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Introduction

I want my story, set in the modern day, to have a unique architectural feel. Part of my strategy - no skyscrapers.

Wikipedia:

The term skyscraper was first applied to buildings of steel-framed construction of at least 10 storeys in the late 19th century.

Hmm, we don't want to rule those out... let's try something slightly different.

Task

What is the latest, and the least fiscally and culturally disruptive, divergence from real history needed for no skyscrapers as we know them1 to have been constructed in 2020?

Criteria

In no particular order:

  • To repeat, a later and fiscally and culturally less-disruptive change is favoured.
  • Urban population density must still be of the order of 15,000 per km2 (cf. 19,718 per km2 for urban Edo in 1725)
  • In moderate detail, please specify the alternative city-building route this other timeline should go down. Air, water, noise, light and heat pollution are disfavoured. Visual similarity to pre-1850 architecture is favoured.
    • For the purposes of this question, you needn't consider trying to change land prices.
  • Don't curtail the development of skyscrapers, prevent it.
  • Your suggested change needn't prevent skyscrapers with certainty; just satisfy reasonable worries.
  • The point of departure has to be a single event or a collection of tightly coupled, interdependent events (credit - Q: change required for Axis victory).
  • Whilst staying realistic, be as creative as possible.

1 Steel-and-glass architecture above 100 m (328 ft) should be strictly minimal, preferably eliminated.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this is gonna be a hard one to really have an answer without jumping into the fantastic. Humans have been attempting to build taller and taller structures literally since before recorded history (see Great Pyramids). Hell, the Tower of Babel was literally a tower meant to reach heaven! You would need to do something so dramatic to the world that it would completely change a large portion of human history. $\endgroup$ – TitaniumTurtle Apr 20 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ The main problem is going to be population density. Unless you build up, you can't easily get the population density that we have in our major cities. Unfortunately we can't build down very far, because major cities tend to be port cities built around harbors. Therefore going down leads to water problems before we get very deep, $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Apr 20 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ Many major cities don't allow tall buildings (more than a certain height). In Amsterdam, for example, the inner city used to have about 200,000 inhabitants around 1700, in about 8 km², so population density shouldn't be an issue. So the simplest solution is one that is actually real in modern cities: don't allow them, just as they aren't allowed in most historical, nice-looking cities today. UNESCO won't allow them either. If you really need to, build extra floors underground. $\endgroup$ – Cerberus Apr 20 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ How large of an area do you need to be skyscraper free... Just one city (how big?), one country, the whole world? $\endgroup$ – user3067860 Apr 20 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ Steel-and-glass should be strictly minimal. Well that makes it easy (?) : handwave steel. W/o it, you only get up to ~200 feet. Monadnock Building But how can you eliminate steel in a world with places like Australia where you can pick up nearly pure iron ore up off the ground, and 'fire' was the species' first invention, and the laws of physics are inviolable? W/o a cultural reason, you'll have to violate some part of reality. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Apr 21 at 23:46

27 Answers 27

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Restriction for religious and political reasons

No building should be higher than the local religious, historical, political or symbolic buildings.

Such restrictions existed in the past, be it for religious, political or esthetic reasons, and there are still examples in today's cities. And it doesn't prevent you from a high density.

A good example is Paris: population density is about 20.000 per km², and in the center arrondissement, the tallest buildings are not skyscrapers but churches, palaces, or buildings such as Arc de Triomphe or Tour Eiffel. The typical habitation building is Haussmanian style flat, no more than 20 meter hight, while still giving high density

haussmanian building

In fact, aside neighbourhood such as La Defense, there are few buildings that fit your description, more than 100 meters, steel and glass buildings.

There are even counter-examples, such as New York, famous for its skyscrapers, but that still have a much lower population density than Paris.

Density does not mean skyscrapers, and skyscrapers does not means density. Therefore, religious, political, and cultural reasons after a while, could prevent construction of them, just because we can make a city without them.

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    $\begingroup$ FYI: Manhattan has a higher population density than Paris, but because of larger and less populated NYC boroughs (not known for the skyscrapers) its overall population is lower. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 20 at 8:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander indeed, it seems that Manhattan has four time more dense than NY as a whole, while Staten Island is really low. Paris also have different density depending on arrondissements, but without such difference. Some of them still have a density similar to Manhattan, and had even higher one in the past. third arrondissement for example, had almost 85.000 inh. per km² in 1861. I will edit the answer to explain this in a better way $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Apr 20 at 8:49
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    $\begingroup$ Another good example - Washington DC. It is illegal for any building in DC to be taller than the Washington Monument. That's why the city is spread out so wide. Having a nation-wide law like that would put a pretty sharp limit on skyscrapers. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Apr 20 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ Up until very recently the "new city" of Milton Keynes had a height limit in place paraphrased locally as "no building taller than the tallest tree". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_Keynes#Height $\endgroup$ – Alex KeySmith Apr 22 at 8:20
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    $\begingroup$ In London, it is (or at least it was) illegal to block line-of-sight (from certain directions) to St Paul's Cathedral. $\endgroup$ – EvoGamer Apr 22 at 13:40
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Change the ground

I once heard it said that skyscrapers represented the mountain beneath your feet. What that meant was that skyscrapers require rock-hard bedrock in order to be built, or at the very least, requires a foundation hundreds of feet deep. Basically, the deeper and more solid the bedrock, the easier it is to build skyscrapers. Consequently, should there be no bedrock on which to sink your foundations into, then skyscrapers will be more difficult to build.

True, this isn't enough to stop skyscrapers from being built. But it is enough to make it very difficult, and that's good enough if there's an easier solution. In other words, when it costs more to build a skyscraper than it does to buy more land and build the equivalent amount of space and building on a less-tall scale, then no developer will choose to build skyscrapers.

Still, you might have the odd tower or so, built by someone who really didn't care about the cost, or perhaps someone who wanted it to serve as a monument, but by making it more difficult to build skyscrapers than to do otherwise, you'll have eliminated a great deal of them.

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    $\begingroup$ If we're allowed to change the world in that way, you might also want to consider that extreme seismic activity also makes skyscrapers a dicey proposition. $\endgroup$ – John O Apr 20 at 4:03
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    $\begingroup$ my region is like that because it was swamp,rainforest, and tropical island in once its already a big achievement to have 5th floor in my region. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Apr 20 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ There is a reason why Mexico City is spread out so far, and buildings typically have two stories maximum. $\endgroup$ – Simon Richter Apr 20 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ I'd argue about the cost argument. Never forget that everything is a dick-measuring contest. So one person will start with a first "sky-scraper" just because he can. The the next will follow with a bigger/taller one. $\endgroup$ – infinitezero Apr 20 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ @infinitezero That could lead to its own reason why there are no skyscrapers - imagine if someone built an enormous construction, and then it suffered a catastrophic public crash - people would never build zeppelins again. I mean skyscrapers. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Apr 20 at 12:50
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How do we make the impossible, possible? We begin by explaining why it's impossible.

