Review – Triumph of the City

Triumph of the City
How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier
Edward Glaeser, PhD

In his widely acclaimed book, Dr. Glaeser extolls the virtues of large cities, in fact the bigger the better.  He explores how residents of the largest cities are healthier, wealthier, smarter, more productive, and greener than folks living in smaller places.

In his 270-page book, the author takes us on a tour of several of the world’s largest and most important cities to tell their story and help us understand what makes some cities thrive, while others (like Detroit) fail.

However, Dr. Glaeser is an economist, not an urbanist, and his examples and arguments seem simplistic and naïve when one is familiar with the forces influencing urban development.  He falls back on the popular practice of cherry-picking certain examples which illustrate his point.

For example, he uses Silicon Valley as an example of how Stanford University acted as a catalyst for the development of the semiconductor and then the computer industry.  But he fails to reconcile that fact that this modern metro area succeeds in spite of the lack of density which supposedly facilitates all-important interpersonal relationships in large cities.  You can’t walk anywhere and you rarely meet anyone by accident in the Valley, which has almost nothing in common with high-rise cities such as London and New York.  How does it succeed despite this handicap?  Dr. Glaeser doesn’t say.

The author also states that Detroit died because automation rewarded unskilled workers, which resulted in stagnation and loss of creativity.  He fails to consider that as the U.S. standard of living rose and cheaper labor became available elsewhere in the world, it resulted in the move of U.S. manufacturing first to Japan, then in Korea and other low-cost countries.  When he states “the age of the industrial city is dead, never to return,” he ignores the huge city-factories in China and elsewhere which are a relatively recent phenomenon.

The author has some odd notions about urbanism, which probably result from concentrating on the economic rather than societal aspects
of place.  Here are some examples….

  • Rather than rebuild New Orleans after Katrina, he suggests simply giving each resident $400,000 (the per-capita cost of reconstruction) and let them invest in their community or move somewhere more desirable.
  • He states the abundant supply of new housing in Texas is what kept housing prices from rising out of control between 2002 and 2006, a situation created by permissive regulation.  (Actually, Texas home prices were kept in check by tight mortgage regulations at the state level, putting a cap on the easy credit found else around the United States.)
  • Restricting development under the guise of preservationism inhibits the city from growing as much as possible, and ideally as tall as possible in order to affordably accommodate more people.  “Preservationists can be the great enemies of change… their power must be checked.”
  • According to Dr. Glaser, a city’s quality of life is easy to quantify, if you’re an economist.  Simply find the places which have the highest cost of living relative to their average income, and you have the best places to live.  Every city apparently has the same foundation of economic, social and cultural factors which allow their appeal to be calculated by a single simple metric.
  • He reveals the “single factor which most influences urban growth” – January temperatures (“Americans do seem to love warm weather.”)  Dr. Glaeser seems consumed with the burden of living in a cold climate, mentioning it many times and citing it as a reason for Detroit’s collapse and why Silicon Valley is so expensive (“…rich, smart people who are willing to pay some of the country’s highest housing prices to live in that climate…”).  Really, he is obsessed about the overwhelming appeal of warm winters, which apparently exerts an influence over many of our most important decisions.  There are continual references throughout the book on the lure of warmer climates and our common urge to flee the cold.

Most worrisome, Dr. Glaeser falls into the trap of confusing correlation with causation.  The sub-title of book is a good example – “How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier”.  Are we really made richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier by living in a city, or does living in a city merely attract and retain residents with those characteristics?  The poor and unsuccessful soon find themselves unsuited for city life and move on to a place which is more accommodating oftheir skills.

Finally, Dr. Glaeser admits that he has recently chosen to move out of the city, onto a four-acre spread in the suburbs around Boston.  In his defense, he says he was pushed into  this decision through unsound governmental policies which subsidize his daily commute on the interstate, provide a mortgage deduction on his taxes, and offer good schools in the suburbs but not in the city.  “Big cities attract poor people for many good reasons, but educating the children of poorer parents creates stresses for urban school systems.”  “A public monopoly that must struggle to provide the basics to hundreds of thousands of less fortunate children will naturally have trouble providing first-rate education for upper-middle-class parents.”

I guess all the discussion about the dynamism, energy and interaction of large cities is fine, as long as this is all in the abstract and your children don’t have to mix with poor kids.


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