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

Edward Glaeser

Review by: H. Blount Hunter

Tirumph of the CityTriumph of the City, by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, is based on a premise well-understood by IDA members: cities are the original and most enduring “social networks.” Long before Facebook and Linkedin, people who gathered in cities could share ideas and innovations.Cities are fertile environments for creativity.

Glaeser provides evidence that cities remain viable as long as they attract human capital. “To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively.” Throughout history, cities have attracted people seeking better futures. Migration from rural areas to cities occurred when gains in agricultural productivity freed people from farming. International immigration—made possible by improvements in transportation—enables entrepreneurs to seek new opportunities in urban areas.

“Cities, the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace. The streets of Florence gave us the Renaissance, and the streets of Birmingham gave us the Industrial Revolution. The great prosperity of contemporary London and Bangalore and Tokyo comes from their ability to produce new thinking. Wandering these cities—whether down cobblestone sidewalks or grid-cutting cross streets, around roundabouts or under freeways—is to study nothing less than human progress.”

Glaeser’s observations about American cities are informed by his global perspective. Comments about urban poverty, sprawl, sustainability, and the role of choice in determining place of residence are thought-provoking.

Addressing the topic of urban poverty, Glaeser quotes Plato: “any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich.” Poverty does not necessarily define cities as places of inequality and deprivation; cities do not have poverty because cities make people poor but because cities typically attract poor people with the prospect of upward mobility. In past centuries and in the current era of the highly mobile “creative class,” people have been drawn to urban areas because cities offer advantages they didn’t have in their previous homes. In most cases, newcomers succeed and move forward economically since cities are “diversified portfolios of employers” that provide a wide range of jobs at varying levels of skills. “The best cities have a mix of skills and provide pathways for those who start with less to end up with more.” Cities decline when they cease to offer employment opportunities; people remain in poverty when they are disconnected from economic opportunity.

Thriving cities share a single common aspect: they attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively. As others have also observed, people are increasingly choosing where to live on the basis of pleasure as well as productivity. Glaeser refers to cities with high levels of amenities as “consumer cities.” “The growing importance of the consumer city should serve mainly to keep civic leaders focused on doing the basic job of local government: policing the streets and improving public schools. Restaurants and theaters are also attractions, but they are neither as critical as safety and schools nor as amenable to governmental intervention. Those amenities come naturally in a thriving city….Today, New York residents are actually willing to pay a premium to enjoy its pleasures….There is every reason to think that an increasingly prosperous world will continue to place more value on the innovative enjoyments that cities can provide. The bottom-up nature of urban innovation suggests that the best economic development strategy may be to attract smart people and get out of their way.”

Sprawl occurs when and where new forms of transportation allow for extended personal mobility. Street car suburbs developed along transit lines in many cities in the 19th century while the 20th century’s development patterns were impacted by the automobile. Rapidly developing countries such as China and India are poised to replicate some of America’s development patterns as citizens gain sufficient wealth to purchase automobiles. Especially in the U.S., older cities must compete with car-oriented areas that offer amenities and benefits including affordable housing costs and “better quality” public school systems. As the true costs of sprawl are identified, public policies that foster suburbanization may be re-evaluated.

Policies that support urban density provide a framework for accommodating all of the people who wish to live in a city. Over-regulation of residential development and anti-growth sentiments are the enemies of positive urban density to the extent that they impact the affordability of housing and interfere with market forces of supply and demand. “The growth in housing supply determines not only prices but the number of people in a city….construction restrictions tie cities to their past and limit the possibilities for their future.”

Cities are greener than suburbs based upon empirical measures of carbon emissions. Denser cities would reduce the need for residential construction at the edges of urban areas. Glaeser chastises “environmentalists” who prevented development in temperate areas for contributing to development in less-temperate climates—especially areas require air conditioning for comfort. Land use policies that require large lot sizes also make non-urban areas less green than cities. “High costs of land restrict private space, and density makes car use less attractive. Urban living is sustainable sustainability.”

The book’s subtitle “How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier” clearly states the author’s central theme. Many of Glaeser’s points have been made by other urbanists, yet the author’s positive perspective reminds us that the ultimate triumph of the city is enabling the benefits of people living, working, and thinking together. As IDA members working to enhance the functionality of Downtown areas, we are at the forefront of creating great places for people to congregate and prosper.