The Best Skylines in the World; or, another subjective list…

As a Chicagoan, I take great pride in my hometown’s skyline. It is, without a doubt, one of the most stunning in the world. The constant debate about what city is home to the best skyline in the world is never-ending; and, it never will end. Cities are organic. They change. Buildings go up and down. Aesthetics change and opinions with them.

But alas I feel the need to add my two cents to this argument. I was inspired by a Thrillist list declaring the 20 Best Skylines in the world that left Chicagoans scratching their heads. The list put Chicago in 7th place behind cities like Seattle and Sydney (not to rain on their parade) despite often being in the top 5 on “best of” lists. As one internet commentator made clear though, the only parameters used by the Thrillist author Matt Meltzer was how recognizable they are globally and “overall aesthetics”. This clearly leaves plenty of room for one’s personal touch.

Granted, I do agree with Meltzer on some fronts: global recognition and aesthetics are important when considering the absolute best skylines. That said, authors of these lists usually seem preoccupied with big cities with tall flashy buildings, impressive geography, and more often than not are also famous. That excludes the possibility of including smaller cities, ones with more horizontal skylines, or ones with stark aesthetics in these lists. A great skyline is the result of how geography, architecture, urban form, iconography marry into one fabulous aesthetic experience. And there is one point too frequently overlooked when considering the best skylines in the world: vantage point.

It doesn’t matter how tall, or wild, or numerous, or mountainous a skyline may be, if there is nowhere to take it all in, what does it matter?

BEST SKYLINES IN THE WORLD

The way I determined my Top 10 List of the Best Skylines was by creating 5 parameters to take into account: Geography, Architectural Quality, Vantage, Iconic Structures, Aesthetic Layout. While each category is based on my own opinion this was done in an attempt to really analyze what makes each of these skylines great instead of just going off subjective opinion alone. Two categories could garner a city’s skyline bonus points: Geography and Iconic Structures. Sometimes cities are lucky and have not just a great waterfront setting, but amazing mountains too or great buildings, but also iconic bridges and monuments as well.

10) Dubai – 11 points

Dubai Skyline

Dubai is exactly the skyline people fall for when they’re looking for something full of wow-factor. The Burj Khalifa and numerous other skyscrapers jutting out of the desert is impressive. It is impossible to forget this striking silhouette. Whether you like it or not, this is a view that makes a mark and is here to stay.

9) TORONTO – 12 points

Toronto Skyline

Canada’s largest city also has the country’s most impressive skyline. Although Vancouver offers the wonderful combination of natural and man-made aesthetics, the recognizable buildings in Toronto’s skyline pushes it to the fore. The CN Tower has become a national icon and the setting along Lake Ontario capitalizes on the ability to create a beautiful wall of buildings rising from the water. Points were lost though on architectural quality and that good views aren’t immediately accessible.

8) SEATTLE – 13 points

Seattle Skyline

Seattle’s skyline is sublime. The vantage one gets of the city looking south with Mt. Rainer dominating the background and the Space Needle acting as unforgettable focal point is incomparable. But that is also what pushed the city’s skyline to a lower spot on the list. Although it’s also located on the Puget Sound, the waterfront is dominated by highways and industry and it seems like there is only one place to get a truly outstanding view of the city. One can’t deny the sheer beauty of that view though.

7) BERLIN – 15 points

Berlin SkylineBerlin’s skyline is an interesting one and it mostly got its points from having a mix of iconic structures and intriguing layout. The Fernseherturm dominates the skyline from all perspectives, but buildings like the Berliner Dom, Rotes Rathaus, Sony Centre, and Reichstag add flavor to the overall skyline. The skyline also beat out other cities for a Top 10 spot for vantage point. From the top of the Siegesäule in the Tiergarten one takes in a skyline view made for promotional posters and graphic designers. It’s unique, balanced, and manages to include low-lying monuments like the Brandenburgertor. Don’t forget the many other views available in the city–points for options.

6) SHANGHAI – 15 points

Shanghai Skyline

Although Berlin and Shanghai are technically tied in terms of points awarded, I had to give Shanghai the higher position on this list for two reasons: 1) the way the city managed to take advantage of the bend in the Huangpu River is masterful. It provides amazing views of the skyline from the opposite bank and embraces the natural geography of the area. 2) It technically has two skylines worth mentioning. The modern business pictured above is one, but the Bund Three_on_the_Bundsitting opposite iconic megatall skyscrapers is 20th Century precursor. Built with European and American money it is both memorable in terms of layout and architectural quality and is incredibly unique.

5) LONDON – 16 points

London Skyline

This was one of the more difficult cities on the list to grade. While it barely made the cut in terms of layout or vantage (it is almost impossible to take in the entire scope of the city’s skyline from one point) the sheer number of iconic buildings, vistas, vantage points, and skyscrapers (from the impressive to confounding) pushed it way up the list into the Top 5. London is also aesthetically unique too amongst the cities on this list. More than any other city it is a mix of both vertical and horizontal awe. You’ll never get a good view in one go, but it’s definitely worth scampering all over town to soak it all in.

