Triumph Of The City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier And Happier comes across as two different books. The first is positioned as a kind of Freakonomics for cities. The book’s jacket comes with a quote from Steven Leavitt; the PR materials make the comparison explicit; the book’s introduction is filled with convention-defying statements about the quality of life in the city. It also seems to be riddled with logical fallacies, the most notable being that correlation doesn’t imply causation, and per capita income isn’t equivalent to quality of life.
Happily, the bulk of the book presents a more measured approach to the subject. It’s less like Freakonomics and closer to something like Jared Diamond’s Collapse—a broad, intelligent survey of an important, misunderstood subject. Author Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor, doesn’t shy away from offering his opinions and conclusions. They’re occasionally counterintuitive, but his good-humored writing softens the blow, and the evidence presented supports his book’s real thesis: that cities—and humanity—thrive when intelligent, motivated people work in close proximity for collaboration and competition.
Using several different cities across history and geography to demonstrate his points—like classical Athens, modern Houston and Mumbai, and Detroit and New York City throughout their history—Glaeser hammers home his points. Using Silicon Valley growing around Stanford University, he demonstrates the effect of having a strong intellectual community for encouraging innovation. He also shows how the same influences made Detroit so vibrant, but the institutionalization of the auto industry and reliance on a single, low-skill industry prevented it from changing with the times, like New York City did.
Refreshingly, Glaeser doesn’t rely on politics for his explanations. He cites providing clean water and healthy streets as necessary functions of municipal governments, but heaps dismissal on massive building projects to “revitalize” cities. His greatest scorn is reserved for the governments of cities like Mumbai, which excessively regulate new building projects while failing to provide basic services. Glaeser spends the middle portion of the book discussing new buildings and housing developments, and compellingly makes the case that cities like New York, Paris, and San Francisco, which heavily regulate new buildings, ill-serve the middle class, who move to places like Houston—fast-growing, affordable, and lacking building regulations.
The chapter “Is There Anything Greener Than Blacktop?” may become a focus of media attention for Triumph Of The City, as it takes an intentionally provocative stance that goes against centuries of pastoralism and decades of environmentalism. Yet it’s hard to dispute Glaeser’s arguments: Energy use is lower per person in the city than in the suburbs, and high density leads to fewer cars and CO2 emissions. It seems unfair to not include rural living in those calculations, but Glaeser points out “…people don’t want to live like medieval serfs. If they end up living in a low-density area, they’ll drive a lot, and they’ll want big houses that are comfortably cooled and heated.”
It’s still possible to argue with many of Glaeser’s positions. He relies on economic data to make assertions about happiness and quality of life. He tends to describe “progress” and “innovation” as uniformly good things. (Those hurt by the 2007 recession may disagree strongly about New York City’s “financial innovation.”) And he may come across as too callous in some cases, such as when he implies that cities like Detroit and New Orleans should be allowed to decline. Yet Triumph Of The City is interesting—did you know a five-degree increase in average January temperature correlates to a 3 percent increase in average housing prices?—and engaging enough that it shouldn’t be considered the end of its discussions, but instead the starting point for talking about the role of cities in human history.