Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
But 2018 is coming for the title.
When the Ping An Finance Center was finally completed this year, it reached the pinnacle of Shenzhen, China’s obsession with high-rises. Standing 1,965 feet high, the sleek 115-story office building is the second tallest in China and fourth tallest in the world. It’s also the tallest new building to come from this year’s record-setting boom in skyscraper construction.
Around the world, there are a staggering 144 new towers that reach above 200 meters (660 feet) tall. That’s more than have been built in any other single year, according to a report from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. That includes an unprecedented 15 “supertall buildings,” defined as reaching at least 300 meters (980 feet) tall.
They’ve also gone up in far more cities than before. From Shenzhen and Jakarta to New York City, to even Pyongyang in North Korea, 69 cities have erected at least one skyscraper (compared to 54 cities last year).
China, for the 10th straight year, tops the ranking, building more than half of the latest skyscrapers in 35 of its cities. Shenzhen alone has completed a dozen, followed by Nanning with seven high-rises, and Chengdu with five. Notably, many of these buildings have cropped up in smaller towns like Dalian, Dongguan, and Suzhou, which China has classified as “new first-tier cities,” in hopes of boosting investment and economic activity in their less populated areas.
The country’s obsession with skyscrapers is a reflection of its rapid urbanization, as it undergoes what researchers say is the largest human migration in history. It’s also a result of China’s pivot toward modern architecture beginning in the early 2000s. But for all the government’s efforts to attract tenants with swanky high-rises and high-tech amenities, some economists and investors warn of a potential property bubble. Some of the most lavish buildings in China’s megacities, like the Shanghai Tower—the country’s tallest tower, completed last year—sit largely empty. And in these lower-tier “ghost” cities, it’s not uncommon for rows and rows of high-rises to he completely vacant.
Meanwhile, Africa is just beginning to move upwards. The latest—and first—skyscraper in Africa to make it onto CTBUH’s annual building review is the Britam Tower in Nairobi, Kenya. At slightly over 200 meters tall, the office tower is the tallest in the East African country and the second tallest in all of Africa. By CTBUH’s height criteria, it’s also the continent’s first skyscraper since 1973, when the Carleton Center, measuring 223 meters, in Johannesburg, South Africa, was completed.
But there are plenty more to come. Africa has the fastest growing population in the world—the UN predicts that Africans will make up more than half of the 2.2 billion people added to the global population in 2050. By then, Africa may have added several new skyscrapers. Work has already begun on a 300-meter-tall hotel in Kenya that will unseat the Carleton Center. That project is expected to be completed in 2019. Morocco’s tallest skyscraper may come in the form of a 250-meter-tall multi-use building called the Al Noor Tower. Earlier this year, China’s state-owned railway construction corporation announced that it had won the bid to help build it.
Some projects, though, may prove to be overambitious. Ghana is still eyeing a 270-meter-tall office for its next tech city, though construction has yet to begin after a lavish launch party in 2013. And Gauteng, South Africa, may become home to a 447-meter-tall (about 1,466 feet) behemoth Symbio-City—should the project break ground anytime soon.
There’s also concern that these new developments will amount to little more than urban fantasies that fail to meet the needs of the African market. For one thing, according to an urban planner in Cape Town, much of Africa’s urban population still lives in poverty. What’s actually needed are public services—better roads and mass transit options, as well as adequate water and sanitation infrastructure.
Despite all that, Africa has joined the global race to the top—a race that is hardly over. In fact, expect 2018 to set another record: The CTBUH report projects that 160 skyscrapers will be completed next year.