Triumph of the City

How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

Author: Review by Philip Langdon

A book by Edward Glaeser, Penguin Press, 2011, 352 pp., $29.95 hardcover

No law dictates that a person who writes about cities must actually live in one of them. Lewis Mumford spent much of his adulthood in a rural hamlet three counties north of New York City, yet Mumford produced some of the 20th century’s most illuminating urban analysis.

In the case of Edward Glaeser, though, the discord between what he prescribes in his writing and where he chooses to live is too jarring to let pass unremarked. A Harvard economics professor and father of three, Glaeser decided a few years ago to settle in a Boston suburb offering features such as “more living space” and “spongy lawns for toddlers to fall on.” Yet he wants to deprive many big-city dwellers of much of what makes them happy with their own considerably denser surroundings.

In Triumph of the City, Glaeser insists that cities must welcome great numbers of additional tall buildings. Only if New York willingly sacrifices some of its low-to-the-ground historic districts and lets a forest of 40-story or higher buildings sprout up will the city be doing right by its economy and by its carbon footprint, he contends.

“The failure of places like New York and San Francisco to build up has pushed Americans elsewhere, to places that embrace new construction,” he argues. That’s bad, he says, because it causes millions of people to move to hot, spread-out Sunbelt areas like Houston, where incessant driving and heavy use of air conditioning generate vast quantities of greenhouse gases. Coastal California and other temperate areas owe it to the nation to accommodate more of America’s population, Glaeser argues — even if this means converting many low-scale neighborhoods into high-rises and encouraging development on what are now environmentally protected lands.

The book looks at urban areas across the globe. Singapore wins praise because its regime —“among the most competent in the world,” according to Glaeser — “doesn’t stop tall buildings, and as a result, Singapore’s downtown functions well, because it’s tall and connected.” Mumbai, on the other hand, is criticized because its zoning has kept many structures to just a story or two, which Glaeser says makes living space too expensive and spreads out the population unnecessarily.

He would rather that the people of Mumbai be “housed by corridors of skyscrapers,” which he claims would “decrease the pressure on roads, ease the connections that are the lifeblood of a twenty-first-century city, and reduce Mumbai’s extraordinarily high cost of space.”

In many circles, Triumph of the City is being taken as a ringing endorsement of urban life. Glaeser does praise large, dense cities for bringing people together, where they can have face-to-face discussions that lead to invention, creativity, and economic betterment. He makes a strong case that having plentiful opportunities to meet with other bright people from one’s own and other industries results in breakthroughs that benefit nearly everyone.

“Within the United States, workers in metropolitan areas with big cities earn 30 percent more than workers who aren’t in metropolitan areas,” he says, later adding: “There is a near-perfect correlation between urbanization and prosperity across nations. On average, as the share of a country’s population that is urban rises by 10 percent, the country’s per capital output increases by 30 percent.” Moreover, “people report being happier in those countries that are more urban.”

He is adept at stringing together sprightly vignettes of urban places, from Detroit to Vancouver to Dubai. Woven into the text are mini-histories of the skyscraper, Levittown, Silicon Valley, Haussmann’s remarking of Paris, and many other developments. He sprinkles the pages with interesting fact after interesting fact.

I enjoyed my first couple of hours with this book, but the further I read, the more I was dismayed by contradictions that make Triumph of the City less a coherent urban vision than a collection of bombs and barbs tossed at historic preservationists, environmentalists, labor unions, government regulators, mass transit enthusiasts, and other seemingly benighted souls.

“Research on consumers’ tastes shows that people dislike time spent on mass transit more than time spent driving,” he says in one of his swipes at transit proponents. Could transit be improved to the point that it would be something most metropolitan residents would enjoy riding? Isn’t transit already gaining popularity (as rail systems grow in Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, the Twin Cities, and other metropolitan areas)? He doesn’t say. In some respects, he seems a spokesman for the suburban status quo. Says Glaeser: “Given the already vast investment in suburban infrastructure, I wouldn’t bet on Americans giving up their cars even if gas prices rise enormously.”

Glaeser lauds greater Houston for making housing affordable even for the “less successful,” by allowing huge numbers of dwellings to be built, unimpeded by regulatory obstacles. Between 2001 and 2008, Harris County, which includes Houston, permitted more than 200,000 new single-family houses — development that Glaeser says kept the price of the average owner-occupied housing unit in the Houston area at an economical level of about $120,000.

“Houston’s freewheeling growth machine has actually done a better job of providing affordable housing than all of the progressive reformers on America’s East and West coasts,” he asserts, adding: “If older cities with high prices are going to compete, then they must act more like Houston and allow more building.” But how wise is it to make Houston the nation’s model? At one point, Glaeser himself admits: “If the entire world starts looking like Houston, the planet’s carbon footprint will skyrocket.” Contradictions like these demand thoughtful, nuanced discussion. Glaeser provides too little of that.

“Many of our most  ‘progressive’ states and cities, supposedly the great champions of those with modest means, have become the least hospitable places for middle-income Americans,” he says — which to me seems misleading. In the Northeast, it’s suburbs, not cities, that have adopted large-lot zoning to keep out modest-priced housing. It might have been helpful if Glaeser had suggested ways of overcoming suburban resistance to compact and moderate-income development, but there was little chance of that. One of his phrases is: “There’s no sense in blaming the suburbs or the suburbanites.”

If you want a workable vision of how to foster urban communities that have enough density to be amenity-rich and environmentally responsible, but not so much crowding that they overwhelm daily life, read Patrick Condon’s Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities (reviewed in the Oct. 2010 New Urban News). Don’t bother with Glaeser’s collection of dubious notions from the land of spongy lawns.

Posted by Robert Steuteville on 15 Mar 2011