Title: "Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier "
Author: Edward Glaeser
Publisher: The Penguin Press, 2011; 352 pages; $29.95 hardcover, $14.99 e-book
Love and economics. Outside of marital economic conversations, like dowries, prenuptials and divorce settlements (and maybe even inside them!), the two seem to be strange conceptual bedfellows.
Apparently, someone forgot to mention this to economist Edward Glaeser, whose book "Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier" is a veritable love letter about the metropolis, laden with economic proof points that cities deserve not just Glaeser’s, but the undying affection of every world citizen — rich and poor, laborer and businessperson, suburban and rural alike.
Glaeser’s central theory — which he proceeds to prove and prove again throughout the book with vivid case studies of slums, skyscrapers, asphalt and sprawl from Detroit to Dubai, from Bangalore to Singapore — is that large cities the world over have a strong track record over history of improving the lot in life of both their residents and their fellow non-urban countrymen.
This, he holds, creates opportunity, economies of scale, and even concentrates brainpower at a scale and so efficiently and synergistically that citizens and residents become wealthier, up their intellectual games, live more eco-friendly lives, and on many other levels are happier and healthier than they would have been living elsewhere.
Glaeser is a Manhattanite, born and raised, so his love for cities does not surprise; most native urbanites I know, from Manhattan to London to Vancouver to San Francisco, need very little prodding to start reeling off the reasons they live, work and play in their town. Usually, this list includes a few names of restaurants, retail centers, a university, library or park, and a blurb or two about how diverse/creative/smart their neighbors are.
However, having personally grown up in a distant suburb with many semi-rural neighborhoods, only moving to an urban area as an adult, I was fascinated by Glaeser’s various economic/philosophical definitions of what exactly a city is that renders it worthy of his designation as humanity’s greatest invention.
In fact, that is a large part of what Glaeser does in "Triumph of the City" — he tweaks the most elemental way in which readers understand what a city actually is. Viewed though Glaeser’s learned, well-documented, inspired lens, a city is much more than buildings and people crammed together. In fact, one of his earliest definitions of a city is "the absence of physical space between people and companies," which facilitated factory productivity in the last century, and facilitates knowledge sharing today.
Throughout the love letter to and about cities that is "Triumph of the City," Glaeser defines and explores cities variously as hubs for productivity and prosperity, gateways to ideas and innovation; as people, not buildings; as cultural centers and luxury resorts; and as the home to slums that, while seemingly impoverished, actually offer economic, sanitation and health care opportunities to their residents totally unavailable to their non-urban counterparts.
Glaeser defines cities as the locations that power the lowest rates of gasoline consumption and lowest carbon footprints of any human living pattern.
He then segues into a sharp critique of seemingly "green" public policies mandating greenbelts and imposing "draconian" caps on urban development, as overly simplistic ("California would have more than enough water for its citizens if it didn’t use so much of it irrigating naturally dry farmland") and having the undesirable effects of keeping property prices prohibitively high for all but the elite economic classes and encouraging sprawl to the suburbs (and the corresponding, higher carbon footprints that go along with commuting and big suburban houses on big, grassy lots).
The book also offers a nuanced contrast between cities that work and cities that don’t. In fact, Glaeser uses the contrast between New York City — with its troubled past and triumphant present — and Detroit — with its troubled past and even more troubled present — to isolate and explore what he deems "the essential ingredients of urban reinvention."
It made me want to run for mayor — it seems there is a handbook for smart transformation of a city, and a set of cautionary tales about what doesn’t work, all to be found inside "Triumph of the City."
Whether you live in a city, troubled or triumphant, or are one of the millions of Americans whose disgust with $4-plus per gallon gas prices has you contemplating the sometimes intimidating move to your area’s big city, this book will restore your faith in what cities can be, and inspire and energize you to play your role in manifesting that possibility in your own city, if you choose to.