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Book review: The Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser

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There’s a scene in Crocodile Dundee where our hero is being driven through the Big Apple. The newspaper editor says: “New York City, Mr. Dundee. Home to seven million people.”

Dundee thinks about it: “That’s incredible. Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. Yeah, New York must be the friendliest place on earth.”

And he’s right. Cities are friendlier than the Outback. Richer too. Greener. More cultural. And a whole lot of other things beside.

In The Triumph of the City, the Harvard academic, Edward Glaeser, reminds us why millions of us chose to live in the urban jungle.

Rio’s slums are packed because the quality of life is so much better than in the rural wilderness

Even the bad things about cities are good. Take slums. Glaeser says: “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.

“The poverty rate among recent arrivals to big cities is higher than the poverty rate of long-term residents, which suggests that, over time, city dwellers’ fortunes can improve considerably.”

Rio’s slums are packed because the quality of life is so much better than in the rural wilderness. The same goes for the slums of Delhi and Chongqing. 

Cities offer an abundance of culture, high and low. How can London sustain bijou theatres such as the Old Vic, run by Hollywood stars like Kevin Spacey? It’s because the size of the city creates a wide pool of customers. Financial models which can’t work in towns and villages can thrive in population-dense areas.

Glaeser’s real strength is knowing why cities rise and fall. Detroit is the ultimate example of ruin. Once one of the richest cities in the world, Detroit has lost two-thirds of its residents. Half the city is now illiterate.

The culprit? Unions played a part. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act allowed states to ban closed-shop unions, giving them a labour market advantage. Detroit became uncompetitive. Car production moved away.

As the economy dipped, city officials blew a fortune on vanity projects. The People Mover metro system was built without any thought for who would use it. The mayor squandered money on construction subsidies.

As Glaeser notes: “Successful cities must build in order to accommodate the rising demand for space, but that doesn’t mean that building creates success.”

As you’d expect from an economist, Glaeser packs his work with all the data he needs to prove his points. His anecdotes keep the tone lively

Over time crime, then riots, destroyed Detroit’s commercial credibility. Today the city is a wreck – a memento mori to other cities thinking of making the same mistakes.

Glaeser provides ample evidence that cities need skyscrapers. Without them the city will sprawl into suburbs. Commuting times will soar. The housing boom in Northamptonshire, or “North Londonshire” as it tried to rebrand itself, is testament to this.

As you’d expect from an economist, Glaeser packs his work with all the data he needs to prove his points. His anecdotes keep the tone lively.

We learn the first restaurant in the world was opened by Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau  in Paris in the late 18th century. The density of population meant he could experiment with the traditional tavern formula and try separate tables, menus and waiters.

One hopes (and prays) that Boris will read this book. It’s compulsory reading for politicians, and the ideal pickup for anyone wondering why on earth they left a rural arcadia for the noise and heat of the city.




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