By: Curtis Chin

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 not-for-profit organization 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 2717 feet, the Shanghai Tower in China at 2073 feet, and the Makkah Royal Clock Tower in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at 1972 feet, according to the Skyscraper Center. Coming in at number four is One World Trade Center in New York at 1776 feet. 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 1000 feet tall.

Cities in China and across Asia are growing outwards and upwards at breakneck speed. This construction boom is likely to continue, according to a report from the World Bank in 2015 that forecast decades of urban growth. Despite almost 200 million people already having moved to Asia’s cities in the first decade of the 21st century, the region’s ongoing urbanization is likely to intensify.

Livable cities, however, need more than skyscrapers. The people, the street life, and the neighborhoods 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 slowly push out street vendors, street-side tailors and cobblers, push carts, and food trucks.

As cities build taller, they must keep three key benchmarks for livability 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 that a city’s design and required construction will have on traffic efficiency or parking spaces, but also on inequality and human lives.

Amidst the rush to maximize 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 their resilience, which an initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation, 100 Resilient Cities, defines 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 labor 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 the construction of a resilient environment.

And third, cities need to grow in an environmentally sustainable manner.

With more and more people moving into cities, tackling environmental challenges has become an urban issue. Incorporating innovation and technology in areas such as infrastructure, energy, and transportation will be essential to building “smart cities.” This will require public, private, and not-for-profit sectors to work together in order to achieve success.

There are many ways to measure a city’s success.  Since 1999, researchers at the Milken Institute have used a comprehensive, fact-based set of criteria to rank 200 large and 201 small metros across the United States as part of an annual Best-Performing Cities index.

The economic outcomes-based index considers 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 drove the top rankings, as cities that excelled in innovation topped the index, with San Jose, California, in Silicon Valley, claiming the No. 1 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.

Amidst the diversity of the world’s changing urban landscapes, it is clear that livable, dynamic and vibrant cities are greater testament to a country’s prosperity and policy successes than any number of skyscrapers. As cities in America and China build higher, it is what is sustained below that will matter most.

About the author: Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

Posted by Curtis Chin