Monday, February 28, 2011
Triumph Of The City by Edward Glaeser
In America more than two thirds of us live on the 3% of land that makes up our cities. People in emerging nations are rushing to the cities from the rural life they have known. What is the draw? Glaeser makes the point that no matter what else a city does, its most important feature is the ability to concentrate people in a way that tends to lead to innovation and intellectual capital. Cities are breeding grounds for new technologies, new ideas, new synergies. The human capital provides growth material, while enriching the lives of those working there.
Along the way, Glaeser shows alternate ways of looking at things that many have taken for granted. Urban poverty is a real problem, but Glaeser also sees it as an opportunity. Poor people flock to cities because they provide more opportunity than their rural backgrounds ever could. The problem is not the number of poverty-stricken neighborhoods, but how a city works to provide services to those areas so the residents can take advantage of opportunities.
Rather than viewing cities as cesspools of pollution, Glaeser shows statistics that prove that cities are actually much less environmentally harmful than the suburbs. City residents live in smaller areas which take less energy to heat and light. They often do not have cars. Decisions to restrict building in cities, as is common with the building boards and restoration committee recommendations, actually leads to more harm to the environment overall. If growth doesn't occur in the optimum places, it will occur in less optimum ones.
He also believes that the push to keep buildings smaller has negative impacts that the proponents don't consider. Their emphasis is to prevent tall buildings that make the residents remote from their neighborhoods, and that block light from existing buildings. Again, Glaeser emphasizes that growth will occur. If enough housing is not available in the city, housing and eventually jobs will move elsewhere. He sees this as a factor in several declining cities. Also, some cities have done great PR jobs that leads one to consider them overbuilt when statistically, this has proved not to be true. For example, the cities of California have many fewer residents per acre than a city such as Houston or Atlanta where construction is encouraged. Glaeser believes this building restriction is short-sighted and leads to unintended consequences.
This book is recommended to readers interested in how cities work and what can be done to improve them. Glaeser surveys the history of cities, identifies what works and what doesn't and why some cities thrive while others dwindle. His emphasis is always on the human capital that makes cities viable, and insists that even in the era of high technology, high touch is even more important. This is a fascinating look at a subject that needs to be studied. The writing is engaging and the reader will understand this vital subject much better after reading Glaeser's work.