The physical space reveals something deeper about a place.

Have you ever thought about what a skyline says about a city? They come in all different shapes and sizes, and reveal more than you might think about a city. Below, ten distinct “Skyline Types” that characterize a great number of the world’s great (and not-so-great) cities.

Urban Living

Vancouver. Photo by: abesan /Shutterstock

Found in places like Vancouver, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires, this is the kind of skyline that gets urbanists giddy. These cities feature high-density cores with 24/7 activity, and residents rarely leave the urban core. Commenters have noted that Vancouver’s residential centralization policies may have actually worked too well, crowding out the middle-class, as the district’s desirability has pushed prices sky-high. Nevertheless, the city consistently ranks near the top of global Quality of Life surveys, as high-density living translates to good public transit and easy access to parks and other recreational opportunities.

The Power Broker

Chicago. Photo credit: Rudy Balasko /Shutterstock

The Power Broker is tall and robust, and represents everything that we imagine when we think of skylines. New York, Tokyo, and Chicago are prime examples, all featuring a good mix of residential and commercial buildings, and a heterogeneous architectural fabric, indicative of a constantly evolving urban landscape.

On the Edge

Hong Kong. Photo credit: leungchopan /Shutterstock

Built along a narrow strip of land on Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong’s central business district appears to defy both gravity and common sense. The city features more buildings over 500 feet than any other city on Earth, including six that are over 1000 feet. Space on Hong Kong Island is precious, and cutting-edge engineering ensures that the every developable surface has been maximized. Monte Carlo is another example, which packs out the principality’s 0.7 square miles with high-rise development.

Zoned Out

Paris. Photo credit: europhotos /Shutterstock

Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s 19th century plan for Paris was a groundbreaking achievement. The city’s irregular, medieval streets were re-worked into the ideal modern city, with a maximum building height of 20 meters. A century and a half later, Haussmann’s Paris remains very much intact. The modern business district of La Defense is actually on the periphery of the city, much like London’s Canary Wharf and Rome’s EUR.


Astana. Photo credit: europhotos /Shutterstock

The former Soviet Union and China share a legacy of top-down urban planning, a look that's austere yet functional. However, in an era of economic globalization and increased global integration, skylines in cities like Beijing, Moscow, and Warsaw are rising above the sea of state-built panel dwellings to accommodate an influx of multinationals in glassy high-rise towers. Cities like Shanghai and Astana have taken this post-Communist transition a step further, creating entire high-rise districts where rice paddies and barren steppe, respectively, characterized the landscape just decades ago.


Pittsburgh. Photo credit: traxlergirl/Shutterstock

Found primarily in North America, the Oligopolis is marked by the clear dominance of a handful of prominent towers headquartering firms in the region’s key industries. A key feature of these cities’ downtowns is parking lots, a clear indication that CBD land isn’t exactly in high demand. Examples include Pittsburgh and Houston, where CBDs turn into ghost towns after the districts’ workforces have headed back to the ‘burbs for the evening.

Shock Cities

Dubai. Photo credit: Patrik Dietrich /Shutterstock

Characterized by rapid population growth and furious economic development, cranes dot the skyline of these "shock cities." This 19th century term, coined by Asa Briggs referred to Chicago and Manchester back then. Today, it can be applied to Dubai, Doha, or Panama City.

Sky-High Aspirations

Taipei. Photo credit: elwynn /Shutterstock

These medium-sized cities use a single oversized tower to put themselves on the map. Examples include Taipei and Kuala Lumpur.

Surf Cities

Honolulu. Photo credit: Stephen B. Goodwin /Shutterstock

What’s a beach vacation without an ocean-view room? Surf Cities are found anywhere sun-seeking tourists flock en masse for their own slice of the sand, often in competition with well-heeled retirees who have chosen to spend their days on extended vacation.  Honolulu, Benidorm, Cancun, and Australia’s appropriately named Surfer’s Paradise all feature concentrated clusters of high-rise hotels and residential complexes so as to maximize the utility of beachfront property.

Lights Out

Cairo. Photo credit: DavidEwingPhotography /Shutterstock

For a city of 16 million, Cairo’s skyline is surprisingly low-rise. The same could be said for Mumbai or Mexico City, whose residential quarters sprawl over vast areas, but whose tallest buildings include just a smattering of hotels and high-end residential towers. As Thomas Friedman points out in The World Is Flat, this may be partly accounted for by the fact that the urban power grid has historically been unreliable, which means that elevators, water pumps, and other necessities of high-rise living were untrustworthy.

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