WB sees a lot of questions of the form, "how do I stop X from ever happening?" X can be a technology, or an historical event, or a lot of other things. When it comes to a technology like tall buildings, there's a critical issue you really need to understand.

Technology happens. I know that sounds trite, but stopping technological development is whomping hard if not down right impossible. We're standing atop a pyramid of knowledge and experience and you're talking about taking a chunk out of the middle somewhere. It shouldn't surprise you that it will either (a) not have an effect or (b) prove impossible because all the other chunks around it are still there. In other words, you could say that steel wasn't invented or concrete wasn't invented or anything else, but in reality, that's simply not believable.

So, we need to begin by admitting that the moment someone knew how to rivet, weld, bolt, or otherwise bear weight — we made the prohibition against skyscrapers impossible. Every pyramid the Egyptians built, every leaning tower of pisa, every bridge over the river kwai, supports the obvious and incontrovertible development of skyscrapers.

Therefore, from a technological standpoint, it's impossible to the point of unbelievable that skyscrapers wouldn't exist in a modern world with the population densities you're talking about.

And before we continue, please bear in mind that as of the 2010 census, the United States had only four (4) cities that are as densely populated as you're suggesting: Guttenberg NJ, Union City NJ, West New York NJ, and Hoboken NJ, all of which are part of Metropolitan New York City. So what you're basically asking is how to have the population density of New York City without building up.

Why do we have skyscrapers in the first place?

Because they're cheap. But what drives that idea?

  • It's cheaper to build up than to build down. Fundamentally, once you hit bedrock, you're done for all practical intent and purposes with delving into the earth. Cracking bedrock is anything but easy, despite the benevolent use of high explosives. The removal of dirt means that dirt must be put somewhere, and while you could use it to expand your coastline (some cities like New York and Tokyo have actually done this) the reality is that it's expensive to move dirt around if you don't need to. On the other hand, given infinite technology, the sky (or, more accurately, the exosphere) is the limit.1

  • Humans, generally, don't really like the dark. We like sunlight, which means we like windows. Windows are cheap! Creating illumination conduits to bring honest-to-goodness sunlight into an underground room is really expensive! And if artificial illumination was all it was cracked up to be, we wouldn't make houses with as many windows both to save money and to save heating/cooling costs. etc. Yup, we like sunlight. Millions 'o years of evolution, there.

  • The shift from an agrarian society to an industrial society meant we needed a substantial increase in workers-per-square-foot of factory. Shipping those hound dogs in from a long way away is expensive, so skyscrapers were an obvious way to keep the workforce reasonably local. It didn't hurt that it also helped with the economy of scale for supporting industries like groceries and retail, and reduced the overall costs of policing, fire control, and other emergency services. In fact, it allowed for really big hospitals (which now can't use skyscraping techniques... that might be a problem) which meant less expensive and more available health care.

  • Finally, and kinda building off that last bullet, the beauty of skyscrapers is that it means you have access to everything! You have access to great shopping, entertainment, culture, education, because it's all nearby and therefore less expensive to access.

OK, so is it possible to build a modern culture without building tall buildings?

Assumption: I'm assuming that it's NOT OK to build down. In other words, a 100 meter building is a 100 meter building whether it's lifted to the sky or pushed into the ground. You don't clearly indicate whether the issue is the vertical space consumed by the building or simply the skyline you're trying to restrict. I say this because one way to meet your expectations is to dig down, but not carry away the dirt. Just spread it around, thereby raising the average ground level of the city, and thereby lowering the average skyline of the city. Maybe I even bring in extra dirt. I'm left with, say, a 500 meter building, but only 100 meters are showing above ground. It's still a "skyscraper" because the altitude above sea level of the roof is the same whether I covered the exterior walls with dirt or not.

And the answer is no. It simply can't be done. It's not enough for something to force builders to not build tall buildings because everything in the world would be pressuring them to build them: public demand, economy of scale, yada yada yada. Besides, your population density restriction absolutely demands tall buildings.

Look at it this way: the average thickness of the Earth's crust (land area, not ocean) is 30 Km. That sounds like a lot, but every foot closer to the center you dig, the hotter it gets and the more pressure you feel on the sides of the building that I've already assumed can't exist.3 But even if we can build "infinitely" down, you can only go so far. Think about the problems you'd have with earthquake abatement codes. And now, instead of slowly dropping sewer tank-to-tank,4 you're pumping it to the surface. You're pumping the CO2 up, too, because it's heavier than oxygen. And let's hope you don't need to deal with radon. Jeez, this is getting expensive.

So, unless we invoke TARDIS technology, there is no possible way for your civilization to achieve that population density without building up. Can't be done.

But, what if we weren't restricted by population density?

However, there is an option: cheap and fast transportation! Remember, the biggest reason those skyscrapers exist is economy-of-scale: you can get a lot of people where they need to be cheaply and easily. Business can access the workforce cheaply and the workforce can access business, shopping, entertainment, and education cheaply. If you made transportation cheap and easy, they could live anywhere and you could simply pass building ordinances restricting height, "for the beautification of our world and the enjoyment of the people. Allowing the setting sun to cast her joyous rays upon as many as wanting with minimal interference from artificial shadows."


1Technically, given infinite technology, building beyond the atmosphere wouldn't be all that hard. However, the cost of a foundation for a building of that size, earthquake control that must compensate for the actual rotation of the Earth, the cost involved with pumping oxygen (and water) to those heights and carbon dioxide (and sewer2) down from those heights would probably sway the costs away from that height. So, for no better reason than I like the word "exosphere," I'm gonna stop building at the exosphere. (Sing it with me children! Exosphere! )

2Yes, you'd need to pump sewer! Or, more accurately, you'd need to stop its flow periodically or end up with the proverbial sub-fusion amount of pressure at the bottom. We must deal with that today with modern mining, where water can't simply be put in a pipe and dropped a couple of thousand feet straight down. The pressure at the bottom would break any pipe and kill everyone nearby. It must be staged in tanks every couple of hundred feet or so to avoid that problem. Of course, you could have recycling every couple of floors, but now your costs just went up (no economy of scale). And just to make my point, I want you think really hard about the complications involving sewer solids at thousands of pounds per square inch of pressure....

