The Triumph of the City


Photo by David Liff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

The book jacket reads that Edward Glaeser’s new book, the Triumph of the City, is “inspiring proof that the city is humanity’s greatest invention-and our best hope for the future”. Edward Glaeser, in case you are just meeting his acquaintance, is one of America’s outstanding scholars of things urban. An economist by trade, he has more well-received books and articles published (his Wikipedia bio claims since 1992 he has averaged five a year) than I have employers that fired me–and that’s quite an achievement. His works, such as the “Rise of the Sunbelt”, for example, (Journal of Economics Perspective, Vol. 20, No.2, 2006) impressed the Curmudgeon greatly. So, the Curmudgeon was anxious to read his newest book and digest his current thinking. This proved to be more work, and less fun, than the Curmudgeon expected.

In the Curmudgeon’s mind TRIUMPH OF THE CITY, the CITY comes off as a living, breathing, concrete (pardon the pun), touchable life force every bit as powerful and driving as a text message is to a teenager. To those of us that see cities as a big traffic jam with graffiti on the side, this can be hard to take.

The first difficulty the Curmudgeon had with TRIUMPH was to figure out how to approach it. While there is a fair share of statistics, the work is not a classical piece of academia, and is certainly not a triumph of economic modeling. Not to belabor the point, the Curmudgeon, rightfully or wrongly, decided to treat the book more as an essay, a kind of personal conceptual biography whose central character, and the love of Glaeser’s life is “the City”. In my mind TRIUMPH comes off as a living, breathing, concrete (pardon the pun), touchable life force every bit as powerful and driving as a text message is to a teenager. To those of us that see cities as a big traffic jam with graffiti on the side, this can be hard to take. But that aside…

If TRIUMPH is an essay, a review ought not be a sequential description of the main points of each chapter. Rather it’s the ideas, the emotion, and the core message of the book on which we should focus. This is what we will try to discuss in this review. If you want to have summary of Chapter 6, read it yourself. In any case, the Curmudgeon approaches TRIUMPH as a personal essay, not academic research. The Curmudgeon considers his own writings to be more essay than anything else and that is what he means by “blather”. So in this review we are discussing Glaeser’s blather (he is offended already, I am sure).

Now there is good blather and bad blather and the distinction is best left to the reader. Blather tends to be personal, almost emotional, certainly lighter in touch, and at times reaches for readability, if not enjoyment. Glaeser achieves these goals, but there can be a cost- several in fact. Sometimes the writer of blather actually writes more for himself than for the reader. Perhaps the best indicator of this blather is a “Ulysses-like” stream of consciousness, flowing from idea to idea, city to city, topic to topic. The Curmudgeon thinks TRIUMPH comes awfully close to this fault. It isn’t that the book is hard to read, it is in fact rather enjoyable to read, but one constantly wonders “what” one is reading–what is the point of all this? Ok! cities are great, now where do we go with all that? To be sure Glaeser does make important and worthwhile points constantly, on how to keep a great city modern, for instance, but these points tend to get a bit underplayed–lost in a sometimes wandering, but very readable parade of examples and even tangents.

That brings us to the next issue we have with TRIUMPH–an issue which is a core critique of the Curmudgeon and this review. Cities are the greatest thing since sliced bread–I get that– but just what does Glaeser really mean by “cities”. This is not a semantic point or the Curmudgeon over-stressing on a commonplace detail. There is, the Curmudgeon thinks, an important, but not always evident, distinction that really changes one’s willingness to join with Glaeser in his love fest with the City. Bluntly, the Curmudgeon has gotten the impression that if one doesn’t live in one of the world’s first tier cities, or at least a major city of America’s East Coast, one probably lives in a landfill, created by sprawl, bad federal policy, and misdirected local governance.

Cumudgeon’s Birthplace

Reading the chapters and digesting the ton of statistics (one reviewer calls it “stat porn”) thrown at the reader, one tends to think that Glaeser is talking about “urbanism”–the phenomena defined by Merriam-Webster as the “way of life of city dwellers”. Now cities come in all sizes and shapes and the thought might be that Glaeser loves them all and that the prosperity of the future world and the greatest happiness of its citizenry is generated by the production, consumption, and amenities derived from all types of  urban centers. But, a closer reading of the book raises a question as to whether Glaeser likes all cities, or just some of them.

