Triumph of the city


“Cities magnify human strength”. Throughout Triumph of the City (2011), Edward Glaeser repeats this mantra and sings the praise of the city. Glaeser, a Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard, views cities as places of “proximity, density and closeness”, “engines of innovation” and, first and foremost, as the ideal breeding ground for ideas. Drawing from his own research as well as the fields of urban history, economics, transportation, social sciences and more, he discusses such diverse subjects as urban sprawl, conservation policy, sanitation, poverty, infrastructure and education. Glaeser knits all these themes together to construct an impressive plea to let go of our negative view on cities and to embrace humanity’s “greatest invention”.

At the centre of Glaeser’s urban universe stands the citizen, rather than the political system or physical infrastructure. This metropolitan humanism forms the moral backdrop for a number of policy opinions, warning many mayors that shiny infrastructure is no replacement for investments in education and pro-business policies. He insists that success is not solely measured in growth of infrastructure or population:  for instance, a city can be considered successful if it provides its citizens with the skills to fulfil their personal ambitions in another city or country.

Glaeser is an American economist, which is noticeable throughout his book. As an American, he is understandably better versed in the history and urban politics of American cities, but Glaeser nevertheless does a remarkable job in guiding the reader through the streets of Mumbai, Bangalore, Leipzig, Rio and other world cities. As a liberal economist, cost-benefit calculus is the methodological basis: economic growth, social mobility and wealth are his key measures of success. Good public policy depends on how far the generated benefits outweigh the financial, social and environmental costs and the extent to which external costs are internalised.

While the stress on deregulation and pro-business policies are expected from a liberal economist, Glaeser’s insistence on internalising external costs in his cost-benefit analyses produce some genuine insights. For instance, Glaeser defends denser cities on the basis of the argument that urban sprawl leads to higher energy consumption for housing and longer commutes and approves of taxation on driving in city areas, giving preference to public transportation and walking. Building on this argument that dense cities are greener than urban sprawl, Glaeser takes on “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) activists. They typically will resist building newer and higher buildings, on the grounds that they will have negative impacts on the local community or environment. However, according to Glaeser, these activists fail to take the costs of not building into account. Not building a skyscraper when housing demand is high will lead to suburban sprawl, which will actual have a larger impact in the environment.

In one section, Glaeser discusses revival strategies for cities with infrastructure overcapacity. He describes how they have too many housing units, which consequently are close to worthless, while at the same time, the city needs to maintain a little-used transportation infrastructure. He provides these cities a controversial suggestion, advising them to follow the example of the German city of Leipzig and to “shrink to greatness”, that is, demolish housing and infrastructure overcapacity, reduce maintenance costs and preserve real estate prices.  Better to live in a small town with a healthy economy than a big city bankrupt from burdensome infrastructure costs, such as Detroit. Glaeser’s central belief when it comes to urban governance is that “public policy should help poor people, not poor places”. Fully acknowledging the terrible conditions in slums, shanty towns and favelas, he argues that these places are paths for citizens to try to get their share of urban wealth, pointing out that they are often preferable to life in the countryside, where there are fewer job opportunities.

Citizens looking to defend themselves against attempts to revive their city or neighbourhood through unbridled infrastructure development projects will find arguments in Triumph of the City. Citizens looking to fend off infrastructure projects out of conservationist concerns will not find a lot of ammunition in Glaeser’s book. Citizens looking to contribute to a coherent and encompassing vision for their city will find lots of food for thought.

However, exactly for those citizens who wish to get politically involved in their city’s development, the economist’s view presents a blind spot. On the one hand, it reduces citizens to either production factors of the urban economy or to consumers. On the other hand, it makes politics appear as an obstacle, rather than a possible part of the solution. While Glaeser’s economic framework centres around the citizen, this does not penetrate his top-down understanding of politics, which focuses on mayors and high-level politicians. This obscures an important dimension of political city life. If dynamic cities really are, as Glaeser contends, capable of continuously reinventing themselves by introducing new, innovative ideas, then this claim is valid for urban policy as well as the economy. Glaeser fails to point out that any city’s greatest political asset is exactly the same as its greatest economic asset: its ‘human capital’, citizens.

Triumph of the City is a titanic work that any citizen, social worker, urban politician, urban developer, environmentalist should read, whether she agrees with the economist point of view, or not. The book oozes passion for the dynamic vitality of the city and, most of all, for its citizens, while the sober economic rationality sheds unexpected light on what’s sound urban policy and what’s not.  Although Glaeser does not fully acknowledge the political force of citizens, his book contributes to an open urban citizenship providing all citizens with accessible tools and knowledge to scrutinise urban policy in their city. While the liberal view on the city and the citizen might not please everyone, Triumph of the City shouldn’t be dismissed as a right-wing pamphlet. It provides arguments against building frenzies (of mayors and city developers), it explicitly discusses environmental impact and global warming as an important factor for urban policy and, first and foremost, it focuses around cities and an economy worth living in for its citizens. Unfortunately, it falls short of providing a positive appreciation of the political citizen.