Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser (Review)

I heard of this book in a column by David Brooks: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser.  I ordered it from the library and was the very first person to get the book!  Brooks had said it was a great book, and after reading it, I concur.

Glaeser’s premise is that human beings are best when they are close together, that cities provide the lifestyle that brings humans closer together, and that “cities magnify humanity’s strengths.”  The answer to many of our country’s problems, he concludes, is to encourage people to live in cities, to encourage cities to build taller buildings to fit more people, and to not limit urban growth.  Glaeser brings an excellent background history on several cities including New York and Detroit, and he talks at length about why cities fail and why they thrive.

There were a number of interesting points in the book.

1. The biggest takeaway for me was his point that people are best when densely packed together.  He attributes this to the fact that they are able to exchange ideas quickly when in close proximity.  Glaeser makes the point that the internet and teleconferencing are no substitute for face to face exchanges, which is why even Silicon Valley tends to be the hub of computer innovation, and they have companies and corporate buildings; they don’t just have all their workers telecommuting from far off places around the country, even though such telecommuting is technologically possible.

This was a welcome and hopeful message.  It shows that there is value in face to face contact, and that talent will always congregate in certain places, meaning that there will be jobs available in the U.S. even if outsourcing to India is cheaper.  Now some jobs will get outsourced, but creativity can still find a home in American cities.

Glaeser also made the point that people travel to places like Boston and the Bay Area to find meaningful work, and that companies open in places like Boston and the Bay Are because they know they’ll be able to find talent in those places.  It’s a hopeful message in these pessimistic times.

2. I found his analysis of Detroit interesting.  A point he makes is that Detroit failed because the car companies had lots of uneducated laborers rather than educated professionals working.  Because they were uneducated, there wasn’t a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, and therefore they were unable to progress.  This advice flies in the face of my previous assertions that education is oversold, but it makes sense.

Glaeser also uses Detroit to illustrate his point that fancy buildings and good transportation don’t help a city if the fundamentals of economic prosperity are absent.  This might be relevant to the recent discussions about Chris Christie and the railway he rejected in New Jersey.  Glaeser talks about the decline of New Orleans too.  His recommendation is that certain cities have to die or decline in order to allow stronger cities that are better equipped for business to take a leadership role.

3. Glaeser writes about sprawl and urban growth, and how cities need tall buildings in order to pack more people into denser locations.  He references Green Metropolis and the eco-benefits of cities, and he writes about how sprawl is destroying the environment.  His answer is that the government needs to discourage driving by taxing either the roads or gas, and that they have to discourage home ownership by eliminating or reducing incentives like the home mortgage deduction, which in most cases go towards single family residences.  In other words, we need to be more like Europe, which has a far smaller carbon footprint per person due to their more eco-friendly lifestyles.

Lots of food for thought.  I was primarily interested in questions of cultures and how they develop in cities.  I don’t think he covered cultures, but he covered a lot of other interesting aspects of city life that I think people should take seriously.  Check it out.

4 thoughts on “Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser (Review)

  1. Look at Silicon Valley, it’s pretty suburban by ‘real city (SF, NYC)’ standards. yet very successful. Anyway, I used to be a very big city fan before seeing why so many people might choose suburbs instead (for important reasons too, not just because they’d been brainwashed into thinking ‘packed’ = bad). If it were the case that cities + transit were best, there wouldn’t be such a huge population growth in suburbs while city population is roughly the same (even in Europe, when I traveled I mainly saw the old dense cores but much of the new growth is in “American”-looking suburbs that I saw when visiting a friend’s family, the houses may be smaller but the premise is similar). And looking at a place like Silicon Valley driving is overwhelmingly the commuter choice even with so much money being put into trains and transit.

    and as your previous post mentioned, a lot of new Americans, often Latino or Asian immigrants are moving into ‘ethno-burbs’ rather than cities. Sure cities have their benefits but that doesn’t mean we should ‘incentivize’ them to the extreme. I think in the end oil usage won’t be reduced by changing suburbs into dense cities but more efficient autos. An interesting book I read on (kinda) suburbs was Edge City, it takes a very documentary view and doesn’t make much of an opinion. Other things I’ve read with a non-mainstream/’pro-suburb’ opinion include Joel Kotkin’s articles and things on the site newgeography.com, some of which talk about new cultures springing up in suburbs.

  2. Hi jaehwan, does the book touch on crime management and the building of social cohesion in cities, something that has been quite hard to do due to large transient populations?

  3. LA Steve,

    Thanks!

    It’s funny because like the author of Green Metropolis, Glaeser lives in the burbs too. He says that the government incentivized his move by subsidizing the highway that lets him get to work fast, providing the deduction, and creating policies that encourage better public schools in suburbs. (He also says he wanted more space and distance from his Harvard colleagues.)

    Glaeser is a bit vague in certain areas with respect to what is a dense city. He says that the most efficient city is San Diego (because people don’t have to use heat or AC on their homes), but San Diego is also quite “suburban” in style. I think he’s trying to pull different aspects from different cities in order to make general concepts of what makes a city run well.

    Raguel,

    Yes, he does talk about crime. His contention is that crime occurs in large part because poor people bring crime to the city, but he also says that it is natural and good for the poor to move to cities, since it proves that there are more opportunities in cities. He compares the low crime rate of Mumbai with the high crime rate of Rio and says that it’s due in large part to the presence of social spaces–the social cohesion that you asked about. He also references Steven Levitt’s abortion study (which I think is crazy), along with policing and broken windows theory.

  4. Pingback: The Stanford-Silicon Valley Connection | bigWOWO

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