I just finished Edward Glaeser's book, Triumph of the City, on the history of urbanism and the importance of cities in the twenty-first century. The book covers an enormous amount of ground, although unfortunately, its breadth restricts an in-depth examination of many of the book's topics. Nonetheless, the book was filled with a number of insights that I thought were particularly interesting.
The value of in-person contact has increased while the cost of distance communication has decreased
With the advent of Facebook, Skype, and Twitter, Gleaser notes that it is easier than ever to engage with others from all the way across the world. Yet, the premium people are willing to pay to live in cities has only increased this past decade. It seems strange that we could live in the woods and telecommute, yet many of us instead choose to live in dense apartments with little greenery or sunlight.
Glaeser argues that the value here is serendipity -- cities provide random encounters that greatly increase our own human capital. He argues, mostly persuasively, that the rise of artistic movements came from the close (geographically) collaboration of artists in certain schools, and such agglomerations are typical of many of today's industries like internet start-ups in Silicon Valley. Such osmosis of new ideas is simply not possible with the communication technologies we have in our service today.
What I think is truly interesting though, is that people don't choose to live in the suburbs instead of the city, but rather move to other cities and telecommute. When I worked at Google, we had people from New York City and Tel Aviv working on my team, and we had fewer than a dozen members working on my product at the time. Communication technologies disproportionately benefit the urban dweller, and thus it is not surprising that they would encourage even deeper connections in between cities.
Despite their horrific nature, slums in urban areas are often better for poorer people than rural areas
This one was quite surprising, and I am not completely convinced about it. Glaeser argues that the number of urban poor continues to skyrocket because cities offer qualitatively better opportunities than the countryside does, in a sort of economics explains social movements theme. He buttresses this argument with a wealth of statistics, which given the format of the book, are not fully fleshed out (specifically, the book lacks a real micro-level treatment of the urban poor -- Glaeser relies mostly on averages as his evidence which is not as convincing).
These issues aside, this theme makes an important point: the power of visual evidence can mask the truly heartbreaking scenes in the countryside where the level of poverty can be even more shocking than what is witnessed in cities. Sometimes the most powerful stories are the ones least reported, since the lack of access is a symptom of the underlying poverty problem itself. While it can be hard to look at the many issues facing the poor in a city like Lagos, Nigeria, their issues would multiply in the largely lawless regions surrounding the city.
Building up is more environmental than merely preserving old architecture
Glaeser became the most vocal on the issue of historical preservation and NIMBYism, arguing aggressively and persuasively that cities are at their most functional when they are dynamic and changing. He doesn't believe that destroying the city center of Paris is viable, but rather that cities must find ways to allow more people to enjoy their benefits, even if that means removing some buildings from the last century. His model city in this regard is Chicago, which has continued to the present day to develop its waterfront property along Lake Michigan, while he castigates New York City for preserving tens of thousands of buildings with little sense of the needs of the city.
His most persuasive point, though, is that the "greenest" areas in the country are preventing more residents from moving in, forcing these migrants to move to areas of the country that are far more brown in their orientation. Coastal California and New York City are some of the most efficient areas in the country for energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, yet due to their development policies, new residents are swayed to move to places like Houston or Phoenix in order to find affordable housing. That doesn't make sense, and Glaeser is incisive in his criticism on modern progressive environmentalists who prefer historicism over practicality.
Miles traveled on freeways increase 1:1 with miles built
I knew this from a regional planning class, but still, it is a fascinating problem at the heart of building modern urban transit systems. As governments build additional transit infrastructure, particularly freeways, there is an equal increase in use by the public to take advantage of the new resource. For instance, adding lanes to a highway may literally add capacity, but the analysis of the project often fails to take into account citizens who will decide to use the highway but previously had not (in other words, people are dynamic, and make decisions based on current traffic conditions).
Solving this problem is simple, if politically unpalatable in the United States. Congestion pricing -- charging for road usage based on the current rate of traffic -- brings the social cost of driving back to the driver. Such systems are in wide use in Singapore, where traffic has moved quickly for decade despite incredible levels of density. Indeed, one of the interesting pieces to this policy is that the public is usually quite opposed until they experience the faster roads -- and then perceptions begin to change regarding the proposal's benefits.
Overall, the book is impressive and is recommended if not for the in-depth economics discussions, than at least for its level of coverage of the myriad issues facing cities today.
Posted on October 15, 2012