Survey: Can Americans Recognize Cities without Their Skyscrapers?

There are plenty of cities that have a reputation for being instantly recognizable. In fact, we ran a survey in 2018 that confirmed certain skylines (like Houston) are more recognizable than others (like Los Angeles).

But are there certain landmarks that define that recognizability? Is Houston actually all that recognizable, or do people just know to check for the presence of the JPMorgan Chase building?

To find out how influential certain buildings are in establishing a city’s recognizability, we quizzed 4,000 Americans by showing them a photo of one of four major United States cities—St. Louis, Seattle, Denver, or Chicago—that had been edited to remove its major landmarks and asked them to correctly identify the city.

Here’s what we found:

  • Seattle was the least recognizable skyline — over half guessed that it was Chicago.
  • Over 43 percent couldn’t recognize Chicago without Willis Tower.
  • Just over half of respondents were able to identify St. Louis, even without the Gateway Arch.
  • Denver was the most recognizable and correctly-guessed skyline.

Seattle is the Least Recognizable Without the Space Needle

The only edited city skyline that stumped a majority of respondents was Seattle, which 53 percent of respondents believed was Chicago. The second most popular response was the correct answer, at 35 percent of respondents. (The remaining 12 percent answered Portland and Anchorage, at 9 percent and 3 percent respectively.)

65% of americans don't recognize seattle

It should come as no surprise that the absence of the Space Needle proved confusing for so many: according to Architectural Digest, it’s the most recognizable building in the entire state of Washington. It was originally built for the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, so it has the benefit of being both visually unusual and culturally significant, making it memorable in the minds of Americans.

Without Willis Tower, 43% Don’t Know Chicago

Though Chicago’s Willis Tower—formerly known as the Sears Tower—is undeniably iconic, 57 percent of respondents were still able to correctly identify the city without its hallmark structure.

43% don't know chicago without the willis tower

Chicago’s high identification rate likely stems from the fact that it boasts so many noteworthy traits beyond its architecture. It’s the third most populous city in the United States and is also a global center for higher education thanks to institutions like the University of Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, and DePaul University.

Perhaps most influentially, Chicago is featured heavily in a number of iconic TV series and films. As the setting of such iconic movies as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Dark Knight, The Blues Brothers, and High Fidelity—among many, many others—Chicago has earned greater familiarity in the minds of many Americans.

St. Louis Falls in the Middle (in More Ways Than One)

The most midwestern city in the quiz also captured a middling number of correct responses—which means about half (46 percent) could not recognize the city without its iconic Gateway Arch.

46% of americans don't recognize st. louis

Like the Space Needle in Washington, the Gateway Arch was named the most iconic structure in Missouri by Architectural Digest. And though St. Louis does feature environmental markers, like the Mississippi River, that make it distinct, the existence of other river cities like Memphis makes it difficult to pinpoint St. Louis based on its proximity to water alone.

Most Recognizable: Denver

Of the four cities we quizzed Americans on, Denver was by far the most recognizable, with 77 percent of total respondents correctly identifying its skyline even without the presence of the Wells Fargo Center (commonly referred to by Denverans as “the Cash Register”) and Republic Plaza, which is the tallest building in the city.

23% Don't know denver without the skyscrapers

The near presence of the Rocky Mountains, which are visible in almost any photo of Denver’s skyline, give this city a boost when it comes to correctly identify it without the help of its major man-made landmarks. The high percentage of correct responses to this question also underlines the fact that the low number of correct responses to the other three questions isn’t a fluke.

Another contributing factor to the high identification rate here is likely the fact that Denver’s tallest building, Republic Plaza, is still just 717 feet, making it the 137th-tallest building in the United States. The city came close to reaching new structural heights briefly with plans for an 81-story, 1000-foot building, but the deal fell apart when the property was resold in 2018.

It’s possible that Denver’s skyline may see the addition of taller, more recognizable skyscrapers in the future since the city’s downtown area has no legal height restrictions and building vertically allows landowners to maximize their usable space without having to purchase more property. Whether taller buildings will make Denver’s skyline more iconic remains to be seen.

Locals Know Their Cities Better—but Not by That Much

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the respondents who lived closest to the skyline they were quizzed about who gave the most accurate answers.

What is surprising is that regional respondents didn’t outperform the national average by a greater margin.

Skyline recognition by region

For instance, respondents from the West did better than other subgroups when it came to correctly identify Seattle’s altered skyline, with 40 percent answering the question correctly (compared to 35 percent overall). However, the majority of western respondents still gave the wrong answer, with 48 percent guessing that the skyline was Chicago’s.

The biggest gap between local and national answers appeared in the midwest, where 66 percent correctly identified Chicago (compared to 57 percent overall) and 65 percent of respondents correctly identified St. Louis (compared to 54 percent overall).

The smallest gap in correct answers appeared in Denver, where the iconic nature of the Rocky Mountains helped a high number of midwesterners (79 percent) and the overall population (77 percent) answer correctly.

Nothing Is Permanent—Even Skylines

Though many of America’s major metropolitan centers have their iconic buildings to thank for their high degree of memorability, cities are always growing and changing. Some cities have a reputation for their ever-evolving landscapes; Las Vegas demolishes and replaces its casinos and hotels so regularly that the implosions themselves actually have their own top-ten list.

Other cities are just beginning to establish themselves as development hubs with new investments in institutional construction projects and urban development across industries. According to a Forbes economic analysis, Minneapolis raised its construction spend by 23 percent in 2018 while Kansas City saw its budget increase by 32 percent in the same period.

(These construction booms, though encouraging from a development perspective, may present their own problems as the American Action Forum predicts Minnesota and Missouri will be two of the states most affected by the skilled labor shortage through 2029.)

Another factor that’s likely to force city skylines to adapt is climate change, whose rising sea levels and extreme weather events are requiring cities to adapt existing infrastructure to withstand the increased severity of their environments. Skyscrapers, in particular, could take a hit in areas becoming increasingly prone to earthquakes.

All of these shifting factors are likely to see cities’ architecture—and consequently, their skylines—evolve in interesting and unpredictable ways. As existing structures are altered or demolished and new buildings crop up in different cities, these changing skylines force history to evolve with them, reinforcing the cultural significance of our nation’s construction industry.