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Will cities lead the charge? Review of The Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

Will cities lead the charge? Review of The Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

The message of Edward Glaeser’s book is in the sub-title: ‘How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier’. ‘Aha’, you might think – depending on your preference: agriculture; universities; printing; penicillin; the internet; roll-on deodorant; cheese and onion crisps . . . Well, No. There’s a further clue to Glaeser’s thinking in the main title. His book is called ‘The Triumph of the City’. These ‘dense agglomerations’ (which is as close as we come to a definition) are engines of innovation, the epitome of human progress. Cities vary a great deal, as we discover towards the end of the book (the ‘imperial city’, the ‘smart city’, the ‘consumer city’); and some fail (step forward Detroit). But taken as a group, cities speed innovation, act as gateways between markets and cultures, provide opportunities for cultural enrichment – and, incidentally, provide a higher standard of living at a lower environmental cost than suburban or rural alternatives. I live in Brighton, which used to be only a town. But, hooray, we were declared a city by the Queen in 2000. I definitely feel richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier!

I don’t mean to mock. Glaeser makes a serious case. He traces his thinking back to the noted urbanist, Jane Jacobs, though manages to offer both gracious tributes and profound disagreements. Unlike Jacobs, for example, he strongly favours vertical development. Skyscrapers economise on land, help keep prices down, contribute to economic diversity at street level, and, because flats are smaller than houses, and because residents tend to use public transport, also help fight global warming. Mumbai and London both suffer, Glaeser argues, because they do not have enough skyscrapers. I might argue that he has not spent enough time walking (in Jane Jacobs-approved fashion) around the tower-block blighted estates on the periphery of Britain’s cities.

There are other surprises.

A first example. We err in thinking of urban poverty as a curse. In fact, Glaeser suggests, ‘the presence of poverty reflects strength not weakness . . . cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their lot in life’ (Pg 70). ‘Indeed’, he says, ‘we should worry more about places with too little poverty. Why do they fail to attract the least fortunate?’ (Pg 71).  There are special benefits to having a diversified portfolio of possible jobs and possible employers. New arrivals often struggle. Over time, however, they find a niche, accumulate human capital and earn more. Not every Irish immigrant to the US turned into a Kennedy, but immigrants to the ‘buzzing beehive’ have made and continue to make contributions to wider society – Dharavi, in Mumbai, for example, is a ‘teeming mass of humanity and entrepreneurship’ (Pg 93), and all the better for that. Cities thrive on diversity. Company towns, dependent on a single employer (Detroit again) are most at risk.

A second example. Innovation and cultural enrichment depend on face-to-face contact, whether in Athens in the fifth century BC, medieval Baghdad, Nagasaki in the nineteenth century, or Bangalore or Silicon Valley today.  The internet has not displaced inter-personal communication. ‘Ideas’, says Glaeser, ‘cross corridors and streets more easily than continents or seas’. (Pg 36). Just as Jevons argued that efficiency improvements lead to more, not less, consumption, improvements in communications technology can lead to more demand for face-to-face contact. Glaeser might have given his own name to this thought. Instead, deferentially, he calls it Jevons’ Complementarity Corrollary.

In case all this sounds too good to be true, Glaeser has plenty to say about disease, inner city crime, urban sprawl, and long term decline. The first Kennedy, Patrick, died of cholera. Murder rates increased 25% when city populations doubled. Between 1950 and 2008, Detroit lost over a million people, 58% of its population. Glaeser, though, is an economist, so doesn’t take these facts lying down. Policy can make the difference. One chapter (Ch 4) asks ‘how were the tenements tamed?’. Two final chapters ask how cities succeed. What do we learn?

From Chapter 4, we learn about the importance of public investment in clean water, sewerage, street cleaning, and policing. In Chapter 9, on how cities succeed, we learn about the different routes to success taken by cities as different as Tokyo, Singapore, Gaberone, Milan and Vancouver, each finding its niche in the ecology of cities. In Chapter 10, we come to the key policies:

  • First, create a level playing field in which cities can compete, reversing discrimination against them. An example is tax breaks for housing, which facilitate suburban sprawl.
  • Second, encourage open cities in a globalised economy, based on ‘the free flow of goods and services among nations’ (Pg 252) – and also the free flow of people. This is a plea for less protection.
  • Third, invest in education, doing so in a way which encourages competition and innovation. Glaeser is against state school monopolies.
  • Fourth, help poor people not poor places. In other words, when cities are in trouble, don’t invest in infrastructure or grandiose ‘urban renewal’, rather in the skills, health, and mobility of individuals: Glaeser is keen on managed decline.
  • Fifth, treat investment in core urban physical and social infrastructure as a national, not local responsibility. This will prevent the middle class from fleeing inner-city areas because of high taxes.
  • Sixth, support the arts and the other things that richer people want (in the US, it seems, ‘toleration of alternative lifestyles and a fun, happening downtown’ (Pg 260).
  • Seventh, simplify and liberalise planning, so as to encourage innovation and change (for which read, it seems, more selective preservation of old structures and more skyscrapers).
  • Eighth, introduce carbon taxes, so that suburban dwellers pay the true cost of driving home and heating their larger homes.

Get all this right, and Glaser is an optimist, and not just for the US. For China, and India and Brazil, ‘building cities is difficult . . . but our culture, our prosperity, and our freedom are all ultimately gifts of people living, working and thinking together – the ultimate triumph of the city. (Pg 270).

Does it all make sense – in developed countries, but more especially in developing? I hesitate to comment on the developed country material, but observe that, despite global pretensions, the book reads rather as if it is based on careful quantitative research in North America, supplemented by casual observation and anecdote from the developing world. That might be thought to make it robust as far as North America is concerned, but I can imagine many taking exception to the free-market orientation of the argument. For example, there has been much discussion of the success of President Obama’s rescue fund for the US motor industry, claimed to have saved a million jobs, many in Detroit. That does not sound consistent with Glaeser’s strictures on managed decline. I would like to have read more about integrated urban planning, about the creation of new towns – and, from a UK perspective, the problem of managing deindustrialisation in a country with fewer opportunities for, and more qualms about, large scale migration from rust-belt to sun-belt (Tyneside to Torquay?).

From a developing country perspective, it is easy to cavil. Glaeser may well underestimate the misery to be found in the slums of developing country mega-cities, and does not pick up on the active debate about relative living standards in rural and urban areas. He has an over-simplified model of rural-urban migration in developing countries, which, for example, under-estimates the importance of involuntary displacement. He does not seem to have heard of ‘urban bias’, an empirically-based theory about the economic and political power of cities that we imbibed with our Mothers’ milk – or at least by reading Michael Lipton. Glaeser could have done well to explore further the extensive development literature on the informal sector in urban areas. And it would have been interesting to test his policy prescriptions in countries with a different approach to municipal finance and urban planning: in China, for example, constructing a number of new, green cities, like Tianjin. Or how about Masdar in UAE?

Nevertheless, qualifications notwithstanding, there is something important about ‘dense agglomerations’, which do reduce transactions costs and facilitate exchange. Plus more than half the world’s population now lives in towns, and that proportion is growing. According to the UK Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddinton, China alone will be building a city larger than Sydney, Australia, every year until 2030. Cities may or may not be our greatest invention. They are certainly likely to be our most prominent legacy. We had better get policy right.

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