4) SYDNEY – 17 points

Sydney SkylineThe Southern Hemisphere is full of worthy contenders to rank amongst the best skylines in the world, but nothing can quite compete with Sydney. Although much like its sister in the Commonwealth, Toronto, it fails to stun based on architectural quality, it recovers through the power of water, one powerful and amazing bridge and an unabashedly iconic opera house.

3) CHICAGO – 18 points

Chicago SkylineChicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, home to some of the greatest urban planning, landscaping, and architecture in the world… and it shows! Wedged between the southern edge of Lake Michigan and the vast flatness of the Great Plains the city’s skyline is a pristine mix of aesthetic balance, flawless architecture, and numerous viewing possibilities. Chicago ranks high for all those reasons, but the top honors are withheld because of something no urban planner or architect can fix: geography.

2) HONG KONG – 20 points

Hong Kong Skyline

While Hong Kong actually tied for the number one spot, I had to give it 2nd place: first, the viewing possibilities just don’t seem as numerous (and unique) and second some of Hong Kong’s buildings just don’t have the same global recognition as some of the 1st place city’s even though they’re still striking. Hong Kong is unique amongst cities with great skylines because it capitalizes on amazing architecture placed within an astounding setting where sea and mountain collide. The verdant hills behind the skyscrapers creates a one-of-a-kind backdrop. The band of water, city, hillside, and sky make for aesthetic balance that is much appreciated.

1) SAN FRANCISCO – 20 points

San Francisco Skyline

San Francisco, you’re so damn beautiful! Talk about an unforgettable mix! This city has it all from geographic intrigue, numerous great points from which to view the skyline in one panoramic picnic (it helps to be on a hilly peninsula), to unique and iconic architecture (looking at you Transamerica Pyramid), and symbols that speak for a nation (a certain golden bridge). City, sea, and nature meet at the Golden Gate and things get magical in San Francisco. It truly deserves the top honors.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

There are cities I left out that deserve Honorable Mention: Frankfurt, New York City, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. Each of these cities has something amazing about their skylines and two are particularly famous, but that doesn’t merit automatic inclusion into this list. They deserve acknowledgement for having amazing skylines though.

BEST IN SHOW – CATEGORIES

There are also other cities I believe deserve mention in this list, even though I don’t think they quite fit into the Top 10 list or the Honorable Mentions. I’ve decided to name these the best in a particular category.

  • Johannesburg SkylineBest in Africa: Johannesburg – Neither an African city nor a Latin American city were included in the above list. But both continents have some amazing urban landscapes. In terms of skylines, Johannesburg tops it in Africa. Although the buildings are generally run of the mill, the hillside location and impact of a few key structures makes for a memorable image.
  • Best in Latin America & Geographic Setting: Rio de Janeiro – No city can boast a geographic setting quite like Rio. It is natural beauty at its best and the city takes all the credit. Although it is an amazing urban visual experience much of the city’s beauty needs to be credited to nature, not man. While the statue of Christ the Redeemer undeniably dominates the city, the actual built portion of Rio’s skyline seems somewhat bland when it comes down to it. At least from a distance.
  • Best Small City: Madison, WI – The city has a low slung profile, but the Wisconsin State Capitol pierces the scene with its massive, iconic white dome. The sight is visible from all around because of the city’s location on an isthmus and the hill the Capitol is built on only pushes its dominance further up into the sky. It’s a true testament to the belief that less is more.
  • Best Horizontal Skyline: Prague – Built in a river basin with bluffs surrounding the city, not only are there ample spots to take in the view, but the low profile of the city is broken almost exclusively by a giant castle, churches, and maybe the most ornate bridge in the world.
  • Best Monument Skyline: Washington, DC – Need I say more?
  • Pittsburgh-Skyline-HD-Wallpaper4Best Riverfront Skyline: Pittsburgh – Located at the confluence of two rivers, Pittsburgh has a unique skyline crammed onto a wedge-shaped slip of land with a cluster of bridges all around and hills in the background for good measure.

The time is right to reform driver’s ed

From every angle America’s driving culture is beginning to falter and in some very succinct ways showing signs of slowing down. After 40 something years of urban growth that supported the expansion of suburbs and highway systems the urban planning community and many municipal governments are beginning to see the error of their ways and move towards more sustainable patterns of growth. This hasn’t been universal, but the trends are certainly showing greater embrace of human environment that are not explicitly car-centric. Indeed, the behaviors of Americans are even beginning to show a shift. Younger Americans are learning to drive later and there are some substantial increases in biking and transit use. Makes me wonder if the time is ripe to reform driver’s education at a national level. Driver’s ed is an institution that is oddly placed in American culture. At one end it plays a significant role in what, for many Americans, is still an important mile stone: learning to drive. But, it definitely sets the tone for how we’ll drive our how life through and reflects our strong driving culture.

