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BOOK REVIEW: Triumph of the City

TRIUMPH OF THE CITY: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

Edward Glaeser, The Penguin Press, 2011, 338 pp

Triumph of the City provides many insights into how cities work and how cities generally bring out the best of mankind.

An underlying theme of this book is that cities magnify humanity’s strengths.  They enable us to learn from one another and their achievements benefit the world.

Edward Glaeser examines how cities have evolved over time, explores the impact that various policies have on cities, and argues that the success of a country depends on the heath and wealth of its cities.

The first chapter uses Bangalore, India as a case study to explain why it has thrived as a city.  He writes:

The success of places like Bangalore is not only about international intellectual connections.  These cities create a virtuous cycle in which employers are attracted by the large pool of potential employees and workers are drawn by the abundance of potential employees.  So firms come to Bangalore for the engineers, and engineers come for the firms.  Urban scale also makes it easier for workers to move from job to job.  In highly entrepreneurial industries, workers get ahead by hopping from firm to firm.

Glaeser goes on to compare and contrast Bangalore with Silicon Valley, raising the question: “Can the Valley’s software experts continue to offset their isolation from the rest of American industry by occasionally importing smart, experienced outsiders?”

triumphofcity

The second chapter explains why cities decline.  Glaeser believes that Detroit’s decline, although extreme, is hardly unique; in fact, eight of the ten largest U.S. cities in 1950 have lost at least a sixth of their population since then.  And six of the sixteen largest cities in 1950 have lost more than half their population since that year.

Similarly, European cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow, Rotterdam, Bremen, and Vilnius are all much smaller than they once were.

In 1900, all 20 of America’s largest cities were on major waterways.  That was the result of what Glaeser refers to as the globalization of that era: advances in waterborne commerce. As transportation costs fell with canals and railroads, cities like Chicago and Detroit grew as nodes of the great rail and water networks.

By the 1950s, however, many cities started shrinking as the advantages they once got from their ports and rail yards became far less important because other areas had also acquired easy access to world markets. Glaeser writes:

Before World War II, companies put up with high labor costs in Northern cities because the transport network made it so much easier to buy raw materials and ship final products.  As transport costs plummeted, it became cost-effective to locate in cheaper places: suburban factories, like River Rouge, Southern right-to-work states, and China.  At the same time, the rise of the car made older cities built around trains and elevators seem obsolete.

Regarding Henry Ford’s great hope of 1970 (the Renaissance Center), he writes that “Henry Ford II somehow thought that Detroit could be saved by a vast structure with millions of square feet of new office space.  Unfortunately, new space was not what Detroit needed in those years.  The Center cost $350 million to build but was sold to General Motors for less than $100 million in 1996.”

The third chapter explores the slums.  That chapter begins by analyzing the slums of Rio de Janeiro.  Glaeser argues that the presence of poverty in cities from Rio to Rotterdam reflects urban strength, not weakness.  He states that “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.”

An interesting part of that chapter is where he explains how cities are divided into zones.  Glaeser writes, for example, that “New York, Boston, and Philadelphia have four transit and income zones: an inner zone (like central Manhattan or Beacon Hill) where the rich commute by foot or public transit, a second zone (the edges of New York’s outer boroughs, or Roxbury in Boston) where the poor commute by public transit, a third zone (Westchester County or Wellesley) where the rich drive, and an outer zone comprising distant areas where less wealthy people live and drive.”

The fourth chapter explains many of the costs associated with urbanization and how various cities have dealt with those negative externalities.

Regarding Mumbai, he writes, “The streets are unpaved.  Sewage lines, when they exist, often spill into water lines.  There are supposedly more than a thousand inhabitants for every working toilet, so it is common to see people defecating in the streets.”

He explains how New York City went through similar problems, albeit in the 1800’s when, for instance, New York City would “occasionally lose more than a half a percent of its population to an epidemic during a given year, double the death rate in a normal year, as it did during the 1832 cholera epidemic.”

Yet by 1896, according to Glaeser, there were almost 1,700 public water systems in the United States, and municipalities were spending as much on water as the federal government spent on everything except the military and the postal service.

That chapter analyzes various social costs such as the lost time that we impose on every other driver when we overuse the highways and the crime explosion of the 1960’s and explains how solutions to these sorts of problems have evolved over time.

Chapters five and six focus on the cities of London and Paris as well as a few others.  The completely different visions of urban development of Paris and New York are explored in great detail.

Paris was built from the top down.  “The emperor had his vision, and his bureaucrat-baron made it so.”  By contrast, New York’s skyline was made by thousands of relatively unregulated builders putting up whatever the market would bear.

A regulation in France, for example, imposed a height limit of 83 feet in central Paris, a restriction that the author claims remains in effect as of 2010.

The next chapter identifies various factors that have impacted sprawl.

“President Eisenhower dramatically deepened the federal government’s commitment to highways – a commitment that lives on to this day.  Mobility is often crucial to military success, which may explain why generals are often keen on improving transportation.  General Washington was passionate about canals, and General Eisenhower loved highways.  With some cause, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system has been called the largest public works project in history,” writes Glaeser.

That chapter also identifies the biggest public home-ownership subsidy of all as being the tax deductibility of mortgage interest.

According to the author, this began not as a housing policy but as a by-product of the general deductibility of interest expenses and ended up encouraging people to leave the cities.

Chapter eight examines the amount of carbon emissions that come from building a typical new home in different parts of the country, explains the unintended consequences of environmentalism, evaluates various policies designed to change behavior, and identifies the most important battle [related to Carbon emissions] as greening India and China.

Glaeser states that “If carbon emissions in India and China rose to American per capita levels, the world’s carbon consumption would increase by 139 percent, even if their population stayed the same.”

And he concludes by stating that “it’s essential that we encourage these countries to keep their carbon emissions at the more modest European levels rather than emulating current American energy use and development patterns.”

Chapter nine, the final chapter, pulls everything together and explains why cities succeed.  Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai are routinely highlighted as cities that succeeded by investing in education, balancing free-market capitalism and state-led industrialization, and having both sensible policies and reliable legal institutions.

This book is a great book for anyone who wants to look at cities through multiple lenses as well as to better understand the impacts that various policies in the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation the environment, and even income taxes, have had on urban areas.

Ryan Peckyno

Ryan graduated from West Point (BS) and Penn State, Main Campus (MBA). He worked for P&G, Lockheed Martin, the United States Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Motley Fool, Pinnacle Consulting, and various nonprofits.

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