Book review: Triumph of the city

It’s easy to see some of the benefits of city living: being the middle of a bunch of excitement, things to do, shorter distances to points of interest. But, according to Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in his book Triumph of the city, the advantages are more numerous and more important than I expected.

Provocatively subtitled “How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier,” this book makes the case that not only are the advantages of city life overwhelming, but also that American policy that encourages home ownership is a tremendous detriment to our society.

Throughout the book, Glaeser challenges various myths that people hold about how cities work. Among the most important false belief that people might hold is that cities make people poor. Of course, there tend to be many poor people in cities, more so than in suburbs, so one might be tempted to believe that suburbs cause people to be better off than do cities. As is so often the case, Randall Munroe explains the problem best:

The correct line of reasoning, the one that accurately explains why cities contain more poor people than do suburbs, is that poor people choose to move to cities, where there are the greatest number of opportunities for advancement. They would be still poorer in rural areas, and they would be unable to afford any of the suburban comforts were they to live in the suburbs.

This point wouldn’t matter if it didn’t otherwise alter people’s perceptions of cities, but it does. Somehow, the conclusion becomes that people should be encouraged to move to the suburbs, where they’ll be better off. So, instead of investing resources in making cities as habitable and pleasant as possible, we neglect them and focus our efforts on suburbs.

Let’s get to Glaeser’s claims in his subtitle.

Is the city our greatest invention? I don’t know, but I think Glaeser does a good job of presenting his case. The existence of cities certainly makes future innovation possible in the way that rural living does not: when everyone has to take care of all eir basic needs for emself, then there isn’t much time left to invent new things that improve quality of life. On the other hand, the city on its own without any future innovations is not impressive at all: it’s just a bunch of people living close to each other. In the past, I’ve said that farming, irrigation, writing, usable electricity, and cohomology (and possibly also hummus) are our greatest inventions, but I’m willing to reconsider. So, I’ll say this is a matter of definitions, and I’ll hand Glaeser the benefit of the doubt.

Richer. This one is too easy. Technology and innovation allow us to specialize and become more efficient, which in turn allows for surplus output, which then leads to more money for everyone. Technology and innovation are most likely to show up in densely populated areas where people are constantly exposed to the ideas of others and are able to develop them further.

Smarter. Similarly, here, being around other people with exciting new ideas tends to cause us to think more. But even in modern times, it’s likely that people will do more thinking if they live in cities compared to suburbs. In the suburbs, a lot of time is wasted in getting from one place to another (generally in cars), and some of that time could be spent thinking and coming up with new ideas if one were instead to live in a big city.

Greener. This point is the heart of the book, and I think it’s his most important statement. Since I just want to give a brief overview now, I’ll postpone this conversation for a bit later.

Healthier. This was his weakest point. Glaeser claims that people in cities live longer, but that this was not always the case, and in fact was not the case even within the past century. Without proper regulation, cities can be fertile breeding grounds for diseases in a way that rural areas cannot, but on the other hand, cities can be more easily regulated to provide clean water and other hygienic advantages to keep people living longer. I suspect that, if Glaeser is right that currently people in cities are healthier, this is an effect that will go away as we get better at providing clean water and other such things to rural areas. In other words, this claim is a function of the fact that Glaeser published this book in 2011 rather than in 1911 or 2111.

However, the only time Glaeser made me really angry in this book was during his discussion of why New York City once had a much lower life expectancy than the country as a whole (a difference of 2.7 years for men). Glaeser writes “This gap didn’t appear for women, in part, because the great majority of murder victims are men.”

While it’s presumably true that the great majority of murder victims are (young) men, this statement is simply a lie, and I hate it when people lie to me. The fact that a larger proportion of men were being murdered in New York City than in the rest of the country does nothing at all to explain a 2.7-year difference in life expectancy, and I expect someone with Glaeser’s economic background to find this totally trivial to understand.

Happier. Glaeser claims that a larger proportion of people living in cities claim to be very happy with their lives than do people living in rural areas. The difference isn’t huge though. However, in light of the other advantages that cities give us, it’s clear that our lives are improved tremendously by the existence of cities, whether we live in them or not.

I guess we should understand exactly what we’re comparing here. Are we comparing cities to rural areas? To suburbs? Glaeser sometimes glosses over this point more than he probably should.

