in my best interest to outdo that building."

Naturally other forces play a role on building height; zoning regulations, in particular, might govern the rules of any intercity skyline competition. Barr looked to the data for any lagged effects of new height laws, the idea being that any restriction in one city might produce taller buildings in the other city a few years later. Sure enough, he found that developers in each city took advantage of changes in zoning laws to jump out in front of the competition.

To Barr, the findings demonstrate two distinct but simultaneous contests at play: one largely psychological, the other largely tied to economics. The former, related to the idea of "strategic complements," says that developers in one city want to build something bigger than what exists in the other city as a way of standing out. The latter, related to the zoning response (or, as Barr calls it, "strategic substitutes"), says that any limits to the height of office or residential buildings in one city could cause businesses and people to flock to the other.

It's a cultural back-and-forth that Barr doesn't expect to end anytime soon.

"Well, there will never be a winner," he says. "This idea of cities competing with each other is part of the nature of the beast. It's always going to go on."

Top image: Top: The Chicago skyline (Songquan Deng /Shutterstock.com); Bottom: The New York Skyline (Songquan Deng /Shutterstock.com)

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