The Curmudgeon’s hopefully informed guess, is that Glaeser likes them better the more Eastern USA, DENSER and populated they become. He seems to talk in glowing terms about the largest cities on the planet and all the others seem, … ignored, tolerated, or disparaged.

Case in point are the suburbs which is a topic that runs in and out of several chapters and the Curmudgeon will use as an example, really a metaphor, of how TRIUMPH (1) defines just what is urban and what is not, (2) seemingly (but not really) floats on both sides of a discussion question, (3) but, its informality aside, subtly but squarely comes down on a marginally qualified defense of his subset of cities as being the engine of past and future progress, and the salvation and hope of humanity which ought be favored by a a neutral Federal Government which is not in the business of subsidizing preferred lifestyles or locations.

TRIUMPH’s Love Affair with the Suburbs

Home of Curmudgeon’s Oldest

Just to refresh the reader, suburbs do not fare very well in academic, especially political science, planning and frequently economics academic literature. This is not the time or place to cite the ten thousand books and articles that disparage in some manner the sprawling, environmentally-unfriendly, suburban geographies and their redneck, narrow, bigoted, boring inhabitants with their incredibly politically and culturally incorrect lifestyles (you know, the shallowness, religion thing, families and gender repression, schools, and above all the parking lots and car-culture). The issue here is whether these suburbs (and small towns) fit into Glaeser’s definition of cities.The Curmudgeon thinks on balance the answer is NO!

Glaeser loves the central city, but not all central cities–rather the really big “older” ones like London, Paris, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Bangalore, Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, but most of all, his home town New York City. And as for the Sunbelt and Suburbs …. let’s not go there! Why does the Curmudgeon feel this way? Could he be wrong?

Well, of course he could be wrong but one can at least pick up some ambivalence toward suburbia as one reads through chapter after chapter. In one chapter, for instance, he questions why he, of all people, allowed himself to live in a suburb.

I lived in older urban areas-Manhattan, Chicago, Washington D.C.- for thirty-two of my first thirty-seven years on this planet…. but then I was blessed with three unusually delightful children, and I did what millions of other Americans have done …. I moved to a suburb and started driving. … Still, given my love of cities (Curmudgeon senses that Glaeser perceives himself as having left the city), my decision to suburbanize deserves a bit more explanation. What terrible bout of insanity induced me to choose deer ticks as neighbors instead of people. I remain unsure about whether my suburbanization was a mistake, but there were logical reasons for the move: more living space, spongy lawns for toddlers to fall on, my desire for a less Harvard-dominated neighborhood, a reasonably fast commute, and a good school system. Leaving the city meant an end to excellent accessible restaurants, but … (p 166)

But… here comes the ambivalence. Glaeser at this point departs from the straw man stereotypical characterization of suburbs that I regaled you with a few short sentences ago. In the very next sentence, he explains and defends …

 that type of calculus-the appeals of car-based living in lower density places, which have attracted so many people, including myself. Older cities must compete against car-oriented areas, and it always make sense to know your enemy. Ranting about the philistinism of people who choose car-based living in Houston (which strikes the Curmudgeon as a pretty populous city–but it is not a DENSE city, it sprawls) may be emotionally satisfying to some, but it does nothing to help older cities attract more people. For millions, the appeal of suburban, Sunbelt places is real, but better policies, both at the national and local level, could enable older cities to compete more effectively. (PP 166-167)

And for another example, in his opening chapter, Glaeser decries the impact of the car on “older cities” (an interesting expression repeated constantly throughout TRIUMPH)

While the rise of car-based living was bad for many older cities, it wasn’t bad for everyone. 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. Speed and space are the two big advantages of car-based living…. Cars enable mass-produced housing at moderate densities that give ordinary Americans a lifestyle that is extraordinarily opulent by world standards. But acknowledging the upside of sprawl doesn’t mean that sprawl is good or that American policies that encourage sprawl are wise. The environmental costs of sprawl should move government to put the breaks on car-based living, but American policies push people to the urban fringe. The spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who liked cities no more than Gandhi did, lives on in policies that subsidize home home ownership and highways, implicitly encouraging Americans to abandon cities. (P.13)

This personal-laden conception of cities and urban, revealed in these two paragraphs, demonstrates vividly the almost unconscious fluctuation of seemingly conflicting messages which is found throughout TRIUMPH. Urbanism and cities are the engine of growth, prosperity, innovation and everything good–but, are American cities unconsciously but really defined as “the big dense Eastern ones” only, and not the big but sprawling Sunbelt ones?

