Triumph of the City

Triumph of the City is an unabashed apologia of cities and metropolises. Edward Glaeser finds the good in even the most squalid, stinking slum. Because he claims that it is still better than the alternative. Urban poverty is abhorrent to watch, but rural poverty is brutal. And people living in the slums in a developing country don’t have a plane ticket to a European country with social security as an alternative. Their alternative is suffering and dying in the countryside. Where we don’t have to see it. Why is there so much poverty in these metropolises? Because it still draws people who want to impriove their lives. The abject poverty isn’t a sign that cities are failing, it’s a sign that cities are working.

Cities provide proximity and density. People work together, they invent together, they build knowledge together. All of that happens more when other people are around. Many people.

Density brings its own problems. Crime and pollution grow when cities get denser (see also The SimCity Planning Commission Handbook). Fix that! Do not fight density itself. Dense cities are generally better for the environment, as well. People need less infrastructure, less energy, waste disposal is more efficient, as is public transport, when many people live in a relatively small area.

Glaeser is very clear on one thing: cities aren’t necessarily better when they are larger. More housing, more infrastructure than the citizenry needs or is able to support is worth nothing. He is contemptuous about politician’s attempts to build their cities out of decline. The sports stadium won’t turn things around. The skyscraper won’t turn things around.

He isn’t heartless, though, and he attempts to soften the edge of what he’s writing. Help poor people, not poor places. Spend money on people, not on senseless building. When a city declines and people move elsewhere it may be sad for the city itself, but it’s almost always better for the people moving.

Glaeser has a few choice words for environmentalists who dream about the buconic idyll. “When environmentalists stop development in green places, it will occur in brown places.” “If people really could be counted upon to act like fifteenth-century rural peasants, then rural ecotowns could be extremely green.” “If you love nature, stay away from it.”

His analyses are economy-driven, so the book may not be the final word on the matter. But economy does have interesting contributions to offer: how do we know that density helps with innovation? Because patents cite other patents from the same city more often than patents from other cities, even when you’re controlling for citing the same company. Why is the American population concentrated on both seaboards? Because at the beginning of the 19th century it cost just as much to move goods across the Atlantic ocean as moving it 30 miles inland from there.

His big question is: What will India do? What will China do? Because if the developed, industrial countries cannot offer a plausible path out of our unsustainable way of living, India and China with its billions of people will not choose more wisely.