3You could change that with a clarification, but there are so many problems with digging down that it's really hard to believe it could replace building up. Wood rot, water seepage control, insects that evolved to dig through hard things, plant roots... It's easy to fix a broken building that's above ground... but fixing one that's below ground? Expensive! I wouldn't doubt that your story is basically built on the idea of subterranean buildings — but you might need to just "make it so" and stop worrying about how to justify it.

4If that statement didn't make sense, you skipped footnote #2.

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    $\begingroup$ I'll point you to Somerville, MA, a municipality outside of Boston that has about half the required population density, despite limiting most buildings to only 4 floors, and having zero buildings taller than 100m. You could double the height of most residential buildings to pack in more people, and still not have a city of skyscrapers. I'm skeptical that the target population density "absolutely demands tall buildings". $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Apr 20 at 13:09
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang, judging from the aerial imagery in Google Maps, Somerville is pretty much purely residential, probably with some high-density retail. It couldn't exist without the taller communities around it. $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 20 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang Doubling the population density means almost doubling the floor space of everything. Every school, government, emergency services, retail, education... everything.. because all those people need someplace to work and play. I'm a bit unconvinced that Somerville, MA could increase the height of all buildings but those already at 100 m and meet the population density demands. But, I could be wrong - it would take some actual proof, though. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 20 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark True, Somerville is very largely residential, with many residents working in Boston, which is much taller. I wonder about the possibility of an alternate timeline where telecommuting and e-commerce was adopted earlier and more widely, which would reduce the footprint of commerce/office buildings. We can almost certainly achieve the required residential population density without skyscrapers, but I agree that adding non-residential buildings in there might require some societal or infrastructure tweaks to achieve. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Apr 20 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH The vast majority of buildings in Somerville are well below half the height limit, you could make most of the buildings 4-5x taller and still not hit 100m. I am quite sure you could double Somerville's floor space without breaking the height limit, even accounting for the increased space taken up by the infrastructure needed for larger buildings. As Mark pointed out, though, it comes down to how you account for the use of non-Somerville buildings by Somerville residents. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Apr 20 at 21:12
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Catastrophic Failure

In the early 20th century, airships as a means of travel were on the rise. That is, until the fateful crash of the Hindenburg shocked the world. This marked the abrupt end to the airship era, and is why you rarely see blimps at all anymore beyond small ones for advertising at sporting events.

Imagine if something similar happened in the early 20th century - mankind had just invented the type of steel that could support the construction of grand towers, and the first one had just finished construction. Tall and proud, hosting hundreds of people's office space...

Built in New Orleans.

This being the world's first skyscraper, mankind is not aware of the need for solid bedrock, or is horribly misinformed.

Then one day, a fire breaks out. A news reporter catches the entire thing on film, as it collapses onto the houses below.

From that day forward, insurance companies are reluctant to sign on to any building project over 10 stories tall. Laws are passed making future skyscraper construction impractical. The technology for it still exists, but the fear of that one fateful catastrophe discourages all future constructions.


This likely won't be enough to deter skyscraper building forever - if it proves useful enough in crowded urban environments, people will make technological improvements to make them more viable. But it might delay their growth long enough to get the types of shorter cityscapes you're looking for - and might pair well with another answer to provide a more long-term reason why they went out of style.

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    $\begingroup$ By 1937, fixed-wing aircraft were faster, cheaper, required fewer crew, and had greater carrying capacity than airships. Zeppelins were already on the way out, the disaster just hastened the abandonment of a technology that was already becoming obsolete. It'll take more than catastrophe to put people off of an eminently useful technology - after all, people still fly in planes, even though a Hindenberg's-worth of people died in plane crashes pretty much every year throughout the 1940s. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Apr 20 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang I'd be more convinced by the continued use of a singular technology that has gone through a widely-publicized singular disaster. As much as I hate to admit to the follies of man, we're much more moved by singular catastrophic incidents than we are by long-term statistical ones. That being said - if there were a way to include technological failings of skyscrapers naturally in this world building, it would certainly help. I'm certain people of this world would want an explanation for why it would fall, and that it would be recounted time and again in their history. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Apr 20 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ The Titanic disaster comes to mind as a counter-example - it led to major changes in safety and regulations, but it did little to dampen the demand for transatlantic boat crossings. Luxury steamships by 1917 had a similar 40 year history as zeppelins did by 1937, but they were simply too useful to be put out of business by a catastrophe. Unsafe and un-useful things get abandoned, unsafe and useful things get made safer. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Apr 20 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang That's an excellent counter-argument. I'll update my answer to indicate that this alone won't likely be enough to deter skyscrapers forever. Thank you for the helpful replies. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Apr 20 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ MH370, and to a lesser extent the Titanic, don’t seem so comparable: they were in well-established industries, not nascent ones, contra what @NuclearWang writes. MH370 I think this needs no justificaiton. For the Titanic: liners of that sort had had c.60 years of major commercial operation, and were building on older traditions, much more established than Zeppelins at the time of the Hindenburg, which had 40 years as a technology, c.25 years of commercial operation at a much more limited scale. $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Apr 22 at 9:37
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Restrict elevator cable length or car speed.

Back in 1905, during the early development of elevators, cables had a limited length due to some silly reason. Perhaps there was a crash...or corruption. That length and/or maximum car speed was enshrined in regulation long ago, and folks got used to limited, slow elevator travel. Even if the regulation were relaxed (gosh, maybe it was), folks still don't trust long or fast elevator trips and they pass on that distrust to their children.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Otis elevator, +1. And steel, presuming you want an economically viable structure taller than 200ft with usable space inside it. - "The tallest load-bearing brick building ever constructed" : "Monadnock's final height was calculated to be the highest economically viable for a load-bearing wall design, requiring walls 6 feet (1.8 m) thick at the bottom and 18 inches (46 cm) thick at the top. Greater height would have required walls of such thickness that they would have reduced the rentable space too greatly." $\endgroup$ – Mazura Apr 21 at 23:30
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Before the culture learned to mass produce steel, there were a series of terrible fires in tall wooden apartment buildings. Being more humane than the Roman empire, the rulers reacted by decreeing that all multi-floor buildings must be stone or brick. At the time, those were the only non-flammable structural materials they had.

That law was deliberately made difficult to amend, and in any case is defended by the powerful masons' guild.

In addition to limiting building height, this prevents steel and glass construction for even buildings under the limits of masonry construction, helping to preserve an earlier look.

