Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (Book Review)

A park with trees with a path and a city in the background.

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I have written a number of posts where I complain about Edward Glaeser. Being a heritage activist, I have objected to his attitudes about preservation. Being a Torontonian, I have resented his criticism of our sainted Jane Jacobs. Being a supporter of urban farming, I was appalled by his article in the Boston Globe.

But since his book, Triumph of the City, came out in February, he has been everywhere, the contrarian for hire, attacking the conventional wisdom. I thought that if I was going to keep complaining about him, I had better read his book.

Glaeser goes beyond Richard Florida's "Cities are hip" and David Owen's "Cities are green." His premise is stated in the subtitle, that cities make us "Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier." He also thinks that cities should be denser and cheaper; the more people, the better. He is an economist, and not a sentimentalist. That is the root of his problem with preservation; those leafy old low-rise neighbourhoods restrict the supply of housing and increase its cost. As for Jane Jacobs, she thought saving old buildings would preserve affordability, whereas her cheap Greenwich Village apartments of 50 years ago are now only affordable for hedge fund managers. He writes:

Preservation isn't always wrong- there is much worth saving in our cities- but it always comes at a cost.

He has a point; Paris, London and Manhattan are lovely to look at, but only the very rich can afford to live there. However, one might ask if the rich would still want to live there if it looked like Houston.

Glaeser correctly notes that transportation technologies have always determined urban form, and that the current car-based model is an environmental disaster. But there are good reasons that people do it:

Exoriating the exurbs is a popular intellectual pastime, but the people who move to the suburbs aren't fools. The friends of the cities would be wiser to learn from Sunbelt sprawl than to mindlessly denigrate its inhabitants.

In fact, Glaeser points out that for many people, living in the suburbs is cheaper and more convenient, thanks to an elaborate and mostly free highway system, convenient and free parking, and subsidized home ownership courtesy of mortgage interest deductibility. In much of America, commuting by car is faster than any other mode. It is such a rational thing to do that Glaeser himself, like David Owen before him, writes about the Triumph of the City while living in the suburbs.

There is a lot in this book makes me crazy. Glaeser wants to remove restrictions that prevent people from building just about anything, anywhere, suggesting that this will increase density in our cities and reduce the cost of housing. In fact, it would probably have the opposite effect, as greenbelts and protected lands get chewed up for more sprawl; we would probably just get Houston, everywhere. He thinks knocking down all those five storey buildings and replacing them with 40 storey buildings will reduce our carbon footprint, when in fact in so much of New York and other cities, there are vast areas of one and two storey buildings that could be replaced with five storey buildings. New York isn't just Manhattan, and its overall density is rather low when you average it over all of the boroughs. There is a lot of room to grow without demolishing Greenwich Village.

But he also attacks the anti-urban bias in federal policies, from infrastructure investment to income tax, and calls for a carbon tax. It adds up to a powerful argument for a sort of free-market environmentalism: If people had to pay the true cost of the carbon they emit, then they would live where they emit the least carbon, which is in cities.

Glaeser summarizes the entire book in one powerful paragraph in the introduction; all the rest is commentary.

The strengh that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization's success and the primary reason why cities exist. To understand our cities and what to do about them, we must hold on to those truths and dispatch harmful myths. We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city's physical past. We must stop idolizing home ownership which favours suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire to be near on another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.

I am not persuaded; I rather think that flesh comes and goes, but that great buildings, and great cities, endure. But I am impressed.