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Why the modern city needs a makeover

February 17, 2020, 9:30 AM UTC

It’s a strange, if mesmerizing, thing to peer out through a glass wall onto the rooftops of skyscrapers many stories below—to look down and see spires and helipads and glistening office towers that appear no bigger than Lego blocks. Yet it’s even stranger and more mesmerizing to peer out of that same 98th-floor window and see a building that’s over 90 meters taller—a steel-and-concrete linebacker of a facade that seems to snarl back, “What are you lookin’ at?”

That was my experience this past November, sitting at the not-quite-rooftop bar of the Four Seasons Hotel in Guangzhou, China, which occupies the top floors of the Guangzhou International Finance Center, the 23rd-tallest building in the world … and staring out at the Chow Tai Fook Finance Centre, the seventh-tallest building in the world, seemingly inches away.

Strange and mesmerizing, as I said. It’s also a neat visual summary of a transformation that’s remaking the very contours of the planet. Last year saw the completion of a record 26 “supertall” buildings—those at least 300 meters (90-plus stories) high—according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

The city of Shenzhen, which Fortune’s Grady McGregor writes about in this issue, has even outpaced Guangzhou in this race to the clouds—building a record number of buildings at least 200 meters tall in each of the past four years.

But the most compelling story, as Grady discovers, is not how high Shenzhen’s skyline goes, but how deep into the city authorities can see—and how profoundly that’s changing life for its residents. At the heart of this metamorphosis is technology, naturally. Just as Elisha Otis’s “safety elevator” allowed the first generation of urban high-rises to rise high, human ingenuity is enabling the modern metropolis to become more sophisticated than ever, while growing bigger than ever.

The embedded cameras and sensors in China’s vanguard “smart city,” for example, help keep crowds moving at rush hour, ease traffic congestion, fight crime (through ubiquitous facial recognition tools), and enable emergency workers to respond quicker to accidents. Shenzhen residents seem to enjoy the benefits, as Grady reports. Some, though, haven’t reckoned with the cost, which is a further erosion of personal privacy.

Perhaps no place on earth captures the union of technology and urbanity, though, quite like San Francisco—a city in which captains of industry and entrepreneurship collide on a daily basis with homeless people living in sidewalk encampments. Downtown has turned downtrodden, and in a deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking article, Fortune executive editor Adam Lashinsky asks “Why?”—and if there’s anything that can be done about it.

“The City,” from San Francisco to Shenzhen, may be the most important node in the network of global business. Please read on for our thoughts on how to reimagine it for the coming decades.

A version of this article appears in the March 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “A Tall Order.”

More from Fortune’s special report on cities:

—The city that sees it all
—Can San Francisco be saved?
—5 big ideas for fixing global cities’ most daunting challenges
—Did the “techlash” kill Alphabet’s city of the future?
—20 maps charting the rise of the modern megacity

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