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    $\begingroup$ How much are we allowed to change? If we were on a world where iron is as rare as, say, silver or gold, that would accomplish the same thing. Even if they know how to make steel from iron ore, if they simply don't have enough iron to make it in the needed quantities, it wouldn't matter. Steel would be reserved for niche small items, like utensils and the like (which in this world would be far more expensive, much like quality sterling silverware), but a tall building would be completely infeasible. Note: this would also significantly affect other industries, like automotives, etc. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Apr 20 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman We are supposed to aim for "the latest, and the least fiscally and culturally disruptive, divergence". No iron seems to me to be a very early and very disruptive divergence. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Apr 20 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I didn't say no iron. Just much, much less of it. Nothing would stop people from inventing iron or steel weapons back in the day, or anything else we've used iron for throughout history. But skyscrapers, and I suppose large ships, tanks, and other vehicles would be a problem. Cars could be built with other metals such as aluminum or nickel, though they would probably be smaller than the average modern car. At any rate, there's likely no single change that would prevent skyscrapers but still allow a lot of the other stuff we make from the same materials. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Apr 20 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ @PatriciaShanahan, before Earth leaned to mass-produce steel, there were a series of terrible fires in tall wooden buildings, apartment or otherwise. Didn't seem to slow the construction down any. Even if your highly-improbable laws get passed, you can make some impressive stone or masonry towers -- the tallest here on Earth is just under 180 meters tall, well over the 150-meter threshold traditionally used to distinguish a skyscraper from something that's merely a tall building. $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 20 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark As I said, the rulers involved were more humane than the Roman empire, which went on allowing tall insulae despite terrible loss of life in fires. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Apr 20 at 21:37
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The skyscraper craze in real life started almost entirely because of the discovery of the Bessemer Process. Steel couldn't be produced in large enough quantities to make tall buildings economically feasible. Without cheap, plentiful steel, you're limited to masonry for your construction materials, which puts a fairly hard limit on how tall you can build. The taller your brick building is, the thicker the walls of the lower floors have to be in order to support the upper floors. Build tall enough and the lower floors end up mostly wall, not living space. So there's no point in building much higher than about 10 floors.

So if there's no Bessemer process, there's no cheap steel, and thus no good material to use to build skyscrapers.

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    $\begingroup$ If cheap steel is not possible, not only skyscrapers will disappear, but many other things too. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Apr 20 at 7:43
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    $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi Every change that will prevent skyscrapers will probably prevent tons of other things too. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Apr 20 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Ryan_L, if you limit yourself to technological changes, sure. A cultural change such as "no building may be higher than the local cathedral" won't change much technology-wise. $\endgroup$ – Mark Apr 20 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark That will also limit radio towers. Possibly spaceflight too, launch gantries can be pretty tall. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Apr 20 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark No Towers of Babel you heretics! $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Apr 22 at 14:08
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High seismic activity.

I can answer your question by providing example of my home city.

This is Esentai tower:

Building

This is highest building in my city. It is about 170 meters. If you compare it to other cities like NewYork or Chicago you can see that it is really small building.

All buildings in this city are built to cover big area rather than big height. The main reason is high seismic activity, because of it, its really dangerous to build very tall buildings.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to suggest this exact thing, but didn't realize you were going to mention the high seismic activity - you might want to add a header to your post indicating that your suggestion is "More Earthquakes" or something like it, so that you aren't burying the lead. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Apr 20 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ Although seismic activity is a major consideration - it can be engineered and planned for. As mentioned above, Tokyo / Japan has major earthquakes and has some of the tallest buildings in the world - so how do they do it? They make them earthquake-resistant, which can be engineered. For your argument to hold true, the earthquakes would need to be much larger than any to have hit Japan, and that scale of earthquake would demolish smaller buildings as well. $\endgroup$ – flox Apr 21 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ @flox That additional engineering is an adaptation of a proven concept. If the whole world were as earthquake prone as Tokyo then it would be a very hard sell to convince people to invest huge amounts into buildings that may get a bunch of people killed. You don't need earthquakes big enough to level cities, you just need earthquakes often enough and with sufficient loss of life that the risk of deviation in design outweighs the reward. $\endgroup$ – Myles Apr 21 at 14:17
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Instead of having a bunch of skyscrapers, you could build arcologies. This is basically a city that is one big building. So instead of having your population packed up high in skyscrapers, you have your city lower and wider, and your population more evenly distributed among the arcology. So your city becomes more spread out, individual residences become more tightly packed together, and you no longer have wide open spaces between the individual buildings, since the city is just one big building.

enter image description here enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes but what would prevent the arcologies from being higher than 100m? Some apartment buildings have offices and retail spaces on the lower floors - almost 'arcology-like'. $\endgroup$ – flox Apr 21 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't this a maintenance nightmare? In real world buildings can and are regularly torn down when they wear out and new ones are built in their place. Here you can't do that. If a support beam somewhere buckles or a gas explosion takes out a few stories - you're screwed. $\endgroup$ – Vilx- Apr 22 at 12:28
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Most real skyscrapers are commercial buildings, either owned by a single company or leased out as office space to a variety of businesses. This is a consequence of two peculiar needs of commercial businesses:

  • To concentrate employees in a single area so that they have joint access to company resources, and can be managed effectively as a group
  • To locate near the commercial center of a town, where space is most limited, as a matter of status and reputation as well as access to commercial services (banks, lawyers, notaries, messenger services, stock exchanges, etc).

Residential buildings are rarely higher than eight stories, for practical and economic reasons. Larger buildings require larger investments and upkeep, which suggests higher rents; but those who can afford such high rent apartments generally prefer more spacious properties in suburbs. Lower income people will tend to move outward from the city center in a kind urban spread, seeking lower rents at the expense of longer commutes. And really, who wants to trudge up ten flights if the elevator is being serviced?

With that in mind, the simplest solution would be to have local governments outlaw buildings above eight stories, for whatever reason you like: aesthetics, safety concerns, religious proscriptions, large-scale acrophobia in the population... If prohibited from building skyscrapers, corporations will adapt, finding more modular or distributed structures for their offices, with very little effect on population density at all. If it helps, you could kick off the information technology revolution earlier, to facilitate distributed networks. Commercial districts would still exist, but center-city offices would be management nodes rather than concentrated workspaces, and company buildings would compete on aesthetics grounds, not sheer imposing size.

