I’m spending the next few days writing cover letters to potential employees and I was recently reminded of a nasty little law I learned about while studying in Istanbul.
If you ever go to Turkey’s biggest city, you’ll notice something annoying immediately. It’s rather a pain to get anywhere because the metropolis is so spread out. My Turkish friends told me the city extends the entirety of both peninsulas it sits on. When I first left the city on a bus trip, I learned this exaggeration is well justified.
The reason for this sprawl is quite clear—most buildings in the city never reach up more than fifteen or so stories (with the exception of one area of the city where modern hotels rise like trees on a well-cut lawn). But why this limit? I asked a friend about it and she said there was a law against skyscrapers. (Well, she didn’t use the word “skyscrapers” because she didn’t know it, though her English vocabulary was very extensive. I found that to be an interesting cultural consequence of the law.)
She attributed the law to Turks’ love for green spaces. I tried to explain to her that the law doesn’t increase the amount of parks and gardens, it actually decreases. Floor limits require people to use more land than they normally would to make a certain amount of space. I illustrated this with a pair of glasses. First, they were both directly on the table and then I stacked one on top of the either, leaving an empty space for “development.”
She still wasn’t convinced and she continued to be unconvinced after I used this same logic to explain how Manhattan Island—some of the most expensive real estate in the world—is home to no less than seven parks (including Central Park which covers 6% of Manhattan). She then added that tall buildings are ugly, referencing the skyscrapers in the district that’s the exception to the rule. Of course that’s ugly—there are only a few such buildings. A good skyline has many. Think how different Manhattan would look if the only towering edifice was the Chrysler Building.
It’s instinctive to think that creating public goods (including beauty and natural spaces) require laws. There’s no doubt that the developing world’s biggest barrier is learning to surpass this instinct, even when it comes to trees.