24 February 2012

Book Review: Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaser, ****

Singapore, 2012

America is an urban nation. More than two thirds of us live on the 3 percent of land that contains our cities. Yet cities get a bad rap: they're dirty, poor, unhealthy, crime ridden, expensive, environmentally unfriendly... Or are they?

As Edward Glaeser proves in this myth-shattering book, cities are actually the healthiest, greenest, and richest (in cultural and economic terms) places to live. New Yorkers, for instance, live longer than other Americans; heart disease and cancer rates are lower in Gotham than in the nation as a whole. More than half of America's income is earned in twenty-two metropolitan areas. And city dwellers use, on average, 40 percent less energy than suburbanites.

Glaeser travels through history and around the globe to reveal the hidden workings of cities and how they bring out the best in humankind. Even the worst cities-Kinshasa, Kolkata, Lagos- confer surprising benefits on the people who flock to them, including better health and more jobs than the rural areas that surround them. Glaeser visits Bangalore and Silicon Valley, whose strangely similar histories prove how essential education is to urban success and how new technology actually encourages people to gather together physically. He discovers why Detroit is dying while other old industrial cities-Chicago, Boston, New York-thrive. He investigates why a new house costs 350 percent more in Los Angeles than in Houston, even though building costs are only 25 percent higher in L.A. He pinpoints the single factor that most influences urban growth-January temperatures-and explains how certain chilly cities manage to defy that link. He explains how West Coast environmentalists have harmed the environment, and how struggling cities from Youngstown to New Orleans can "shrink to greatness." And he exposes the dangerous anti-urban political bias that is harming both cities and the entire country.

Using intrepid reportage, keen analysis, and eloquent argument, Glaeser makes an impassioned case for the city's import and splendor. He reminds us forcefully why we should nurture our cities or suffer consequences that will hurt us all, no matter where we live.


This is a persuasive book. Today many "green" thinking people consider cities a scourge, imposed on us by economic development but to be avoided if at all possible. In fact, cities are what made all progress in human history possible, what made us humans in the first place.

Glaeser discusses the merits of planning vs free market, and comes to the conclusions you need some of both. He cites many case studies of cities around the world, but I was left with the impression his picks of case studies was not methodical enough. Often it seems to have been dictated by where he lived.

Interesting to note that during the "dark ages" (about 1000 AD) Europe had only four "cities" with 50k+ people, and, besides Costantinople, the other three had Islamic rulers (Palermo, Seville, Cordoba), reflecting the predominant culture of the time. Cities have always been a conduit of cultural mix, and I was surprised to learn that as of 2008 half of New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home.

It is not obvious that asphalt covered cities with tall buildings that take light away from narrow streets are environmentally sounder than leafy suburbs with tree-lined roads, but the author makes a convincing case they are. The skyscraper is greener than the suburban home, as it takes less energy to heat and cool, to get there and away, to run its water piping and sewers.

And, perhaps less obviously, cities continue to be the focus of innovation even in the internet era, when some argue that multimedia communication makes physical meetings redundant.

1 comment:

  1. "The No Impact Project" accidentally makes a very good case for why skyscrapers are not green - you are dependent on an outside source for heat, ventilation, water, light, refrigeration and waste disposal. The failure of any one of these things can make people extremely uncomfortable or even kill them. The more I read these reviews the more I see cities as a trap to enslave the inhabitants to "the system," whatever that system might be (but in general a financial and political system). I do think high-density housing is good to a point, but not that point.


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