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    $\begingroup$ FYI: in modern Russian cities, residential building are rarely lower than 8 stories. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 20 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ Residential buildings in Eastern European cities from the 70s and 80s typically have ten to twenty floors. I think residential buildings in some East Asian cities are even higher. $\endgroup$ – Jan Apr 20 at 13:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander: those are all Soviet era constructions, right? I was thinking about free enterprise systems, and forgot that the USSR put up those monstrosities. Good catch, thanks. $\endgroup$ – Ted Wrigley Apr 20 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Jan: See my note to Alexander, above (sorry, they don't allow multiple name-tags omg this site). And thanks! $\endgroup$ – Ted Wrigley Apr 20 at 14:20
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    $\begingroup$ There's an important point here which is reflected in the City of London as well. The City itself, the area with all the massive high rise, has a lower population density than the Greater London area with all its parks and open space, as all the high rise is offices. Nobody lives there. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Apr 21 at 10:45
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Building codes

Expanding on Kepotx' answer, building higher than around 20 meters is dangerous because in the event of a fire, the ladders of the fire brigade can only reach so high. If the fire gets out of control, collapsing buildings can damage surrounding houses if they are too tall (or not far enough apart). High buildings also make the streets less attractive because they block the sunlight and hinder air circulation.

Or at least these are the commonly given reasons why most older residential buildings in Berlin are not higher than 22 meters + some meters for the roof.

You could still build higher for places where no people live and few people work, especially if the risk of damaging surrounding buildings is small, e.g. church towers in the middle of a city square.

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  • $\begingroup$ The German definition of "Hochhaus" (High rise building) is exactly that, the highest regularly used floor has to be no more than 22 meters high, because fire ladders cannot manage more. Anything higher and the building code changes, e.g. you need additional stairwells and so on. Combine this with a terrible accident in the first skyscraper, as given in another answer, you can have a building code that makes skyscrapers too expensive and that no one is willing to change due to the political fallout of another possible accident. $\endgroup$ – mlk Apr 20 at 18:22
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It's already occurring: Sustainability and energy efficiency regulations are now affecting and limiting the height and size of buildings

There is already a very strong trend towards more sustainable and energy efficient buildings, both by desire and by necessity. As an architect, I can see these are starting to drastically change our urban environment already.

Three very large changes (of which are already legislated in many local government laws) universal around the world that affect tall building design are:

  1. Watts / square metre energy caps : for both heating/cooling and lighting
  2. Northern light retention: to both your building and neighbouring buildings (or Southern light if you are in the northern hemisphere)
  3. Minimum insulation requirements : which limit the area of windows.

These all have the cumulative effect of reducing area and height in buildings. It is easy to envisage with only more stricter controls in these three areas that you physically cannot build a building higher than 100m.

So why would these affect height? Let's go through them one-by-one:

  1. Watts/sqm energy caps: Sound good in principle however what they do is limit the ability for large spaces / floor areas to be cooled or heated. This means:

    • Skyscrapers usually need glass on all sides of the building to maximise minimum daylight requirements. The heat load and loss through glazing is enormous and requires massive A/C plants on the roof. Power allocation is now limited and may prevent the ability to heat and cool the building enough to be habitable.
    • Lighting is now limited - meaning daylight must be taken into account to adequately and safely light buildings. As power allocation drops, there is a danger buildings may become uninhabitable for minimum safe lighting at the floor plate area they currently are at.
  2. Northern (or Southern) light retention. The purpose is to increase energy efficiency and wellbeing, but this also:
    • In apartment building design, there are now a minimum number of apartments that are required to have Northern (or Southern in the northern hemisphere) light requirements. Offices now are often being considered. If there is a building close by, you cannot build in its shadow.
    • You cannot build a structure that will overshadow a neighbouring property. This automatically limits height of your structure, even below plot ratio limits. It does not matter usually if there is or isn't (nor how large) a structure is - councils usually assume there will be one there. Because of widths of blocks, sometimes you cannot even build 3 storeys: enter image description here
  3. Minimum insulation requirements. To comply with natural light and daylight requirements, skyscrapers are usually clad in glazing systems / curtain walling systems. However, glass has almost/virtually no insulative value compared to insulated walls. This means that eventually we would be unable to build walls only of glass, meaning skyscrapers would no longer be able to comply with other requirements.

You don't need to take my word for it: for Australia review perhaps the Design requirements or the latest NCC2020 requirements and you will realise skyscrapers are becoming outmoded by more medium scale development. Performance solutions often exist (workarounds) but developers need to invest much more funds to enable this, and there is no guarantee governments would continue to allow performance criteria in future.

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It's going to be a societal factor most likely.

In the UK, skyscrapers are much less common than in e.g. the US. Why? We don't like living in them. We like owning houses; a flat is largely seen as a 2nd rate option, but a big block of flats has a significant stigma attached (largely due to connotations to social housing). My city has only 3 blocks of flats, and Brits hate them, and hate living in them. They're mostly populated with people of other nationalities who don't have the same stigma attached to big blocks of flats.

How to create the stigma?

  • Could be a strong desire to own freehold on the land
  • Could be a strong desire to have a garden
  • Could be a stigma attached to them such as a connotation of social housing
  • Could be a tragic fire like Grenfell on the first block created has meant that people now don't want to live in them (cf to airships in our world)
  • Could be that pandemics like CV19 mean people don't want to live at such a high population density.
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Acrophobia* Pandemica

Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that is infamous for removing rats' fear of cats. Because the parasite can only reproduce in cats, it has evolved a neurological effect to draw its hosts to cats. It also can cause mental issues in humans. And studies have suggested that the change in the rats in permanent, even if the parasite is later removed.

You could introduce something similar to your story. Maybe make it a virus or bacteria, instead of a parasite. The infection spreads through birds, but needs something ground dwelling to reproduce or spread. As a result, it drives the birds to fly closer to the ground or even walk.

Once this spreads to humans, the end result is intense Acrophobia. Being more than a certain distance above the ground causes severe anxiety, nausea, and vertigo. And before they realized it was happening, a substantial portion (if not all) of the populace was infected. So if eighty or even seventy percent of people can't handle being more than say thirty meters above the ground, there is little point in building structures that tall.

*Acrophobia is the fear of heights.

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Plenty of good, logical answers already, so let's go for something fun and crazy!

Birds.

Oh, not the small kinds of that we know. Big ones. Large flocks. Quite commonplace everywhere (luckily, they don't shit that much). And with a weird biology totally unsuited for skyscrapers. Let's say that our Megabird only looks down when it's high in the air. It can crank it's head to look around while it's ascending/descending, but while it's at cruising altitude, it doesn't bother looking ahead because there's never been anything tall enough to obstruct its path. Except, well, their brothers and sisters, but they hear each other very well (maybe even in ultrasound), so no problem there. All sight is focused downwards where the interesting stuff is.

