Published by EH.Net (February 2012)
Edward L. Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.? New York: Penguin Press, 2011.? ix + 338 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-59420-277-3.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Fred H. Smith, Department of Economics, Davidson College.
In 1998 Edward Glaeser published an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives entitled ?Are Cities Dying??? The article makes a strong case for why technology had not, and would not, make cities obsolete.? In the subsequent fourteen years, Glaeser has written dozens of articles on urban economics.? Many of the articles have touched on topics that are of great interest to urban economic historians: From ?Are Ghettos Good or Bad? to ?Why the Poor Live in Cities? Glaeser addresses topics that have informed our understanding of how, and why, cities have evolved over time.?
In his new book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, Glaeser assembles a layperson?s tour of his life?s work in urban economics.? Triumph of the City is an effective coda to his article from 1998, for it demonstrates that not only is the city not dying, it is essential to our continued well-being as a species.?
Triumph of the City?s nine chapters are bookended by an introductory chapter and a conclusion, and over the course of the nine chapters Glaeser addresses subjects ranging from the importance of slums, to why ?urban sprawl has spread? and why skyscrapers are essential for large cities.? However, he begins the book by reminding us of a fact that many people forget or have never been aware of: Half of the world?s population now lives in cities, and in the world?s most affluent countries this number often exceed 75 percent.? It is essential for us to understand cities, for we live in a world that is becoming ever more urbanized.
The first chapter of the book asks ?What Do They Make in Bangalore?? and the question frames the chapter and much of the rest of the book.? Bangalore, like other successful cities, thrives because it creates an incubator for meaningful human interactions.? By introducing the reader to examples ranging from ancient Athens to Silicon Valley/San Jose in the twenty-first century, Glaeser emphasizes the point that cities succeed when they create opportunities for what urban economists call knowledge spillovers and labor pooling.? Cities bring people into contact with one another on a more frequent basis.? This facilitates the exchange of information and ideas, and it makes it easier for employers to find good employees and for employees to find meaningful work.?
While cities succeed because of their ability to facilitate meaningful human interactions, not all cities flourish.? Thus, in the second chapter Glaeser explores the reasons for urban decline.? He uses the quintessential Rust Belt city, Detroit, to illustrate how a city can rise and decline within a span of just one hundred years.? Detroit faced two problems.? First, its economy was focused too narrowly around one product ? the automobile.? When the auto industry thrived, so did Detroit.? But, when the U.S. auto industry faced competition from foreign automakers the auto industry and Detroit suffered.? Detroit?s decline was exacerbated by another factor.? Detroit was one of many U.S. cities that experienced a severe race riot in the 1960s.? Numerous economic historians have explored the effects of race riots on urban areas, but Glaeser effectively captures the essence of much of this work when he writes, ?riots did tremendous harm to America?s cities, especially to their African-American residents.? After all, the rioters weren?t burning the homes of prosperous white suburbanites.? Those riots and rising crime rates helped create the sense that civilization had fled the city.? As a result, many of those who could leave Detroit did? (p. 55).? In the aftermath of the race riots of the 1960s, Detroit elected Coleman Young to serve as mayor.? Well-intentioned but misguided policies enacted by Young were the second major factor leading to Detroit?s decline.? Glaeser notes that Young?s policy initiatives attempted to help the poor, especially the countless African-Americans who lived in poverty in Detroit, but that they did so by taxing the upper middle class and the affluent.? Facing higher taxes, higher crime rates, and deteriorating infrastructure, Detroit?s wealthier citizens voted with their feet and moved to the suburbs.
Each of the remaining seven chapters of Glaeser?s book is well written and informative.? For an urban economic historian, chapters three and four will hold the most interest.? Chapter three asks why slums should be viewed as being ?good? for urban areas ? especially cities in developing nations.? Glaeser persuasively argues that slums are vehicles for upward mobility.? The poor would never choose to leave rural areas for the slums of the city if that choice didn?t present greater opportunities for happiness and economic success.? The favelas of Rio may look uninhabitable to the eyes of a middle-class Chicagoan, but in reality these neighborhoods represent a step up from crushing rural poverty.? Linking this idea back to American history, Glaeser points out that ghettos in American cities once served as ports of entry for new immigrants from Europe as well as African-American migrants from the South.? Generations of Americans have used the opportunities they found in large cities as a springboard to a better life; their gateway to these opportunities has been the ghetto.?
Chapter four will also be of great interest for an urban economic historian.? In this chapter Glaeser examines how ?the tenements were tamed.?? In other words, he looks at the slums from chapter three through a very different lens.? Where chapter three highlights the opportunities that slums can offer to the poor, chapter four acknowledges that cities, and especially slums, can be challenging places to live.? Thus, Glaeser introduces the reader to some of the biggest problems faced by urban politicians and urban planners ? health concerns (pollution, fresh drinking water, sanitation), congestion, and crime.? Glaeser discusses the solutions that urban authorities have crafted to address these concerns.? The details of what the politicians have done to solve these problems are less important than the overarching theme: These problems can be solved through the creation of effective, thoughtful public policy.? (However, it is clear that Glaeser doesn?t favor government intervention except when it is absolutely necessary.)? Indeed, as Glaeser goes on to highlight in later chapters, our ability to conquer these problems has made many cities extraordinarily appealing places to live.
There is very little to take issue with in Glaeser?s book.? However, there is one addition to the book that would have been of great interest to economic historians.? Jared Diamond, Joel Mokyr, and Deirdre McCloskey (as well as other economists) have spent a great deal of energy trying to explain why the Industrial Revolution started in the West in the eighteenth century.? It is hard not to wonder what Glaeser?s thoughts might be on this matter.? How did cities, and especially cities in Western Europe, contribute to the factors that led to the Industrial Revolution?? Was there something unique to cities in the West that led to industrialization?? This is an area of research in which Glaeser could surely make important contributions.????
Ultimately, Triumph of the City is a wonderful contribution to the urban economics literature. It is built on Glaeser?s work as an urban economist, and his research has been published in the most well-regarded journals in the field.? The book introduces core urban economic concepts to a layperson in language that is easy to read while using wonderful real-world examples from around the globe.? Yet, Glaeser?s book is also a must read for an urban economic historian.? It is full of examples and illustrations taken from American and world economic history, and it gives an economic historian a greater appreciation of the critical role that cities have played in generating the high standard of living we enjoy in the United States in the twenty-first century.?????
Fred Smith is an associate professor of economics at Davidson College.? His most recent paper (co-authored with Bill Collins of Vanderbilt University) is ?A Neighborhood Level View of Riots, Property Values, and Population Loss: Cleveland, 1950-1980? in Explorations in Economic History.
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