This is a topic that I've discussed before, here, here and here. But I'd raise one more question: is it really possible to separate a discussion on the role of the skyscraper from the land use patterns and zoning constraints of the typical North American city?
Leon Krier has an illustration on this point in The Architecture of Community, where he depicts a recognizably American city of a handful of skyscrapers surrounded by a vast sea of detached single family homes next to his preferred model of the polycentric city with multiple nodes, none obviously larger in scale or importance to one another, under which he observes:
"Exactly like an individual who has reached maturity, a 'mature' city cannot grow bigger or spread out (vertically or horizontally) without losing its essential quality. Just like a family of individuals, a city can grow only by reproduction and multiplication, that is, by becoming polycentric and polynuclear."The North American skyscraper, arguably, is only a symptom of the failure of cities to adhere to this growth model, a model that is inherently dense and mixed-used to enable the provision of convenient urban services and amenities to each quarter.
Consider one of the best examples of the North American type: Vancouver, which avoided the construction of downtown freeways, and which has a large and efficient mass transit network. As can easily be seen from an aerial map, Vancouver is a monocentric city, with commercial high-rises heavily concentrated in the downtown area outlined in red, representing just over 1% of the greater metro area:
The Vancouver city government confirms this, noting that over two-thirds of all city jobs (and 22 percent of regional jobs) are located in the immediate downtown area. In the same document, the city tries to allay fears that jobs are "moving out to the suburbs," even to the extent of touting zoning exclusively for commercial use (i.e., subsidizing office space). Unsurprisingly, the city notes that 102,800 commute in to the central business district each day, while 16,400 commute out. The transit system itself reflects this monocentric arrangement, as all lines of the SkyTrain converge on the small downtown. Outside the downtown, suburban-style single-family detached housing predominates, occupying the vast majority of city area -- perhaps in excess of 90%.
With this sort of development pattern, is it possible not to have a dense core of skyscrapers, regardless of what one may think of them? When residential areas are 1) low density and 2) zone out commercial and industrial over large areas, the remaining office areas, confined to the original central business district by an ever-expanding belt of homes, have nowhere to go but up. The exception, Washington D.C., its height constrained by law and its building footprints hemmed in by streets of excessive width, compensates by spreading its downtown horizontally and further outwards to several centers beyond its jurisdictional boundaries.
The mass transit system, in response to this arrangement, bends all lines toward the core, yet this only worsens the imbalance by further raising property values at the center. At last, we arrive at the familiar arrangement of 500-foot office buildings surrounded by mile upon mile of low-density homes, until the bursting commercial downtown leapfrogs out to an edge city on the residential fringe, leading to hand-wringing in the city council about the "decline" of the downtown. (Tyson's Corner lookalike Richmond, along with Burnaby, seem to fulfill that function in Vancouver, being as commercial-heavy, but even more auto-centric, than the downtown). Can the skyscraper really be blamed for this state of affairs?
On the other hand, an urbanism on the model Krier proposes, which exists in countless cities outside North America, including those of the United States' own southern neighbor, has no economic need for skyscrapers, and sprouts only a few, those driven by corporate status-seeking rather than necessity. The issue becomes nearly moot, and height limits, where they are implemented, less contentious.
A Vancouver built to a Parisian level of density, and imitating Paris' lack of Euclidean zoning, would occupy the area shown below -- barely 10% of the existing regional metro area, with no high-rises, and with the same population. The key difference, though, being that while today's Vancouver (and dozens or hundreds of cities like it) is built out with a giant and immovable low-density residential buffer, forcing the city to shunt its residential growth into towers in the already overburdened downtown, or to engage in a difficult process of upzoning low density residential, in this model, the city has abundant room for growth within its own borders by "reproduction and multiplication."