Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward L. Glaeser

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Posted 2011-05-26

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

The idea of the city as triumphant in human history--fostering civilization, economies, culture, and environmental benefits--is celebrated in this book. The strength of the city was apparent in the early 1900's and prior, but the city became lost during the period of increasing suburbanization (see: Asphalt Nation, Global City Blues, Suburban Nation, The Wealth of Cities, City-Building in America, Geography of Nowhere, and others). This book, meant for a general audience, opens intelligent discussion about urban issues in ways that may challenge the assumptions of people in all ideological corners.

"The enduring strength of cities reflects the profoundly social nature of humanity" (p. 269).
Certainly, Edward Glaeser's central point in this book is reflected in its title: the city is a human invention that has fostered, nurtured, and defined our culture, civilization, and economy tremendously (see also John Reader's Cities). Moreover, Glaeser's continued theme is that cities are green (see also David Owen's Green Metropolis), cities are an economic environment separate from sub-urbanism (see The Option of Urbanism and The High Cost of Free Parking), and cities foster joy in urban living (see, for example The Wealth of Cities and Get Urban!). What Glaeser does uniquely in this book is to bring together many threads of thinking to make the argument that much of what is traditionally thought of as "obvious" for urban public policy is not beneficial. The city brings people together for close contact and can succeed if its inherent people-orientation is respected, but cities can fail if built around anything other than the power of human contact, creativity, and collaboration.

Glaeser first explores how a city fosters human contact. He emphasizes how face-to-face contact "leads to more trust, generosity, and cooperation than any other sort of interaction" (p. 35), and that proximity is powerful to generate wealth and inventions (p. 36). Next, he dismisses the continued, incorrect assumption that somehow technology (the Internet, global telecommunications) obliterate the need for face-to-face contact. He argues that improvements in technology lead to more face time, not less (p. 38). The online world is about relationships, and face-to-face meetings complement these relationships, making them even more valuable in a global economy (p. 38).

Glaeser's central point is that a city is made of people. The mistake of confusing a city, "which is really a mass of connected humanity," with the physical buildings and landscape, "its structures" (p. 43) has been often repeated. His example of Detroit illustrates how a 19th century force of educated workers, creative entrepreneurs, and a variety of industries morphed into a late 20th century Detroit struggling with a single industry, low-skill workers, and vertical integration of firms (p. 57). In other word's, Detroit's structures became more efficient (due in large part to Fordism itself), but investment in people and skills waned, leading to Detroit's state of affairs by the early 21st century.

Once you can accept that people and their relationships matter, suddenly public policy can focus on what is valuable and what can benefit a city. For example, the presence of the poor in a city is not a problem, but a feature of city life--simply put, a city is a good choice for poor people to find opportunities. But, a city "is failing" (p. 81) if the poor cannot pursue a ladder of advancement and move up in economics. An entrenched, permanent underclass in one area can erode the economic potential of an entire city. And, this failure can be entrenched further as in Milliken v. Bradley which forced busing of inner city kids while exempting suburban kids. Glaeser says of this: "If an antiurban fiend had tried to cause a mass exodus from the older cities, he couldn't have done better" (p. 90).

Glaeser goes on to show that attention to the boring, basic functions of cities that are essential to supporting human life are extremely beneficial to cities. It remains an essential function, for example, of cities to "provide clean water while safely removing human waste" (p. 94), yet many leaders worldwide seem not to grasp this. Moreover, corruption makes cities less efficient (p. 101); crime makes cities less efficient ("Unsafe streets will repel the skilled workers that are so vital for urban rebirth" (p. 132)), and traffic makes cities less efficient (p. 104). Glaeser expands on the topic of traffic and critiques the assumption that roads can provide endless, free access for drivers--demonstrating "the impossibility of sating the demand for anything that's free" (p. 104). He points out that congestion pricing articulated in the 1950's by William Vickrey works (p. 105). Glaeser states that "[i]f you give something away for free, people will use too much of it" (p. 158). (see also Shoup 2005). City essentials, like these that might raise the cry of "big government!", or just seem too boring to think about, are inescapable. Glaeser emphasizes that the nature of dense, human living require a strong public sector to take care of these urban basics (p. 116)--which may be very well derided as "big government" by some political ideologues.

Glaeser describes how quality of life is a huge benefit--cities with quality of life have an edge (p. 118). First, cities are naturally a place for high-quality culture because fixed costs of cultural institutions (theaters, museums, infrastructure) can be borne across a wide contributor base (p. 119). The city, in concentrating a large audience for everything from restaurants, bars, cafes, pubs, theaters, and other gathering spots has a distinct urban entertainment advantage (p. 126). The urban third places benefit city life (p. 124) (see also Oldenburg 1998). This leads to a "consumer city" (p. 131) where people find diversion, creativity, entertainment, and more chances to encounter new ideas or new people with whom to collaborate.

