Sunday, 12 June 2011

Triumph of The City by Edward L. Glaeser

From The Week of April 17, 2011

For centuries, it seemed as though the city was a deathtrap, more of a bane than a boon to humanity. This view held sway because of an incomplete understanding of the spread of disease. Most cities were collections of human beings without facilities to deal with their waste, much less systems in place to isolate the sick. But with the advancement of scientific knowledge, diseases became curable. And with that horror on the defensive, cities became hubs of human activity, places for ideas and dreams to be exchanged, breeding grounds for inventors and capitalists to unite in common, creative cause. They became the engines of human civilization, the source of our culture and our industrial and technological progress. But while Mr. Glaeser does a good job of laying down the history, it's his ruminations on how those cities have been shaped, and ought to be shaped in the future, that transform this piece from the academic to the meaningful.

Mr. Glaeser examines San Francisco (environmentalism), New York City (height restrictions), Houston (no zoning) and Paris (dictatorial fiat), describing the forces that modernized them and how the biases of those forces have lead to the spiraling cost of living in three of the four. With an eye to our diminishing resources, he argues most strongly against suburban sprawl, pointing out how various social and political forces have worked to drive up costs in cities, making it unaffordable for families to live in their urban hearts. This has lead to cities like Houston which, with its simplified zoning structure, is essentially a city of sprawl, with housing prices much more affordable than other cities of its size and global heft. But at what cost? When gasoline prices inevitably rise, will suburban life become unaffordable?

Triumph of The City does much to educate readers on the socioeconomic forces that have made life in the city so difficult. At the same time, Mr. Glaeser mounts a passionate defense of the city, pointing out its countless industrial, intellectual and artistic virtues. But while he succeeds in illuminating the forces at play here, he seems short on solutions to the paradox of the city -- capturing young professionals while forcing families into suburban sprawl --, a paradox which will only strengthen in the next few decades. Will the inventors and the investors still connect in a world where the cost of city life drives all but the youngest and the richest into the hinterlands, where the price of gasoline will trap them in suburbia? This is a level-headed discussion about a fascinating subject. Less preachy than Aerotropolis but also weaker on what we can do to fix the problems cities are bound to face in the next century. (3/5 Stars)

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