By Renard Teipelke
Has there been any other book in the past couple of years which has polarized me that much!? Harvard economist, Edward Glaeser, published his New York Times Bestseller “Triumph of the City” in 2011 and I acquired the book the following summer. Since then it was lying around and I could not motivate myself to pick it up and read it. It traveled to Berlin, Frankfurt, Cairo, Nairobi, Manila, and again to Frankfurt, but I did just not want to read it…maybe my guts were right!?
Anyhow, the book did not satisfy me. But I also liked it. Simply put: it was excruciatingly polarizing. Therefore, I decided to put the criticism in the first part of this book review here, and the praise in the second part (here).
Let’s start with the weaknesses of the book. Edward Glaeser is an economist. An urban economist. A renowned urban economist. And he fills the book’s pages with many figures and statistics, which present much of his well-known research findings. Also there is much name-dropping and reference to historical stories. I assume this is how popular science works. On my end, I was completely misled when deciding to buy the book based on the back cover text: “(…) He travels through history and around the globe to reveal the hidden workings of cities and how they bring out the best in humankind.” Glaeser’s book is definitely not all-encompassing (how could it be?) and not very global…the majority of the book deals with the United States. Over and over again, I had to read about all the stuff that happened and is happening in the US. A few stories about Bangalore, Singapore, Rio and other cities are presented here and there, but hardly any in-depth analysis or detailed discussion beyond the storytelling. Would that have been possible for ‘cities around the globe’ on less than 300 pages? No! Because cities are complex and a book that aims at unraveling the true urban mystery must result in a broad-brushed take on the issue(s). There is very little notion of the specificity and individuality of places. What Glaeser most often calls “cities” are actually very distinctive set-ups of a huge diversity of places within a geographically defined area. Glaeser’s city comparisons across time and place seem illustrative, but they remain on the very surface of “the hidden workings of cities” (which might shift the blame onto the publisher for choosing that back cover text…).
This is connected to some very stark black-and-white discussions about what makes cities ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’. As a mainstream economist he sees too much regulation everywhere and trusts in the superpowers of the free market. He calls for fees instead of difficult building permission processes. He wants preservation of the older urban fabric to be limited and neighborhood/community initiatives to be strictly bound to clear definitions and administrative limits. The proper role of local government is, thus, very clear for Glaeser: “policing the streets and improving public schools” (132). If these two tasks are done well, the market will take care of the rest. If urban areas are then still declining, they should be given up. Such conclusions in the book are often followed by very ‘precise’ recommendations such as: “National policy should strive to enrich and empower everybody, not to push people to live in any particular spot.” (65)…well, that statement appears pretty correct, but what exactly does that mean?! Glaeser talks about “attractive cities” people choose to move to…but besides some economic cost-benefit-analyses it remains very much unclear what makes a city “attractive” beyond the technical supply of infrastructure and services. In a few paragraphs, the author refers to restaurants/cuisines and new theater plays attracting people, but he does not elaborate from where city managers could get these cuisines, etc.
Glaeser appears hypocritical when he explains several times why there were so many good reasons he moved to the suburbs with his family, even though he knows very well about the negative impacts of suburban life on the environment, cities, and society. If the argumentation becomes tricky he can still refer to the bad inefficient or ineffective government who forces sensible middle-class people like him to flee to the suburbs.
Glaeser’s working with statistics is strong, but I cannot understand why he is repeating conclusions on the role of topography and weather for housing prices, or the issue of car dependency, or the example of public schools in Paris or good curry restaurants in London so many times. His figures and statistics are often rather ‘nice to know’ than actually revealing new findings (e.g., the expenditure comparison of a middle-income family living in Houston versus living in New York (183-188); also see * and ** at the end of this article). It seems like the 270 pages of content could have been presented also in 200 pages, with the benefit of the additional pages to be used for a discussion of current urbanization issues and examples of Latin America or Africa. And by the way: What is it with Paris that the author has to refer to that city over and over again, as if it would be such a relevant reference point for urban development in the 21st century!?
Glaeser makes a good argument about why urban poverty is not simply a bad thing (see positive review here), but he then slips into some comments, which seem very much out of place: “(…) London has many bankers because it’s a good place to manage money. Cities like Rio have plenty of poor people, because they’re relatively good places to be poor. After all, even without any cash, you can still enjoy Ipanema Beach.” (71). This gave me a completely new perspective on cases such as Southeast Asians enjoying their beautiful proximity to the sea before the next typhoon or tsunami destroys their properties (and lives)…
The author’s use of words is sometimes like he tries to play up to the conservative right in his very discipline or possible audience. When writing about climate change, Glaeser uses some of the weakest expressions to link rising temperatures etc. to anthropogenic climate change (cf. 205-206). And how to solve the dilemma of excessive resource use? Global emissions tax. That’s it. Is it likely? Whatever, the economist has concluded. And you won’t find a critical discussion about all those ‘innovative fields’, Glaeser describes as causing the growth dynamics in ‘successful’ cities…finance industry…how creative they have been – the author partly discounts the big crises of the past decade as part of the cycles of a free market economy.
His key premise is “Help poor people, not poor places.” (255). And it is a strong premise, which is why Glaeser has the right messages to today’s struggling cities and which is also why I was so polarized between the above critique and some fascination for the author’s arguments (see Part II here).
* “A study of corruption in Indonesia found that the stock prices of companies whose leaders stood closest to that country’s dictator in photographs suffered most when the leader fell ill.” (96)
** “The majority of suicides among younger people involve firearms, and many studies find that suicides are more common when firearms are more common, a fact that is a little odd because guns are hardly the only means of killing oneself. Hunting is the strongest predictor of gun ownership in the United States, which explains why youth suicides rise significantly with the number of hunting licenses in a county.” (115)
All references and citations are from Edward Glaeser (2011): Triumph of the City. New York (Penguin Books) here.