Glaeser most strongly seeks to overturn mistaken assumptions mostly arising from well-meaning environmentalists or stubborn NIMBYists who fail to think globally (in a systems view of human population growth and change). First, Glaeser unabashedly points out that density helps: "labor productivity and wages were significantly higher in those places where density was easier to develop" (p. 142). However, he concedes that density in itself is not an absolute--it can vary, and diversity is possible (for example, Greenwich Village versus mid-town Manhattan densities). Glaeser states, "For the government to mandate a single style of urbanism is no more sensible than for the government to enforce a single style of literature" (p. 147). However--and this is key--low density does have consequences--it makes for expensive living: "opposing new building is the surest way to make a popular area unaffordable" (p. 147). And key to this also is recognizing that demand pressures are a closed system: "building up in one area reduces the pressure to take down other older buildings" (p. 150). To foster historic preservation, build as tall of building as possible to lower pressure to develop older, shorter buildings elsewhere (p. 150). Simply put, true environmentalists and historic preservationists should be spending more of their time identifying areas where dense, relatively taller structures can be built to house people and businesses efficiently than merely blocking attempts at building or changing favored spots everywhere. Simply banning building anywhere does not amount to intelligent preservation or environmental protection--Glaeser points out that "local communities often fail to consider the adverse citywide consequences of banning building" (p. 162). Building will happen, but perhaps in areas that are currently not well suited to dense living--leading to low-rise, low-density living, further exacerbating automobile dependence and environmental protection or the formation of significant, quality buildings that will stand as "historic" in future generations.

Glaeser has no problems in calling out those who hold themselves in high-esteem as preservationists, environmentalists, or NIMBYists. On observing that historic districts in Manhattan are 74% wealthier than other areas, Glaeser points out that the restricted supply seems aimed at keeping out the "riff raff" (p. 150). Glaeser firmly maintains that "communities should not have the power to completely prevent construction, by restricting heights or imposing excessive regulations, lest local communities become NIMBYist enclaves" (p. 162). Note that Glaeser is not against preservation at all--in fact, he encourages preservationists to identify areas where growth can occur that is efficient and green which does not disturb remarkable, historic sites. Glaeser excoriates "alleged environmentalists who suffer from the Lorax fallacy and fight high-density development close to urban cores in order to preserve local green spaces are ensuring that development will move to the exurban fringe and that people will drive more" (p. 221). The advocates for limiting development in the San Francisco Bay Area are not environmental heroes based on their arguments for the scarcity of water. Agricultural water could be used for cities, and agriculture could be done in areas with better natural rainfall, rather than subsidizing it (p. 211). Environmentalists who want to block a project, should evaluate the environmental impact if the project is NOT built--where will the development be built, and what will the environmental impact be if it is built there? (p. 212). Glaeser emphasizes that any restrictions of housing or development supply are expressed elsewhere--so while the preservationists and environmentalists might be smug about saving a local site, the bad effects are truly global:

"... the sprawl of the sort that Houston embodies has been encouraged by mistaken public policies. The fault with Houston's growth doesn't lie in the area itself, but elsewhere, in more temperate and economically productive places that have used regulations to stymie development and make housing unaffordable.... The fault lies in our policies and regulations, which have created incentives that force too many Americans to leave our cities" (p. 196).
Moreover, the elite, preserved sites with restricted growth are notoriously expensive. All the while, places that are affordable are derided by these same elites. For example, the Levittown development on Long Island "drove highbrow critics like The New Yorker's Lewis Mumford to fits of literary condescension, the town's low prices and relative opulence made it wildly popular with ordinary folks" (p. 175). Simple housing affordability in Houston may seem boring, but Glaeser compares the wealth of a Staten Island family to a Houston family and finds "The Houston family is 58% richer" (p. 187), mainly due to the inexpensive housing. He pleads that "cities on America's coasts want to compete more effectively with Texas, then they must figure out how to become more accessible to ordinary people" (p. 188), notably by fostering affordable housing.

Glaeser also calls out fake green developments like The Woodlands in Texas which is full of "trees and energy-efficient homes, but homeowners drive so much that they undo most of those environmental benefits" (p. 182). The problem is that fake green environmentalism that is far from transit and daily, walkable features shows the terrible "unintended consequences of environmentalism" (p. 210). Glaeser concludes that "more Americans should live in denser, more urban environments" (p. 210) and that rural ecotowns are not green (p. 217).

A good way to understand Glaeser's main points in this book is to look at how he asks us to "... eliminate the barriers that artificially constrain the blossoming of city life" (p. 249). This "blossoming" is dynamic. Cities change. Cambridge, MA got over the collapse of its candy industry and reinvented itself as a research and education hub (p. 235) while NIMBYism often destroys chances for change (p. 261). This "blossoming" requires a focus on people: Helping poor people is an appropriate task for government, but helping poor places and poorly run businesses is not" (p. 250). This "blossoming" requires a focus on the "urban basics": unsafe streets and bad public schools and long commutes will trump any city advantage (p. 260). This "blossoming" recognizes that "[t]he enduring strength of cities reflects the profoundly social nature of humanity" (p. 269). Social nature means that "electronic access is no substitute for being at the geographic center of an intellectual movement" (p. 248), and that these geographic centers must support human interaction--"people living, working, and thinking together..." (p. 270).

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©