And, if the rhetoric of suburbs as “the enemy” of older cities from which older cities should learn how to better compete against, is a core Glaeser message, shouldn’t we wonder if suburbs fall into his definition of “cities”? If so, we really are not talking about urbanism at all! Suburbs, last I saw, were part of the metropolitan area and of the so-called mega-cities, but apparently not for Glaeser. If, he feels, we all should better understand why people choose the philistine, car-based suburbs, so we can better lobby Washington and reform policies made by older-city City Halls, so that these “better federal and local policies” (more on that later) restore the “older cities” and depopulate the suburbs– doesn’t this really expose that Glaeser is not talking about urban America, or urbanism, but DENSE coastal first tier cities? . One could even argue that this is yet another manifestation of the the “cultural war” factor at play here, a la Big Sort.

Is one of TRIUMPH’s core goals is to make the defenders of “the best cities” understand the motivations of those who are rejecting these “best” cities so that they can change public policy so that public policy no longer encourages these squalid environmental suburban cesspools, but, to the contrary, encourages people to live in the DENSE environmental heavens of the “older cities” is he not using government, the federal government in particular, as an active, NOT NEUTRAL, player in our urban geography. To be sure, he more literally will suggest that federal policy should be reformed to remove the incentives it allegedly has created for suburbanization–and that only restores the federal government’s neutrality. But one must confess, this neutrality will be hard to discern if one lives anyplace other than an “older city”.

Another Core Message of TRIUMPH

At this point the reader may share with Glaeser a desire to move away from suburbs into another serious and important theme developed by Glaeser in TRIUMPH? OK. Let’s move to how to repair older cities. Glaeser departs from orthodox, Progressive, politically correct, upper middle class academic literature constantly throughout TRIUMPH. One even detects he sincerely sees value in capitalism and markets (he is allegedly, according to one reviewer, a liberal Republican) and private enterprise. Glaeser wants to unfetter private enterprise, creativity, and innovation by using markets, removing stupid City Hall policies (such as historical preservation), and encourage the maximum level of density technology allows,

Home of Curmudgeon’s Youngest

Given the truly enjoyable informality of the book, it is not so easy to assemble everything he wants to say in a few paragraphs. It is almost impossible to definitively pin him down, in the Curmudgeon’s opinion, because of a confusing tendency to reverse field or to wander off on a related, but quite separate topic. On occasion he seems to offer critiques that seem as major criticisms of what you thought was a main point.

Part of the problem is that Glaeser speaks so glowingly about cities and how wonderful they are and how they produce everything that is good and precious that one either starts thinking about the bad stuff caused by cities or one just reads on. Cities seem to produce nothing bad; even slums are great sources of innovation as is poverty. Density creates incredible creativity and innovation, so forcibly argued that one gets the sense that Glaeser wants his “older city” to be nothing more than one huge building with one room and all residents located within its four walls. Virtually any positive step in the evolution of mankind is attributable to urbanization (notice we are talking here about urbanization (i.e. all cities) and not just “the preferred older, DENSE Cities).The backward steps of mankind (wars J-Curves and revolution, the crushing burden of poverty and congestion  etc.) however, are just ignored.

In any case, try the below paragraph as the spirit of Glaeser’s central message of both the glory of the older city and how to repair the older city from decline induced by competition with lesser urban forms:

The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. To understand our cities and what to do about them, we must hold on to those truths and dispatch harmful myths. We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city’s past. We must stop idolizing home ownership, which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete. (P.15)

The problem, however, with this rather stunning set of values and policy prescriptions is that the Curmudgeon could quote other parts of the book whereby Glaeser stridently assets that “government should not be in the business of enforcing lifestyles that we happen to find appealing” or that the “government’s job is to allow people to choose the life they want” ….Or, when he argues for something he calls “spatial neutrality” and against “artificial barriers” (zoning, historic preservation, regulation or NIMBYism) which restricts modernization and redevelopment). All of these aforementioned items, he says, has inhibited the ability of central cities to compete…. Instead he advocates that at the heart of economics “is the belief that businesses work best by competing furiously in a market that the government oversees as impartial umpire”. This all sounds like Ron Paulish libertarianism at some points–but, believe the Curmudgeon, it ain’t!

Competition and neutral federal and state governments is true for cities also.

Competition among local governments for people and firms is healthy… The national government does us no good by propping up particular places (such as declining single cluster cities such as Buffalo or Detroit), just as it does no good by propping up particular firms and industries.