It seems plain enough that people generally (but not always) prefer to live in cities than in rural areas, which accounts for much of the migration from rural areas to cities and the lack of migration in the reverse direction. But what happens when we compare cities to the suburbs? Now it’s far from clear. The general trend is for young people to want to live in cities and then eventually move back to the suburbs to raise families. The benefits for suburban living when raising a family are enough that even Glaeser himself abandoned city life for the suburbs of Boston after starting a family.

The appeal for parents to want to live in the suburbs, at least in America, is clear. Government subsidies (or relative lack of taxation) on gas make living in the suburbs and commuting relatively inexpensive. The suburbs are also safer for kids and tend (with some notable exceptions) to have better schools (which should be highly embarrassing, given the lack of quality of my supposedly-good suburban high school “education”). Also, larger houses are available, and at much lower prices than in nearby cities.

While large housing is clearly going to be difficult to come by in large cities, the others need not be insurmountable problems. They are only because, in the US at least, we have made them so through subsidies and misplaced attentions. Glaeser says that, in France, the best schools are in Paris, and there’s no reason that the US couldn’t follow suit and arrange to have good schools in cities.

Why should we want to encourage people to live in cities rather than suburbs? One of the best reasons is the environmental factor. People who live in cities frequently walk or take public transportation to get from one place to another; this is rare in the suburbs. As a result, people save a substantial amount of energy from transportation by living in cities. On top of that, houses in cities tend to be smaller than those in suburbs; a consequence of this is that per household energy use for heating and air conditioning are lower in cities than in suburbs.

Furthermore, people who live in suburbs are often under pressure from their communities to do stupid things like maintain lawns, even in dry places like California. In many parts of the country, there are water shortages. Instead of using water sensibly, however, we’re expected to use large amounts of it to water lawns, for no reason other than blind conformity. People in cities generally don’t have enough yard space for this to be a serious issue there, so that’s one more problem that doesn’t arise for many city dwellers.

People in rural areas can live in an environmentally friendly manner if they so choose. However, few people want to live like pre-industrial farmers. Much more frequently, they want access to the benefits of modernity while having a large chunk of land and being closer to nature. Too bad that living near nature doesn’t equate well at all to environmental friendliness.

Of course, not all cities or all suburbs are equal with respect to energy usage. This is especially true for energy used for heating and cooling. Certain parts of the country, such as most of California, have relatively little need of cooling, and indeed, it’s rare for houses in the Bay Area to have air conditioning. It also doesn’t get cold enough to require heating all that frequently (although some people seem to find discomfort in being in a room with a temperature of 65F or 18C; this confuses me endlessly). On the other hand, in Texas, where temperatures might exceed 90F or 34C on a quarter of the days of each year or more, living without air conditioning is relatively unbearable.

As a result, we ought to encourage people to move to cities on the West Coast, rather than cities in places with harsher climates. Unfortunately, we’re not doing that. Rules against constructing new buildings in Santa Clara County are extremely stringent, and as a result, there are far more people who would like to live here than there are people who do.

A common theme in Californian environmentalism seems to be to oppose new building projects, perhaps on the grounds that fewer buildings leads to less pollution. But we’re not really preventing them from being built; we’re just causing them to be built elsewhere, in less efficient places that have less stringent building rules. Smarter policy decisions in California would be quite helpful for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

I understand that it’s hard to see our local communities turn from bucolic to industrial. My hometown of Sunnyvale was once (admittedly before I was born) largely cherry orchards; now it’s a key location in the heart of Silicon Valley, being the headquarters for companies like Yahoo!. There are two main remnants of Sunnyvale’s past: a giant can reminding us of canning company Libby’s former presence in the city, and a cherry stand called Olson Cherries that has miraculously managed to remain open despite tremendous pressure to sell the land to, well, everyone else. The Libby can now rests atop a water tower in a tech company parking lot. It’s Sunnyvale’s most notable landmark.

But even those people who would like to live in California (or New York) and are able to do so might actually prefer to live in Houston or Atlanta. Glaeser has a section devoted to comparing the economic realities of living in Houston versus New York, and I found it a fascinating and enlightening read. While people generally earn quite a bit more in New York than in Houston, this is more than offset by the far higher cost of living in New York. And, of course, the houses in these two places will not be even remotely comparable: the one in Houston will undoubtedly by far larger and more pleasant. Economic differences explain why the populations of Houston, Atlanta, and Phoenix are rapidly rising, despite the fact that they seem so much worse than New York and San Francisco. Parents in Houston can send their kids to private schools so that they’ll still be taught about evolution.

