The Sunday Review: Triumph of the City, by Ed Glaeser.

by Anthony Painter

The royal family is bad for growth. It was nice of them to have a wedding to showcase London and the UK. It undid some of the bad that they may have done. It is not the institution of the monarchy that is the problem. It’s the personage. In fact, it’s one individual – Prince Charles.

It is the heir to throne’s misguided interventions in protecting sight-lines and the like that have contributed to London’s failure to sufficiently grow upwards to facilitate growth, argues Ed Glaeser in Triumph of the City. The worst thing an economy can do is make successful cities unaffordable and constrained. That is the impact of the types of argument that the Prince of Wales deploys. Instead, we should celebrate, promote, invest in, enjoy, and believe in the city. Glaeser loves cities; he sees them as fundamental to the future of civilisation. Their story has barely even begun.

Triumph of the City achieves something exceedingly radical. It not only develops a powerful case for the city per se, it asks us to challenge our entire notion of what a city is. In Glaeser’s world, the city is not the physical structures of the built environment, but rather the human networks that create culture, value, love, ideas and opportunity. In this, he echoes the social urbanist, Jane Jacobs, though sees her as ultimately too small-scale and conservative.

Glaeser sums up his framework thus:

“We must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made from flesh, not concrete”.

The more dense the human networks the better. The more diverse they are, the more successful they become. Rather than limiting cities – the Prince Charles mindset – we should release them. In so doing, we release ourselves. This book is a love poem to urbanism. It is a celebration of freedom. It is a battle cry for human achievement and glorious future within the city for humanity.

Even taking into account education, experience and industry of workers, American cities are 50% more prosperous than small metropolitan areas. There is high poverty, but that is often because people who move to cities in search of opportunity are poor. Crime, disease, and pollution are part of a city’s life-cycle, but with leadership, investment and management this can and has been overcome. Technology, robust policing, and the innovation of community engagement has, for example, cleaned up New York. Simple things like putting female, minority police in community facing roles has improved police intelligence and enabled them to better combat crime.

Once these issues are confronted, cities become happier (people are less likely to take their own lives), wealthier, and environmentally more sound. People make more connections with others who are different to themselves – technology is a poor substitute in building trust compared with face to face engagement – and this creates fine art (fifteenth century Florence), a consumer and cultural paradise (today’s London), extraordinary wealth (New York), and new technological and educational advance (Bangalore).

And yet, cities can die. Glaeser is unsentimental about that. Single industry cities – like single crop countries – are particularly at risk. So Detroit declines as the US-owned car industry does. As automated container ports have taken over, so New Orleans, Baltimore and Liverpool suffered. One of the most successful cities of the last century – particularly the last few decades – has been Palo Alto, in Santa Clara County, California. Is its strength also its weakness like these other declining cities? Perhaps Santa Clara, otherwise known as Silicon Valley, will also perish on account of a lack of a diverse economy. It was a farm, then a university (Stanford), then a radio technology industry, then IT hardware, and then software. This tends to suggest that it is nothing if not adaptable. Nonetheless, it must beware.

What is to be done with a city in decline? Glaeser argues that we should see a societal duty for people but not structures. Don’t waste your time building expensive and uneconomic infrastructure and development as Detroit did with its monorail which now glides serenely over empty streets. Invest in education and give people a leg up on the housing market even if they leave town as a result. We should care about people not concrete, he argues. Like an inefficient and out-competed factory let unsuccessful cities downsize and potentially even close.

There is something to this, but this is the one element of the book that is a bit hard to swallow. Yes we should invest in people. But aren’t most people attached to places? If we give up on places then don’t we give up on people too? Glaeser becomes quite brutal in arguing that instead of rebuilding a hurricane-devastated New Orleans, the federal government should have spent the money on education and housing vouchers instead. Pride matters, and we can’t just let places rot – even if that is economically efficient. What matters to people should matter as much to society as what makes them more prosperous. Who knows: by believing in a city and investing in it, it can come to life once again. It happened to New York, Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Bilbao, and Barcelona after all.

Triumph of the City is meticulously researched – half the book is references- lively, affecting, and powerful. It forces us to reconceive the city and understand the human network basis of modern economic growth, learning, and culture. Our economy, environment, and civilisation depend on great cities. We need to do all we can to ensure that we don’t hold them back while neither ignoring those places that are struggling – people and places; because people are attached to places. And avoid vocal and misguided heirs to the throne. That is not good news at all.

Anthony Painter is an author and critic.

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One Response to “The Sunday Review: Triumph of the City, by Ed Glaeser.”

  1. Colm says:

    This guy is a self-evident psycho.

    He thinks we are reactionary twats if we prefer to live in the sterility of Edinburgh, Cambridge or Munich when we could have the excitement of Lagos, Karachi or Mexico City?

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