In the first part of my review of Edward Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City” I was pretty much in a rage of criticizing the flaws in this urban economist’s analysis (here). But I need to be honest: There are many true words in the book. Glaeser makes several political statements, drawn from well-founded conclusions, which are top-notch and not very mainstream with regard to the most pressing urban development issues of today. If I set aside the economic left-right debate, I have to agree with some of Glaeser’s key messages.
His engagement with the topic of sprawl is very laudable. Instead of taking either side of the highly controversial debate, he walks us through the history of the automobile, highway system, production innovations, public schools as well as land and tax policies to understand that the discussion about sprawl should not be so much about the ‘sprawl culture’, but about the relatively rational decisions by millions of people and companies to move out of cities. He also tries to navigate through the dangerous grounds of New Urbanism versus high-rise density, and gives an economist’s explanation of NIMBYism without dismissing its negative impacts.
In contrast to other authors, Glaeser seems to understand very well how technical and hard infrastructure solutions had made and are making cities great only in conjunction with soft measures of reforms and social change. He addresses the issue of urban decline by rigorously concluding about the flawed urban renewal attempts by politicians’ “(…) all-too-common error of confusing a city, which is really a mass of connected humanity, with its infrastructures.” (43). Despite his preference for the free market, he strongly supports a stronger local government and also critically looks at his own country’s past and clarifies: “A century ago, America was just as corrupt as many developing countries today (…).” (101). And this might be one of the two key lessons I take from this book: Researchers/experts in industrialized countries perceive the challenges of (cities in) the Global South as hard to imagine and extremely difficult to resolve, while they/we forget about our very own history, which is full of (urban/urbanization) disasters and set-backs.
The second key lesson I am drawing from the book is that: “In fact, (…), poverty is usually a sign of a city’s success.” (67). I have to admit that I nearly screamed the first time I read this line, but the author is very stringent in making his argument that: “Indeed, we should worry more about places with too little poverty. Why do they fail to attract the least fortunate?” (71). This is the part of the book which tells us most about cities in the Global South and how our own perspective on ‘poor areas’ (informal settlements, slums, peri-urban areas, etc.) should differentiate between social problems of everyday life (which the author acknowledges to be awful) and the broader opportunities millions of rural poor find when migrating to cities. Glaeser concludes this distinction: “This history [of Harlem Renaissance] suggests that areas should be judged not by their poverty but by their track record in helping poorer people move up. If a city is attracting continuing waves of the less fortunate, helping them succeed, watching them leave, and then attracting new disadvantaged migrants, then it is succeeding at one of society’s most important functions. If an area has become the home of default for poor people who are staying poor, then that area is failing.” (81).
It might be Glaeser’s strength to identify the actual issues of the rise and fall of cities more succinctly than other authors before him. He sees governments (particularly in the Global South) taking on too many tasks while failing at core responsibilities (158). The author also advices those who dislike the urban growth which has happened in cities like Dallas, Atlanta, Las Vegas, etc.: “If advocates of older cities want to actually help their cities, they should try to understand Houston rather than criticizing it.” (183). Despite his opposition to ‘big government’, Glaeser is a true city guy. He wants to put an end to anti-urban policies and subsidies. He underscores the importance and necessity of big investments in the urban realm to let U.S. cities strive again. And he is even an outspoken supporter of open borders, interconnected places, and the free movement of people, as these factors are at the core of cities’ strengths.
In conclusion, keeping the first part of this book review in mind (here), I have to remain wary of Glaeser’s mainstream economist take on many political topics. However, as an outspoken supporter of the metropolis and urban life, the author stands on the same side as I do. Thus, I would not expulse a like-minded thinker and theoretic fighter for stronger local governments.
All references and citations are from Edward Glaeser (2011): Triumph of the City. New York (Penguin Books) here.