As a result, any building taller than about 5-10 stories (you pick) will have major casualty rates among Megabird populations. We're talking about clearing dozens of mangled corpses daily, many of which are still suffering while they draw their last breaths.

Nobody wants to deal with THAT. It's both cruel and messy and frankly pointless when you can just keep your buildings low. So - no skyscrapers.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was expecting the people living in the skyscraper to be endangered by the pterosaurs, not just that they would need to remove their corpses $\endgroup$ – Ángel Apr 25 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, modern day glass skyscrapers already have this problem where birds don't notice them. But the strong glass used in them means that it's always the birds who lose. And even without that, simple iron bars in front of the windows would easily make it safe for the inhabitants. $\endgroup$ – Vilx- Apr 25 at 8:41
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One way to avoid skyscrapers is to have a culture and legal system that focuses on ownership of your home/business. Renting real estate is not allowed, and neither is having different people each own separate parts of the same building. You either own (and use) the entire building, or none of it. Perhaps this was a knee-jerk reaction to abusive landlords, or part of the early 20th century transition that saw the last remaining monarchies replaced by representative governments.

This would significantly limit the scale of buildings because very few people or companies would be able to use a building that large on their own, much less afford to build it in the first place. Modern skyscrapers are built by investors and then leased out piece by piece to hundreds of individual tenants. If that business strategy didn't exist, skyscrapers would be prohibitively expensive and largely pointless. About the only use case I can think of that might still be able to make use of a skyscraper would be a big hotel. Even then it's unlikely you'd see anything remotely like our modern skyscrapers. They'd be too garishly different than all of the other buildings around them.

Technology overall is unaffected, so this wouldn't restrict special-purpose structures like lighthouses, antenna masts, rocket launch scaffolding, etc.

A side effect is that you wouldn't have apartment buildings in this sort of system. Instead, you'd have dense blocks of narrow row houses or townhomes. They'd most likely have several floors above ground plus one or two below. Low-income housing might not be more than 5-6 meters wide. This will limit your population density somewhat since you'll need more roadways per capita.

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  • $\begingroup$ A lot of early sky scrapers were single businesses. they just had all aspects of the business in one place. Quite a few were factories. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 21 at 0:09
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Otis never invents the safety elevator

"The safety locking mechanism [Otis demonstrated at the World's Fair] had worked, and people gained greater willingness to ride in traction elevators; these elevators quickly became the type in most common usage and helped make present-day skyscrapers possible." - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisha_Otis#Lasting_success

This should have minimal to no effect on the rest of reality, I believe, and cities would grow out more than up because everyone has to use the stairs or risk the potential deathtrap only used for freight.

This probably also means that those buildings that do exist with more than 1 or 2 stories (but under 100 m, per your question) would probably charge lower rent for the upper floors since you have to take 3+ flights of stairs to get there. Or charter a helicopter flight.

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Possibly there are no skyscrapers because there are no longer new individual buildings in cities. Instead new construction in cities is entire neighborhoods covered by a single building.

Imagine a building built like many individual identical neighborhoods stacked one on top of the other. Every house, store, or other building would have an identical house, store or other building on top of it, and another identical one on top of that, and so on. So the steel framework could go up story after story, after story of identical buildings. Each road and sidewalk would have an identical road and sidewalk above it on the next story of the gigantic building.

The utility lines which would be overhead or underground in a typical city could be between the upper and lower parts of the hollow decks between stories of the gigantic building.

Vehicles would travel between levels via long straight ramps or circular ramps as in parking garages.

At the edge of the giant building there could be vast powered windows that open or close via commands from the control center, based on weather conditions. Internal buildings close to the edges of the giant building could be built more sturdy, in case the outer windows break in a storm, while internal building deeper within the giant building could have less sturdy curtain walls and thus bee cheaper to build around their steel frameworks because they would be more sheltered from any storm winds that broke into the giant buildings.

the giant buildings would probably be much easier and cheap to heat and cool per unit of cubic space than individual outside buildings would be.

And other vast buildings could be like entire neighborhoods of apartment buildings connected by large corridors or internal roads.

And other vast buildings could be like entire neighborhoods of office buildings connected by large corridors or internal roads.

If it is desired that no buildings be above 100 meters or 328 feet, that leaves room for at least ten levels in each of the giant buildings, which should make the population density where peoples live in houses at least ten times greater than it is in single level cities and suburbs.

Of course 100 meters or 328 feet in giant office buildings would be a lot lower than many skyscrapers in many cities around the world today. But even the skyscraper districts of many cities contain a lot of separate buildings lower than that and often some empty space. and since the average skyscraper is much less than 1,000 meters or 3,280 feet tall, having to build the office district a bit wider for the same amount of office space would be more than offset by being able to make the residential districts cover only ten percent as much ground as otherwise.

The various giant buildings in a city could be build 100 meters (328 feet) tall or less, and at least 1,000 meters (33,280 feet) wide. In the residential districts they can be built in steps like Mastabas:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mastaba1

or like ziggurats:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziggurat2

or like Mesomaerican pyramids:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesoamerican_pyramids3

with each stage being narrower than the one below it. Parks could be built on the roofs of each stage, or maybe rich people would build their houses outside on the roofs of stages to have a more traditional lifestyle and pay more for heating and cooling.

So therefore it would be possible for a city to be built and rebuilt to be mostly covered with tall buildings that were much wider than they were tall and without having any individual tall narrow skyscrapers.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is precisely the idea of an arcology. $\endgroup$ – Galaxy Apr 20 at 19:52
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To repeat, a later and fiscally and fiscally less-disruptive change is favoured.

Not entirely sure what this means so apologies if my answer is off-mark.

The Cost of Steel

In the age of autonomously-piloted cars, one could consider why all asphalt roads aren't just torn up and replaced with rail systems. A series of cars following predefined paths is Silicon Valley's reinvention of the train.

We have found that commercial/infrastructure-grade steel is expensive to produce, especially at scale. It costs a lot of money and environmental consequence to mine and refine, destroying the air and ground in the process (you did want to shy away from "pollution"-related reasons but did not specify if that was as a result of the skyscrapers existing or because of what it entailed to create them).

Other posters have alluded to shaky foundations preventing development. What better way to ensure mushy terrain than having (literally) undermined the integrity of the earth beneath your feet to the extent that such structures cannot be supported? Fracking was discovered in the 1800s, which, if sufficiently exploited by some Carnegie/Rockefeller-type, could have lent itself to a future state of arrested architectural development...

