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The Triumph of "Triumph of the City"
April 13, 2011 - 9:45pm

I'm an intellectual urbanist who grew up in the suburbs (Brookline, MA) and lives in the country (Etna, NH). A politically pro environmentalist with a huge carbon footprint (big house, 2 big cars, drive to work etc.). A fan of density and public transportation, who lives on 10 acres and drives to work. A critic of our material obsessions and professional workaholic societal tendencies, but someone who along with his spouse seems to work all the time because work is so damn interesting (and because those large house mortgage payments aren't cheap).

The best books help illuminate the contradictions of modern life. Edward Glaeser's masterful Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier is such a book.

Glaeser, an uber-productive and prolific Harvard economist, makes 4 big arguments in Triumph of the City:

Cities Drive Economic and Social Progress: The density, diversity, energy, low barriers to communication, mixing of talents, and opportunities to specialize have always driven innovation and invention. Cities are the most productive places in any society, a productivity that is reflected in both higher wages and strong in-migration. Large numbers of people living closely together can catalyze and nurture ideas and connections, while providing a market for these new inventions. It is no accident that the best art, the best restaurants, the best publishing, and the best retail can all be found in cities.

Cities Are Good for the Environment: Cities are green because city folks tend to take public transportation or walk to work instead of driving. City residences are smaller, and often staked vertically, and are therefore cheaper to heat and cool than suburban homes. City infrastructure, such as water, power, and sewage can be provided at scale - where suburban or rural residents rely on individual septic tanks and wells. City parks can serve many many residents, where suburban lawns take up land (and lots of water) for the pleasure of a few homeowners.

Public Resources Should Go to Disadvantaged People, Not Disadvantaged Places: Public efforts to revitalize dying cities that have lost their economic rationale, such as Detroit or New Orleans, are usually misdirected into unwanted building rather than people. Investments in public schools pays off, as these investments both raise the human capital of the students and attract parents into cities looking for good schools. Large publicly funded projects, such as professional sports stadiums or tax payer subsidized office parks (such as Detroit's Renaissance Center) only benefit millionaire owners and builders.

Public Policy is Often Detrimental to Cities: It is no accident that I live in a big house, and drive to work. This behavior is subsidized. The home mortgage deduction is an incentive to take-out bigger mortgage loans. The gas tax I pay does not fully account for the costs of gasoline, from the Pentagon's cost of keeping oil shipping lanes open to the environmental costs of my carbon emissions to the costs of the roads that I drive on. Cities might produce a large proportion of our national wealth and a big percentage of our tax dollars, but federal spending tends to flow to suburban and rural places.

Someday I hope to live in a small apartment, in walking distance to my job and bookstores and coffee shops, but for now I'll continue to long for the city while driving everywhere and spending weekends cutting the grass.

What are you reading?


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