New York: Why the Height of a Skyscraper Depends on Location

Take a look at the New York City skyline. It’s unique and recognizable because of its skyscrapers. New York City is home to some of the tallest buildings in the world.

Suppose you are interested the height of skyscrapers in New York City. You could make a list of building heights, like this list from Wikipedia.

  1. The Freedom Tower, One World Trade Center (1,776 ft.)
  2. 423 Park Avenue (1,400 ft.)
  3. Empire State Building (1,250 ft.)
  4. Bank of America Tower (1,200 ft.)
  5. Chrysler Building (1,046 ft.)
  6. The New York Times Building (1,046 ft.)
  7. One57 (1,005 ft.)
  8. Four World Trade Center (978 ft.)
  9. 70 Pine Street (952 ft.)
  10. The Trump Building, 4o Wall Street (927 ft.)

This list tells me that the Empire State Building is the third tallest building in the City. It tells me that Freedom Tower is about 750 feet taller than the Chrysler Building. But, what does that look like?

I’d get a better idea of what this means with a bar graph. Or. I could use an image like this (also from Wikipedia):

NYCbyPinHt_update
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This gives me a much better idea of how building heights compare. But, this information is still limited.

What if I want to know where these buildings are? What if I care about their locations? I will need a map.

I used the Building Footprints shapefile from NY OpenData to create this map of buildings with a roof height over 500 feet tall in NYC. Only 177 out of 1,082,433 buildings in NYC are over 500 feet tall. Those buildings are indicated in red.

 

TallBuildings1

The most interesting thing about this map is that all these very tall buildings are clumped in two locations: Midtown and the Financial District. You can see these clumps in this photograph:

NYCangle2

Here’s a closer look:TallBuilding2.What is going on? Did New York City specifically zone these locations to have tall buildings? Is this meant to preserve the skyline? Or, is it intended to show the importance of the Financial District?

The answers can also be found in a map. The location of New York’s skyscrapers is all about geology. As you can see in my hideously ugly geological map (colors courtesy of USGS’s New York Geological Map downloaded as a shapefile), the island of Manhattan has a different type of surface rock than the surrounding area. This bedrock is a metamorphic rock called the Manhattan schist (in pale lavender).

NYCGeo1

The Manhattan schist formed more than 400 million years ago when a volcanic island arc (similar to today’s Japan) crashed into the eastern side of the continent of Laurentia forming a huge mountain range known as the Taconic Orogeny. The high temperatures and pressures associated with mountain building caused the clay minerals in the mud that accumulated of the coast of Laurentia to transform to more resistant minerals such as biotite, muscovite and quartz.

manhattan schist
Manhattan Schist

Throughout most of Manhattan, this erosion-resistant bedrock is covered with large amounts of unconsolidated sediments. But,  this exceptionally hard rock lies very close to the surface in Downtown and Midtown Manhattan. Because this rock is so strong, it makes the perfect foundation for a skyscraper.

What about other cities? There are only two structures over 500 feet tall in Washington DC: the Hughes Memorial radio tower (761 ft) and the Washington Monument (555 ft). Why doesn’t Washington DC have tall skyscrapers?

While there are some strong metamorphic rocks in Northwest DC, most of DC is built on much softer sedimentary rocks. These rocks cannot support a skyscraper.

So, maps can help us understand where things are, but they can also help us understand why they are where they are. In New York, the height of a building depends on location and location depends on geology.

(Many of the other tallest buildings in the U.S. are located in Chicago. Chicago is weird. You can learn more about the challenges of building skyscrapers in a swamp here. )

This post was inspired by Episode 1 of Making North America on PBS.

 

 

 

 

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