Book Review: Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

Triumph of the City:
How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Healthier and Happier
By Edward Glaeser
Penguin Press; 352 pp; $29.95


The city, Rousseau once suggested, is "the abyss of the human species." And while that judgment represents a fairly 18th century view of the squalor of industrial life, present examples don't necessarily dispute it. Many metropolitan areas have developed into dense grids of humanity surrounded by soulless office parks and a few nice, leafy streets where the nouveau riche can buy heavily fortified townhouses—or high-rise apartments with a fitness center in the basement. All amid a cluster of Starbucks (SBUX).

Yet this, according to Edward Glaeser, can be a good thing. Triumph of the City, the Harvard University economics professor's deeply researched manifesto on the importance of urban life to, among other things, business and innovation, suggests the most important investment in any city is human capital—or, more simply, population. While Glaeser isn't immune to professorial verbiage—"the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human," he serenades—his book convincingly argues that concentrated populations can have "magical consequences." They've fostered the sort of macro networks that helped foment communities from Shakespeare's London to Sergey Brin's Silicon Valley. A steady infusion of human capital helped transform New York City from a manufacturing hub into the world's financial capital—just as the absence of human funds is reducing Detroit's stature, both psychically and economically.

The trouble, Glaeser writes, is that governments aren't helping these crucibles of innovation to thrive. Millions of Americans embrace the 'burbs because they offer affordable housing, better schools, and decent-sized backyards. However, Glaeser also believes the growth of suburbia typifies a nearsighted view of conservation. All that air-conditioning and driving comes at a cost. The environmentalists who've worked for laws that make it impossible to build in temperate regions such as coastal California have insidiously pushed the sprawl to the burgeoning cities of the Sunbelt—along the way facilitating a carbon emissions nightmare. The best way to persuade sprawling Indian and Chinese megalopolises to check their emissions starts with setting an efficient example in the U.S.

However, Glaeser isn't out to attack the Revolutionary Road idyll; instead, he's hoping to increase the number of options. While an admirer of Haussmann's boulevards, he points out one of the worst-kept secrets on the Upper East Side or in Nob Hill, Mayfair, and the 5th arrondissement: To a large extent, many cities are fast becoming provinces for the truly wealthy. Middle-class strivers can stand and gawk, but usually take the commuter train home. Glaeser's solution is simple: Where land is scarce, density becomes vital. Cities that cannot build out must build up. Freed from restrictive and Byzantine zoning regulations, Houston has built up and out to become the fourth-largest city in the U.S., he notes, all despite an unusually vile climate. Owing mainly to affordable housing and the availability of jobs, Glaeser calculates that—after taxes, housing, and transportation costs—an average family in high-density Houston is much better off than a comparable one in Queens or Staten Island. While not everyone will want to experience high-rise life, its availability should result in lower prices for all.

Cities, it seems, work a bit like hedge funds. To succeed, they need to be diversified and run by managers adept at raising capital. In Glaeser's appraisal, cities must also aim for a sweet spot that combines groovy nightlife (for the college-educated young professionals), good public schools (for the aspirational classes), and non-prohibitive zoning policies. From Bangalore to Vancouver, educational institutions and the freedom to build help produce the kind of successful hubs that attract human capital. As the success of former boomtowns Milan and Manchester suggest, decline is not inevitable so long as the coffers remain full. Human capital makes reinvention possible but complicated. Boston's emphasis on education, for example, allowed it to survive a transition from a port city to a mini-tech center. Detroit, Glaeser argues, suffered from too much specialization: Huge integrated car companies crowded out other ideas that could have fostered spinoffs long before disaster struck the Big Three.

The author's prescription for Detroit, as well as Buffalo and Leipzig, is to "shrink to greatness" by searching for fresh advantages. What if they fail? Well, that would be too bad, but Glaeser believes cities are about people, not places or buildings. Does it make economic sense to resurrect Detroit when the cost of building a house is greater than the reward from selling it? It could have been cheaper, he notes, to hand every household in New Orleans $200,000 after Hurricane Katrina rather than pump vast quantities of public money into rebuilding a city of waning economic significance. As disturbing as this may sound for New Orleanians, there exists a far more disturbing thought: Glaeser may be right. As the latest U.S. Census figures prove, the city's capital is disappearing in droves.

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