by Lindsay M. Miller, Senior Fellow at The National Civic League
Urbanists everywhere are discussing the “return to the city,” or the re-urbanization of suburbanites and the increasing importance of density in economic development and growth. In his book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser champions this trend, arguing that urban life is better for humanity economically, socially, and in almost every other way.
Glaeser starts his book by explaining how we got here. Globally, the world is becoming more urbanized as more and more people move into city centers. In the West, the transition from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy has necessitated density, where people, organizations, and ideas can interact and flow freely. In the developing world, the story is more complex; yet, a significant portion of urbanization there can be attributed to mass migrations of people escaping wars, civil conflicts, or natural disasters.
Whether examining the slums of Kolkata or the high-end stores of Fifth Avenue, Glaeser’s book does a good job of showing the bright side to urbanization, no matter where we find it. Some of his most important insights challenge our most prominent preconceptions about cities. For example, he argues that, while admittedly the source of much suffering, not all urban poverty is bad. Cities attract the poor because they are centers of economic mobility, and the “flow of less advantaged people into cities from Rio to Rotterdam demonstrates urban strength, not weakness.” Urban poverty should not be compared to urban wealth, he argues, but to rural poverty, which is often much worse.
Another counter-intuitive insight Glaeser makes is that cities are good for the environment, and the environmentalist notion of living amongst the land and the trees is misguided. The best things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint, he argues, is to live in smaller homes, walk or take public transit to work, and rid ourselves of NIMBYism when it comes to new development in temperate climates.
Glaeser’s celebration of cities is hopeful, and his challenges to the status quo are sorely needed. One weakness of his book is that he sometimes so unabashedly supports urban growth that he can downplay some of its externalities. Urban poverty may be better than rural poverty when it comes to economic opportunity, but he should not so quickly dismiss the harsh realities of urban struggle.
What’s more, as an economist, Glaeser sometimes waves off the human element. From an economic standpoint, it may be obvious that restricting contemporary buildings in older cities like London and Paris has some negative impact. Yet, to downplay the historical and cultural value of their rich architecture negates our topophilia—or deep sense of love and connection—to place.
Glaeser’s book is timely, important, and relevant to urbanists and non-urbanists alike. To celebrators of urbanism, his book gives you grit. For anti-urbanists, or those fighting against its negative externalities, the book gives insight to the other side. For all of us, the book presents some cogent truths — whether we choose to embrace them or not.