Airspace Concerns

...and the demand for such oil/gas could have been instigated by advances in aerospace engineering. Instead of everybody owning a Cadillac, perhaps some advancement allowed us to jump straight to everybody owning Cessnas.

Much like the American road infrastructure, if we became too-entrenched with our ability to freely hop in a helicopter or biplane to bounce over to the grocery store, infrastructure that could not be flown over by a 16-year old with a learner's permit and a crop duster would never have been developed. Skyscrapers would pose a threat to both our physical safety and our way of life.

Impact of (not on) Climate

We generally ignore such consequences, but in an alternate universe perhaps we put more thought into this:

In colder areas, and especially with angular fascia, ice accumulates, thaws, then falls to the ground below skyscrapers as either large rocks or sheets with predictable and messy consequence. This happens in New York and Chicago every winter; if you don't live in a cold city you are likely unaware it even happens.

In tornado-prone areas, aside from the initial damage following one, glass and other debris will continue to fall on pedestrians well after the fact. Atlanta learned this the hard way a decade or so ago (while also finding replacement glass in short supply).

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Higher Gravity

The strength required from the bottom of a building to support those above it rises exponentially with each additional floor. If you have an increased gravity on your world, it's like multiplying those costs. Very quickly the whole bottom floor is just building materials, with no floor space. Monuments like pyramids will still be possible, but no skyscrapers. All technologies can still proceed as normal, like the invention of the Bessemer process for cheap steel, but the building height limit will be much lower than on Earth.

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Another answer has already pointed out that most skyscrapers are, and have always been, commercial buildings. I'll expand on that a bit: early skyscrapers emerged in the 1880s-1900s, and they were, like the Masonic Temple Building, the newspaper buildings in Park Row, NYC (so located so they could be close to City Hall), the Woolworth Building, the Flatiron Building; even the building housing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was part of a pattern of upper-mid-rise buildings built to be factories, more efficient & centralized working spaces.

But population density doesn't depend on the density of working space. In fact, in the massive prewar Eastern European immigration period, the same period as these early skyscrapers were being developed, the Lower East Side had incredibly high population densities--almost all of which were in tenement buildings not exceeding six stories in height, built without elevators in the 1860s-1880s. We're talking 375,000 people per square mile, or about 145k per square kilometer, ten times your target population density--which I recall (but don't have a source for) being the highest population density ever achieved. All in low-rises.

Obviously this density was not sustainable; it meant whole families of 5-6 people living in two rooms, and people decompressed as soon as there were bridges and train lines that gave them more space. But families of 2-3 in a slightly larger amount of space would still easily meet your population density requirements.

What was the big factor? In my opinion, it was that there was no separation of living and working space. (That's someone's apartment they're working in.) The late-19th-century Lower East Side garment industry was dominated by small operators who would work out of their own apartments, perhaps managing a few others. Unlike the modern practice of traveling 45 minutes to an hour every day to sit in a different box, leaving both home and office empty half the day, these people were actually using the whole built environment all day long.

It's worth pointing out also that these were largely pre-transport communities, where commercial/retail markets, as well as the central retailers for the garments produced, had to be located within walking distance--thus distinct from the Somerville example mentioned elsewhere, it wasn't a bedroom community dependent on commercial concentrations elsewhere.

So, ultimately, one way to inspire this type of development is to encourage people to travel less and work from the home more. Some sort of strong mores of independent business ownership might suffice; and today's times give us all kinds of examples of ways to motivate people to use their homes more and work from home as much as possible... though obviously regular pandemics would just militate against population density at all, not merely skyscrapers.

Ultimately what you need is a way to have enough transport to have concentrated distribution systems for goods, without providing incentive to bring office workers and manufacturers together into a centralized location. Provide easy means of coordination without in-person face-to-face contact (for the office/knowledge workers) and find some way to reduce the payoff or capital-goods intensity of manufacturing processes (so that smaller home operators can keep up) and you just might be able to get by without the skyscrapers.

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For everything that is normal today there was one point in the past where it was built, done or thought for the first time. So before that moment, it was normal not to have the thing, or the idea.

While humanity has been building very large structures for at least 5000 years, the skyscrapers you talk about started around 1885 in Chicago.

Several things came together to make them possible: - the desire to have a large number of people concentrated in a small area, driven by industrialisation and its need for workers.
- the possibility to do so, powered by the means to transport food, water and sewage, driven by millenia of handling such problems, plus steam engines and the railway, and steel. - The availability of steel, to enable the building of tall structures - the availability of electricity. - The availability of space to build the skyscrapers in.

Electricity is necessary because while you can build a skyscraper without it, it cannot reasonably be used. You need elevators for the inhabitants to move between the many floors. No skyscraper is feasible without an elevator.

But the part that might fit your requirements best is the availability of space.

The great fire of Chicago of 1871 destroyed some 17.000 buildings in the city of Chicago, thus creating the need to provide a lot of housing and office space in a short time frame, as well as the opportunity to do so, since a lot of building plots were suddenly vacant. Without the fire, buying the land to build even one of them would have been a lot more difficult. If you move the great fine some 30 years to the past, no electricity, and no Bessemer steel (which was invented in 1855) would have resulted in a rebuild of Chicago no taller than 5 storeys.

Without that inspiration, but with the knowledge of this devastating fire, other cities might have adopted building codes that prevented larger fires there. Plus, in this time, when cities were growing rapidly, it is conceivable that cities would have developed less around one center, but more around several sub-centers in the cities, thus reducing population densities and pull-factors, while spreading the cities ever wider.

Notably, that is pretty much what Berlin is: a very wide cities that until some 30 years ago had hardly any tall buildings, With berlin, though, the reason is the ground it's built in, which is basically a drained swamp, that simply wouldn't support tall buildings in any feasible way.

And once it is normal to have low, wide cities, it is quite conceivable that the idea never really catches on.

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Buildings taller than 100m tend to be used almost exclusively for knowledge or information based business activities, not housing. If you want to get rid of them, get rid of business.

Perhaps not the least culturally disruptive change...

A full-blown, world-wide Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist revolution, circa 1920


The Bolsheviks in Russia get lucky, and their particularly crazy-go-nuts brand of Communism spreads to the west, inciting revolutions in the US, UK, France, Germany... which somehow succeed. From there, the dominoes fall until no country of any economic significance is left with anything short of a full command-based economy. All businesses are absorbed by the state, and all profit motives disappear. Decisions on where economic activity occurs are no longer based on what the costs of moving labor are, or the benefits of knowledge transfer between workers in similar occupations. Skyscrapers are expensive to build, especially when there is plenty of land that no one is using. Just build the facilities for whatever economic activity (be it a factory, or a farm, or a software engineering office for cranking out digital opiates for the masses) out in the middle of nowhere, throw up some houses around it, and volunteer the workers to move there.

