The news this January that two Chinese companies had signed an agreement to build the world’s tallest twin towers in Phnom Penh understandably raised eyebrows in Cambodia and around the region. As with so many grandiose plans, financing will be key for this reported $2.7 billion project in what remains one of Asia’s poorest nations, as measured by per capita gross domestic product.
But even if funding is finalised and construction begins, a critical question remains: How best to balance Asia’s drive to build higher with the need to respect what remains below? Former first lady Michelle Obama famously said at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, “When they go low, we go high.”
That memorable turn of phrase reminds me today less of the ugliness of past political campaigns, and more of Asia’s changing skylines including Phnom Penh’s. Indeed, those same words from the former first lady have relevance – in a different, economic context in both the United States and Asia – as a new administration in Washington focuses on rebuilding America.
US President Donald Trump is certainly no stranger to skyscrapers. Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York is arguably one of the most famous addresses in the world. In Chicago – site of the world’s first skyscraper – the Trump International Hotel & Tower, completed in 2009, is the second tallest completed building in that city, and the fourth tallest in the United States.
The United States long ago ceded the title of world’s tallest building to Asia and the Middle East. Seven of the top 10 tallest completed buildings in the world are now in Asia, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. This Chicago-headquartered non-profit organisation founded in 1969 maintains The Skyscraper Center, a database on the world’s tallest buildings.
As of March 2017, the world’s tallest buildings are the Burj Khalifa in Dubai at 828 metres, the Shanghai Tower in China at 631 metres, and the Makkah Royal Clock Tower in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at 601 metres. At number four is 1 World Trade Center in New York at 541 metres.
Hong Kong boasts the eighth tallest building the International Commerce Center. In Southeast Asia, the tallest buildings are Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers; the Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower, in Vietnam; and Bangkok’s recently completed MahaNakhon tower all at more than 304 metres tall.
The Vattanac Capital building in Phnom Penh at 184 metres is now Cambodia’s tallest completed building, according to The Skyscraper Center.
Cities across Asia are growing outwards and upwards at breakneck speed, with the World Bank forecasting decades of urban growth to come. Despite almost 200 million people already having moved to Asia’s cities in the first decade of the 21st century, the region’s ongoing urbanisation is likely only to intensify.
Liveable cities, however, need more than skyscrapers. The people, the street life, and the neighbourhoods at the bottom of the buildings must not be lost in the shadows of new development.
That remains a particularly critical point as city planners across Asia, unintentionally or not, make it much tougher for street vendors, streetside tailors and cobblers, push carts and food trucks to make a living.
As cities build taller, they must keep three key benchmarks for liveability in mind community, resilience and sustainability.
First, communities must be put at the heart of urban development. Urban planners must consider not only the impact of a city’s design and new construction on traffic efficiency or parking spaces, but also on inequality and on human lives.
Amid the rush to maximise real estate returns, developers must also incorporate public, open spaces to build a sense of community, cultivate street life and encourage social interaction.
And that fostering of community should ideally include people from all walks of life and income levels.Second, cities must build in resilience.
A society or city that is socially inclusive and with strong community bonds leads to a city that is also resilient. An initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation, 100 Resilient Cities, defines urban resilience as the capacity to survive, adapt and grow no matter the stresses or shocks they experience.
Beyond skyscrapers, cities must build in comprehensive security and rule of law, effective public health systems, inclusive housing and labour policies, and diverse transport networks, as well as effective delivery of emergency services.
Here, the private sector, including insurance and reinsurance companies, will play a necessary role along with government policies to encourage an enabling environment for resilience.
And third, cities need to grow in an environmentally sustainable manner.With more and more people moving into cities, tackling environmental challenges is already increasingly an urban issue. Incorporating innovations and technologies in areas such as infrastructure, energy and transport will be essential to building smarter if not “smart cities”. Here again, the contributions and coming together of public, private and not-for-profit sectors will be important.
There are many ways to measure a city’s success. At the Milken Institute, where I serve as that non-partisan economic think tank’s inaugural Asia Fellow, our researchers since 1999 have used a comprehensive, fact-based set of criteria to rank 200 large and 201 small metros across the US as part of an annual Best-Performing Cities index.
The economic outcomes-based index heavily weighs growth in employment, wages and technology. More subjective metrics such as quality-of-life and cost-of-living are not included.
This past year, tech still drove the top rankings as cities that excelled in innovation again topped the index, with San Jose, California, in Silicon Valley, claiming the No1 spot for the second year in a row. A similar Milken Institute Best Performing Cities China list based on official Chinese economic, jobs, wage growth, foreign direct investment and other data singled out Shanghai, Guiyang and Zhoushan as top performers.
Certainly, not all cities are blessed with the resources that Silicon Valley’s urban areas or Shanghai have as they too face the growing physical, social and economic challenges that are a part of an increasingly urbanised 21st century.
But today, amid the diversity of the world’s changing urban landscapes, on one point there should be agreement.
Liveable, dynamic and vibrant cities are greater testament to a country’s prosperity and policy successes than any number of skyscrapers, no matter how big or how tall. As the United States rebuilds and cities in America and across Asia including Cambodia build higher, it is what is sustained below that will matter most. That will remain true in Phnom Penh no matter how high its tallest towers.
Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.