Friday, April 8, 2011

Excerpts: The Triumph of the City

The Triumph of the City

From "The Triumph of the City," by Edward Glaeser:

Open quote
Excoriating the exurbs is a popular intellectual pastime, but the people who moved to the suburbs weren’t fools. The friends of cities would be wiser to learn from Sunbelt sprawl than to mindlessly denigrate its inhabitants."

After the jump, my review and more excerpts.

The Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser, is an appeal to embrace cities for both economic and environmental reasons. Economically, cities have always been the sources of intellectual progress, productivity improvement and the economies of scale necessary for prosperity. Environmentally, cities' compactness reduces the energy used to heat and cool our homes and transport ourselves and our goods.

Despite all the good that cities bring, public policy in the US for decades has been antiurban, encouraging an exodus from cities and promoting suburban and exurban sprawl. Instead, Glaeser advises, we should eliminate the home mortgage interest deduction, quit subsidizing highways, impose a carbon tax, turn zoning codes upside down by encouraging building up, not out, and invest in human capital not infrastructure.

Glaeser is likely to tick off just about everyone with something or other he says. Environmentalism often doesn't solve problems, it just shifts environmental problems elsewhere. Historic preservation efforts hurt the middle class by driving up the price of housing. Cities do themselves no service by denigrating the good reasons that people choose to move to the suburbs.

This book is full of facts and stats. It tells the successes and failures of cities through the histories of Detroit, New York, Mumbai, Singapore and others. Sometimes it reads more like a collection of research notes than a coherent treatise, but there are nuggets that make the whole a worthwhile read.


"A thousand years ago, Europe had only four cities with more than fifty thousand people, one of which was the last vestige of Roman power, Constantinople. The other three - Seville, Palermo, and Córdoba - were all Islamic."

"Over two centuries, books helped generate revolutionary changes in religion and politics that made the world more connected, more commercial, and ultimately more urban. There is every reason to think that globalization and modern changes in technology will have the same effect."

"Ford figured out how to make assembly lines that could use the talents of poorly educated Americans, but making Detroit less skilled hurt it economically in the long run."

"Investing in buildings instead of people in places where prices were already low may have been the biggest mistake of urban policy over the past sixty years."

"Neither federal housing policies nor interstate highway spending were designed to be antiurban, but they certainly hurt cities."

"The odd fact is that America’s school system could decrease segregation if it moved either to the socialist left or to the free-market right."

"Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their lot in life."

"New York’s resurrection was primarily tied to an explosion of entrepreneurship, much of which was in financial services."

"America’s wide-open spaces are just too big for faster ground transportation to revitalize more distant areas."

"Building more roads almost never eliminates traffic delays, but congestion pricing does."

"Just as we entrust our leaders with more authority in time of war, we may have to trust them more when our streets are unsafe or when every sip of water carries disease."

"When things work right, multiple layers of government - federal, state, and city - can check each other, especially when different parties hold power at different layers."

"If the future is going to be greener, then it must be more urban."

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