Even if the communist states collapse without the external pressure of (giving the appearance of) keeping up with a capitalist US, there won't be a massive capitalist market to serve as the default importer of goods from the collapsed states or invest in their economies, so economic recovery will likely be quite slow. Imagine East Germany trying to recover post-Communism, except there's no West Germany to help.

The towering skylines of cities like New York and Tokyo would never arise. Even China's skyscrapers are largely a product of its hybrid command-market economy, which itself is a product of learning to take bits and pieces of ideas from market economies, for which there would be no examples in this alternate timeline.


You can fudge a little bit on the timing here, but not much. You need the Bolsheviks for this, they basically represented the most extreme form of Communism ever proposed. Any other brand of Communism and you don't necessarily get the complete destruction of free enterprise and the degradation of the people to the same status as livestock. If you go too much later, the tall building craze really picks up. In 1920, the tallest building in the world was the Woolworth Building (241m in New York City), and it kept the record until 1930, when the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building (283m, also NYC) was completed.

Around 1920, you'd have a bunch of older buildings (churches, cathedrals, etc) that are > 100m tall, and a few skyscrapers. If you really want to get rid of them, the Communists could tear down the monuments to religion and capitalistic greed with the judicious application of high explosives. They'd likely make a public spectacle out of it: demolishing the Woolworth Building, toppling the Eiffel Tower, blowing up Ulmer Münster Cathedral... all the better to demonstrate to the People that the capitalist bourgeois state is well and truly relegated to the dustbin of history.

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    $\begingroup$ In Soviet Union, first plans to build skyscrappers date back to 1920s. Bolsheviks of all kinds were very fond of gigantism in architecture and wanted to build as much impressing monuments to the victory of the proletariat as possible. The point was to appropriate the achievements of the bourgeois, not destroy them. Stalin's highrises were continuation of that. So communists, especially Stalin, would not stop the skyscrappers, just bankrupt the world building them. $\endgroup$ – avek Apr 22 at 4:02
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How about wind? It would have other effects on the world, but perhaps if there was a constant, very strong wind with speeds increasing rapidly as you rose in altitude, it could make skyscrapers very expensive to build.

Let's say there's constantly a wind of 40 kph at ground level, and as you move up in altitude, it quickly gets stronger and stronger. In such a world, it may become more economical to build down, digging into bedrock, rather than building up.

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  • $\begingroup$ i was thinking along same direction, but instead of wind speed how about bring the ionosphere down making electronics not workable after some height. but similar to the wind speed this might cause the human body to develop differently by adapting to these changes. $\endgroup$ – Sp0T Apr 22 at 6:46
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    $\begingroup$ An interesting idea, but this is a solved problem [to a certain scale]-- if you didn't know about this, there are a series of floors toward the top of all skyscrapers that house a system of pulleys and large counterweights to compensate for problems caused by wind sway. Look up "skyscraper counterweight" if you're curious. @Sp0T the idea for EMI at altitude is an interesting twist :) $\endgroup$ – Ivan May 29 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ I believe you're referring to tuned mass dampers, but that technology is only used to counteract harmonic vibration, which can be induced by wind, seismic activity and other forces. However, they are not useful to counteract the raw wind load by massive hurricane force winds. For that, additional structural support is required. Depending on how quickly the wind speed increases as you move up in altitude, it could get very expensive very fast to design a building to withstand it. $\endgroup$ – user75179 Jun 3 at 18:09
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I would suggest having bacteria as the reason for why building higher than a certain amount would be built. In the air over a certain amount of height, long standing buildings built by steel would be affected heavily by the moisture and that would those earlier unknown bacteria woulds more or less eat the steel at these levels (Steel thermites). And even if other materials was tried there where simply too weak.

Airplanes would also be affected, but they could be washed and cleansed regularly but treating materials inside the for this type of corrosion just was too expensive and just not smart.

This could allow for the odd steel tower for tourism, but a whole city would be unpractical.

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    $\begingroup$ Airplanes aren't built out of steel. As for skyscrapers, the moment these steel-eating bacteria are discovered, everyone will just coat the structural steel in some sort of repellent coating and carry on as normal. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Apr 23 at 12:13
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I think the solution to this is actually pretty simple. Some idiot back in history decided they owned the air and made permits for building over 3 stories or 45 feet above ground level impossible. Yeah, globally. And laws being laws, the only way anyone could stop this was a brutal legal system that's designed to be unnavigable and cost more than it's worth. Kind of like corporate laws now.

So how could this happen? Because it is already happening. Maybe not with this exact scenario, but human kind has a wealth of historical moronics that effectively made laws based entirely on the notion of "cause I said so." And minus the oppression that resulted in revolt and revolution, we still tolerate, ignore, and blindly accept these laws as though they shot down straight from the sun itself.

And while it may be boring to blame this on laws, it opens up some interesting concepts in alternative construction. We can't go up, but we can go down. If we did go down, how would tech and energy have evolved differently? Going down has problems just like going up, so anything making building down prohibitive would have been seen as a similar obstacle which we would have eventually overcome. And it doesn't impact the needs of your story's population.

And if you don't think such laws would fly, consider we still have royalty. Such a preposterous notion is so unbelievably asinine it's embarrassing the human race allows the concept of inherited power to persist. Not only that, but half the world loves it! Now suppose the owner of all the air was King Richard the 2nd or something (dont quote me on that) And somehow this was persisted and passed through some global power treaty and casually buried beneath a mountain of nonsense, this law or ownership continued to be inherited by the royal family to this day. Written in such convoluted legalese like the 2nd amendment of the US constitution in such a way that nobody knows how one would dismantle it.

Human laws are axiomatic only in the eyes of those willing to obey them. Some are logical, some are the exact opposite. But if people slip up and let one fly, especially for too long, it surpasses law and becomes tradition, then history, then legend. Gone too long and getting rid of some inconceivably unfair and idiotic law like the queen of England owning all the air over 45 feet may be just as hard as convincing israel and palestine to just merge and occupy the damned promised land equally together and shut up already. It is a solution to your problem so irritatingly simple it's a wonder how it isn't happening exactly as you require in our modern world now.

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In London for centuries no building was allowed to be taller than St Paul's Cathedral.

In a more devout world, that prohibition might have applied everywhere and up until the modern era. Anything taller than your cathedral is offensive and arrogate, and, in some people's eyes, blasphemous.

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