Triumph of the City

How can you not love a book that combines economics, civil engineering and history!  Edward Glaeser combines these elements into a generally good read that traces the impact of the city from its earliest times to its modern incarnations.  His thesis is that building-up is good and environmentally responsible; sprawl is understandable but not sustainable.

Origin of a City

Cities started and thrive on technology.  The invention of agriculture and the domestication of beasts of burdens was the genesis for our urban journey.  As a result, cities became gateways along trade routes for the spread of culture, innovation and disease.  Since these earliest times, ongoing technological changes have allowed cities to flourish.  The creation of a better transportation (the wheel, canals, steam, street car, automobile, etc.) have allowed for cities to take advantage of the exchange of goods and services.

More recently (e.g. the last 150 or so years) social changes and technologies have allowed cities to move from places of pestilence to locations where you are more likely to be healthier, happier and live longer than your rural cousins.  These technologies are of course the lowly toilet, sewer system, asphalt (to reduce dust), internal combustion engine (to reduce things like horse dung) and clean water.  Parallel political structures needed to be created to provide these externalities* such as effective police forces, water works, street maintenance and an (ideally) non-corrupt overall administration to manage these services.

The Conquest of Pestilence in New York City; Stirling Behavioural Science Blog

The Conquest of Pestilence in New York City; Stirling Behavioural Science Blog

Slums as a Success Story

At this point, many people would point to the slums of Mumbai or Rio and suggest that the conditions there make cities a failure.  While Glaeser does not minimize the human suffering that does occur in quasi-legal no man’s land of slums, he also suggests that those living there are (on average) better off than their rural kin who they left behind.  Cities encourage innovation, reward hard work and there is a better chance to have access to medical care, clean water and schools for your children in a slum than in a rural province.

Once again, it is important to differentiate anecdotal, statistical and absolutes at this point.  For the young man who left a rural village in Brazil and died the next day in gang warfare in a Rio slum – cities would seem to be a bad deal.  But his tragedy has to be matched against the many others who became middle class through hard work, innovation or access to education.

Political Impact on Cities

Cities and political processes go hand in hand.  For example, the more democratic a country is, the more distributed its cities are likely to be; conversely, the more autocratic, the more likely that a single city will lord over other cities (the largest cities in dictatorships, … contain, on average 35 percent of the countries’ urban population versus 23 percent in stable democracies, p. 235).  Over the past 100+ years perhaps the greatest political influence on a city was the favouring of the automobile through the creation of highways and mortgage deductions for private ownership.

In the United States, the creation of the inter-state highway system (which was partially completed to support improved military transportation) has allowed for the creation of suburbs compounded by three other factors: road economics, tax policy and school funding.  The fundamental law of road congestion states that as roads are built, they are filled at nearly the same rate as their construction.  Thus more roads mean more traffic with only congestion pricing (a political hot potato if there ever was one) mitigating this effect.  Returning to the United States, a generous mortgage interest deduction further encouraged the purchase of the best available home a family could afford.  The localization of school boards and their funding meant that parents would also select a home where the good schools were.  The impact since the end of the WWII was the creation of a suburban sprawl and the gutting of inner-city communities.

The urban riots the United States has experienced can be partially traced to the flight of educated and leadership enabled citizens (white and black) away from the urban centers.  This was more than a lack of policing or social policy, this was as much the destruction of the social fabrics of the communities.  Akin this effect in the United States, Glaeser comments on how much safer the Mumbai slums are than the Rio equivalents despite the former being poorer.  Mumbai slums are better functioning social spaces and thus they provide their own safety nets and controls that are less likely to be found in the more transient Rio slums.

Creating Great Cities

Glaeser offers some direction on how to keep cities healthy, happy, lower environmental footprint and safe.  Firstly, allow cities to grow up.  This increases the density per square metre meaning that the same public-service is being optimized.  Green spaces are important to allow parents to raise their families and community safety must occur concurrently.  Community-based and adequate policing is part of the safety equation in addition to creating functioning social-spaces and communities.  Further to this, a community needs to have a say in the make-up of its local environment (bars, night clubs, daycares, etc.) but must not have a complete veto otherwise cities become balkanized into enclaves of Not in My BackYard.

Glaeser also strongly supports the consumption pricing of public goods.  Thus those driving in from the suburbs should be paying for this right or the developer constructing a high-rise tower should pay a sufficiently high enough fee to compensate the local community for this vertical-intrusion.  These are excellent economic principles that often falter in harsh light of political reality.  Nevertheless, at least they should be part of the discourse on what type of city we want to live in and have available to us.

Triumph of the City is a good read for anyone interested in the practical application economics and civil engineering to the messy realities of human communities.  The book is strongly skewed toward the United States context but Glaeser should be commended in bringing in numerous global examples to balance this bias out.  There are lots of juicy footnotes for those who want a deeper dive into the details.  Triumph of the City is a good book for any History/Economics/Civil Engineering-wonks out there.

(*) In economics, an externality is the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit [WIKIPEDIA].