Since cities are governments as well as collection of peoples, isn’t the healthy competition of local governments for people and firms examples of governmental competition? Is the Curmudgeon wrong in thinking that governmental competition will sooner or later in a democracy bring in the federal government as an ally or enemy of one set of cities or anther? How realistic is Glaeser’s notion of spatial neutrality by which the federal government is just a neutral umpire refereeing competing local governments? Is he really, really arguing for a “neutral” federal government when he advocates policies which favor his favor preferred lifestyles and locations, the “older cities”? The rest of us clods can go to hell, except that we already live there.

In essence, the Curmudgeon argues that it is hard to really nail down a central message of TRIUMPH because a literal reading of it invites constant internal contradictions. It is the Curmudgeon’s opinion, and this is only an opinion, that the circle of internal contradictions is best closed by believing that Glaeser at his core argues on behalf of older, American, first tier central cities (East Coast for sure) and first tier world cities as well. He seeks to dispel the so-called attractiveness of rival smaller, car-oriented and sprawlier cities (Sunbelt and suburbs) and urges the NATIONAL government to abandon its perverse and environmentally unfriendly public policy support of sprawl, car, and suburbs in favor of policies which require density, environmental sustainability, and support the inherent innovation induced by sheer density which unleashes intense creativity (what he calls “magical consequences”) which are found only in the world’s first tier central cities.

Glaeser’s Instruction Manual

Does Glaeser have a specific prescriptions or some explanation as to how his preferred cities can be victorious in this war against sprawl, suburbs, and Sunbelt. You betch’a!

In Chapters 9 and the Conclusion (I guess, Chapter 10) the TRIUMPH reviews the success stories of Tokyo, Singapore, Boston (Minneapolis and Milan), Vancouver, Chicago, Atlanta, and the ever-popular Dubai. The essence of what makes these cities successful lies in the four word title of his conclusion: “Flat World, Tall City”. Specifically, he argues that his cities should be:

  • given “a level playing field” against rival and alternative styles of cities (suburbs, Sunbelt and other environmental cesspools);
  • free international trade as “an open city can’t exist in a closed nation” (P.251);
  • policies which “lend a hand to human capital” or education and help to poor people and confront urban (his preferred cities) poverty,
  • but … not to help revitalize “poor places” or declining communities which should be permitted to go their own way down whatever road destiny, creativity/innovation and the free market takes them; and
  • the preferred central cities themselves should confront NIMBYism which blocks new infrastructure and modernization;
  • older cities remove “artificial barriers” which older cities impose on themselves, such as inhibiting building up or skyscrapers, zoning and restrictive residential building codes which increase housing costs and render the central city unaffordable; and …other artificial barriers (historical preservation, is one).
  • remove externally-imposed barriers erected by the Federal Government (such as inadequate mass transit funding caused by excessive highway funding, or subsidizing home mortgage instead of renting), and
  • positively, the Feds should levy a gas tax (yet another example of a neutral governmental umpire) which reflects the true costs of environmental deterioration created by the car and sprawl–and to correct such deterioration as has already been inflicted–a carbon tax should be imposed.

Without doubt, Glaeser argues his point of view intelligently and he offers specific ideas and an overall perspective on how to carry older cities to victory. He is in many ways unique and iconoclastic. But despite his title, a city, is not a city, is a city–this is a book about older, first tier city revitalization, not the Triumph of  Urbanism in its many forms. TRIUMPH advocates a preferred lifestyle which is alleged to be the engine of past and future prosperity, creativity, and innovation–a lifestyle so preferred that a neutral government should advantage this preferred lifestyle so it can successfully compete against less preferred ways of life.


Birthplace of Mrs Curmudgeon

So what do we take away from all this–where do we go now? The Curmudgeon thinks of Glaeser as the “romantic rationalist”. At root, density is the concept which underlies a considerable portion of TRIUMPH. Markets and competition, underscore still other elements of its perspective. Both are prerequisites to creativity and innovation on which our future economic success are based. The beauty of TRIUMPH is that alongside, or better still, underneath this cold rationality and efficiency of density and rational market competition, is the romance, charm and emotion of a lifestyle, a way of living created by these dense, creative, constantly changing, hopefully always modernizing, never really aging, older cities.




Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like
you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is fantastic blog.
An excellent read. I will definitely be back.

Comment by movers Chicago Yelp on April 24, 2013 at 9:12 pm

The comments are closed.