dinsdag 30 augustus 2011

Edward Glaeser's "Triumph of the city"

In “Triumph of the city”, Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser sets out “how our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier”. Hyperbole aside (are cities really a greater invention than the wheel?), he largely succeeds in this ambition. Moreover, despite the scholarship that shows on every single page of the book, the book is very enjoyable.
Glaeser starts his book with a startling question: why do people choose to live in cities at all, while there is so much free space around (all of humanity could fit in Texas, as he duly reminds us)? The answer, in short, is that, even in the Internet age, the productive advantages conferred by proximity outweigh all disadvantages linked to urban life. Cities are places where entrepreneurial and smart people congregate because they know that that’s where they can meet other entrepreneurial and smart people,  and it is this interaction that leads to the innovative forces that underlie human progress. If, as Matt Ridley has argued in “The rational optimist” (  see my review of Ridley), human progress is due to “idea having sex”, then urban life is indeed one big orgy.
Of course, Glaeser is not blind to the crime, the squalor, the pollution, and the congestion that often blight city life. However, he correctly argues that several myths and misconceptions surround these elements. For instance, the co-existence of extreme wealth and extreme poverty is not a sign of failure, but the natural consequence of a city’s success: poor people move to cities because they are attracted by the opportunities for upward mobility offered by city life.
Of course, one cannot talk about cities without discussing suburbs and urban sprawl. In economists’ jargon, the move to suburban life is a typical example of an externality: people who can afford the commute from suburbs to the city centre, tend indeed to move to the suburbs, because they only consider the benefits to themselves, and not the costs they impose on society (more congestion, higher energy consumption, biodiversity losses etc). Glaeser describes not only how decreases in transportation cost have led to “classical” suburbanization, but he also discusses the recent emergence of exurbs. Paradoxically, while city dwellers may indeed suffer from high concentrations of air pollutants, their environmental impact and their energy consumption are sometimes orders of magnitude smaller than those of people living close to nature. It would be exaggerated to put that only city life can save the planet, but further suburbanization will certainly lead to disproportionate environmental impacts, especially with respect to greenhouse gas emissions (which are much more closely linked to energy consumption than conventional pollutants). One cannot even start thinking about the consequences should China and India follow the path of the Western world in this domain.
It is impossible to do full justice to the breadth and depth of this book in just a few pages. Let me just briefly mention some of the other the other topics covered in the book: Why do some cities remain successful even after the original causes of their success have become irrelevant (New York, say)? Why would it be better for declining cities to just tear down entire building blocks rather than to invest in new infrastructure? Why are urbanites willing to cope with extraordinary high costs of living? How have building regulations resulted in keeping poor people out of the centre of Paris? Why are the slums of Mumbai the result of poor policies? Why are cities essentially marriage markets? To all these questions, Glaeser provides answers, sometimes surprising, sometimes provocative, but always well argued.
Does that mean that the book is without flaws? Let’s just say, that as an economist with a professional interest in topics with a strong urban dimension (such as transport and waste policy), I would have liked a more detailed discussion of how cities have coped with these specific challenges: What were the issues in these fields? How have changes in technologies and in institutions interacted? What are the challenges for the future?
But these are minor issues, and a more technical discussion may put some of the audience of this book off.
“Triumph of the city” is popularized social science at its best, and is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in urban life – as more than half of the people on this planet currently live in cities, that should be nearly everyone.