Reforming driver’s education in the USA has the potential to radically change the way we move about. Young Americans can very easily get their driver’s licenses by attending what is rather minimal instructional courses beginning before students are 16 years old. That is how it went in my household. My driver’s ed experience was in no means good. In fact, it is amazing that any of the people who went through the process turned into good drivers. The equipment was old and the teachers were in charge of 50 plus students. One class period for example we were responsible for naming things that might be good to have in a car for emergencies. I was probably the 45th person to be asked and despite there being a lot of good things reasonable to have in a car for safety finding 45 individual things is hard. My answer ultimately: fire.

This epitomizes what driver’s ed is like in so many places. It is lackluster and ill-prepares young people for the responsibility to drive. This creates a situation wherein I think Americans generally become bad or irresponsible drivers over the course of their lives. I more often fear drivers walking around the city more than I do the possibility of being the victim of violent crime. This isn’t to say driver’s ed is poor nationwide. Recently Oregon has been lauded for improving standards for driver’s education programs and has seen a decrease in related youth fatalities. In most other places in the USA the first year driving remains one of the most dangerous years of young Americans’ lives.

These experience compare with what a young German goes through to learn to drive. My German exchange brother went through two years of driver’s education course  at costs exceeding €2,000 for example. My siblings and I as well as most of our friends spent little more than one semester in the classroom and certainly less than a few hundred dollars in real costs for the whole process. Germans can begin courses before they’re 16 years old, but have to be 18 to drive. In Germany, this is done for multiple reasons, but primarily to prepare drivers for the road as best possible and discourage young people from driving until they’re a) actually ready or b) absolutely need to learn.

For these last reasons though it appears that now may be the time to seriously begin considering options for reforming driver’s education and licensing laws and requirements to better fit a world where we drive less, but also expect more from those behind the wheel of a car.

First, the sheer lack of any national standards for driver’s education programs demands changing. Standards need to be established. Although Oregon has demonstrated that improvements can come from the state level the lack of national standards puts no pressure on states that are less than progressive in improving something as crucial as driver’s education as a public safety issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does have guidelines, there are not binding however. The programs should receive constant revision and be designed to produce the best possible drivers. Such programs should focus on much more than good driving, rather responsible driving. It should include segments on anger management behind the wheel, respect for other road users as well as cyclists and pedestrians. Programs should look at driving not as the unquestioned means of transportation in the United States, but talk about congestion, why it happens, multi-modal transportation options, and combining cars into a network of mobility options. It should also put a strong emphasis on the civic responsibility that one undertakes to drive safe.

Secondly, I think it is time to push back the minimum driving age for most young Americans. It is understandable to me that a driving age as young as 16 may remain pertinent in some of the country’s more rural locations, however it is unreasonable to argue that all 16 year olds should be granted such a responsibility due to the small segment of them who live in places too rural to see biking or public transit as viable options. I would argue its time to push back the minimum driving age to 18 and the minimum learners permits age to 16, except in cases when people live in areas deemed appropriate to begin learning younger.

Such areas should not include poorly designed areas of suburban sprawl. Part of reforming driver’s eduction should certainly be to encourage more sustainable living arrangements. Sprawl has been proven to be an unhealthy social, economic, and environmental model of living and needs to be systematically tackled. This can be done partially though encouraging more developers and communities to demand better town planning, but also by making the prospects of youth immobility a disincentive to choose to live in sprawling poorly connected places. It is not unfathomable to think that part of the reason sprawl is so reasonable a living arrangement is that we casually grant young people the privilege to drive.

Additionally, it may help equalize some of the ironies of American society. While getting a driver’s license is still a major mile stone for many young Americans and the moment is hyped up in American media it is odd that in this country it is considered reasonable to grant young people the heavy responsibility of driving, but these same young people are considered too immature to watch movies with explicit sexuality, nor are they considered responsible enough to consume alcohol or vote. Granted these laws reflect a complex mix of politics and culture, but such things change as the evidence by the drop in 16 and 17 year olds getting licenses.

Finally, this should all be done not over a semester of a year, but over two or more years. Driver’s education should by no means be a rushed affair. It should be undertaken within a time frame that makes for responsible, prepared drivers.

Ultimately a cultural change is necessary, but possibly already underway. Driving can no longer be seen as a right, but rather a privilege. Much of this change can be approached via driver’s ed using it as a way to 1) make our roads safer 2) save lives and 3) better integrate multi-modal living models into our society. Safer roads are a boon for everybody and seeing a move towards more sustainable living models would be an added bonus and potential result of such changes to driver’s education.