Another problem with suburban living is that it’s so good at promoting harmful NIMBYism. In California, there’s a project at the moment to build a high-speed train between San Francisco and Sacramento, and San Diego. Unfortunately, there are many residents in Palo Alto and Menlo Park who oppose this project on the grounds that it is expected to go through these cities; I see many copies of this sign walking around town:

It’s unclear if these people will prevent the project from being completed, but they might.

One point here is that people frequently expect to abhor any new developments in their neighborhoods, preferring to keep them the way they are. But, in practice, people are good at adapting to new circumstances, and after a short amount of time, these things stop being at all problematical. A few new buildings or trains won’t destroy a city. In fact, in a thriving city, they’re more likely to further enliven the downtown area and help businesses. It isn’t reasonable to allow communities to stagnate because some of the current residents are fearful of change, when the changes will almost certainly be of great help to the community. People should have a certain amount of control over the development in their communities, but they must not be allowed the power to veto any new projects, especially those that have the potential to be of great benefit to society.

Sometimes, I find Glaeser’s conclusions a bit bizarre. He seems to find any increase in division of labor and specialization to be desirable, to the extent that he claims that the fact that he sometimes cooks for his family is a crushing condemnation of suburbia. I find it alarming that people are so content to dispose of all self-sufficiency in the name of specialization. We can sort of get on well enough by asking other people to do everything we don’t know how to do, but I find it very hard to believe that this is the ideal way to live. Or am I the only one who finds the idea of being unable to perform simple tasks that so many more people knew how to do in the not-so-distant past disturbing?

Glaeser also talks about many other interesting facets of cities in this book, but I’ll leave the rest for the reader to discover on eir own. Glaeser discusses why some cities don’t work out and what we should do about them, and how certain cities, such as Gaborone, have surprisingly managed to be quite successful and prosperous.

I found this book to be extremely interesting, and I learned a great deal from it. I don’t agree with everything Glaeser says, although I do agree with most of it. While I was reading, there were things I kept wishing he would talk about; inevitably, he did so at a later point in the book. This book is excellent, and I strongly recommend it.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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6 Responses to Book review: Triumph of the city

  1. Pingback: Quasi amusement park | Geosolair

  2. Good review (well, I mostly agree with it – see also my own review of the book on )
    You also rightly point to the dangers of NIMBYism. It is an interesting feature of our current societies that people block projects because it impact on the amenities of their own neighbourhood while these projects will bring environmental benefits to society as a whole.
    Contrary to you, though, I share Glaeser’s enthusiasm for the division of labour as the basis for prosperity (not just because I am an awful coock as well, but because it’s one of the most robust findings of economic thinking, dating back to Adam Smith’s description of a pin factory – see also my book review of Matt Ridley’s The rational optimist on my blog)

  3. Hi Simon, please enlighten me about the use of murder statistics in calculating average life expectancy? I believe I read somewhere that DC has the lowest expectancy these days primarily due to the high murder rate. Are you saying the murdered individuals are not counted?

    • Simon says:

      Actually, it now seems to me that his claim is not nearly as ridiculous as I thought it was when I was reading the book. He still (at least sort of) considers the effect to be too high by quite a lot, but it’s not totally negligible either. The homicide rate in Washington, D. C. in 2009 was 23.8 per 100 000 per year, which means that lifelong residents have roughly a 1.5% (!!!!) chance of being murdered given a life expectancy of 70 years. Assuming then that homicide victims live, on average, 50 years less than non-homicide victims (let’s just say), then that decreases life expectancy by 3/4 of a year. Before looking up that statistic, I would never have imagined that the rate could be anywhere near that high, which was why Glaeser’s comment made no sense to me.

  4. When speaking about moving cities to the west coast, you seemed to forget about earthquake threats. Granted the contemporary building standards can withstand high magnitude quakes, we still might want to heed the recent tsunami incidence in Japan, a country used to be known for its fail-proof infrastructure.

    • Simon says:

      There are ways of increasing population density other than building New York-style skyscrapers. There’s lots of land that just isn’t really being used in Santa Clara County; we could use some of it to house people. And, we could build moderately tall buildings that can withstand earthquakes; we have options besides one-story houses and potential disasters.

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