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Triumph of the City

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

Edward Glaeser

The Penguin Press, 338 pp, $29.95

"If you love nature, stay away from it."

Counterintuitive, maybe, but economist Edward Glaeser makes a strong case for the argument in his provocative new Triumph of the City, an entertaining, occasionally annoying, and almost always thought-provoking look at how urban centers are socially, economically, and environmentally good for us. A Harvard professor who writes for the New York Times’ blog Economix and had recent pieces in The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal, Glaeser is a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, and he brings a free-marketeer’s eye to his environmental query. That makes for some interesting insights, some of which might not please traditional conservatives, many of whom view cities as cauldrons of criminality and dependence and see density as a sort of social engineering.

Example: Glaeser concludes that rising poverty may be a sign of a city’s success. "Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor," he writes, "but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their lot in life." Because of this, he concludes, poverty-related social services costs should be borne not by local governments but federally -- a suggestion sure to raise eyebrows among the starve-the-government crowd.

At the book’s heart lies this belief: "Humans are an intensely social species that excels, like ants or gibbons, in producing things together." Cities are the key incubators of human innovation, and thus for building wealth.

Glaeser’s environmental analysis is, with a few exceptions, spot on. His exhortation to nature-lovers to stay away from nature comes after describing the time that Henry David Thoreau -- the 19th-century author beloved by 20th-century environmentalists -- accidentally burned 300 acres of woods. When people live close together, as they do in cities, they do less harm to the environment and the earth’s resources. They drive less. Their buildings, with shared walls, retain more heat. Their dwellings tend to be smaller.

"The average single-family detached home consumes 88 percent more electricity than the average apartment in a five-or-more-unit building," he writes. "The average suburban household consumes 27 percent more electricity than the average urban household." Gas consumption per family per year declines by 106 gallons as the number of residents per square mile doubles.

These insights are similar to those in David Owen’s 2009 book Green Metropolis, but Glaeser’s policy prescriptions are stronger, if less politically practical. As a free-market economist, he supports both London-style congestion pricing, charging motorists a fee to drive in the center city, as well as a carbon tax, as incentives to use resources more efficiently. He is deeply critical of the home mortgage interest deduction and the federal interstate highway system as subsidies for suburban sprawl.

Yet in some other ways his conclusions, or at least his rhetoric, seem shallow. He flails environmentalists as NIMBYs and targets land conservation and historic preservation as major causes of sprawl, an overly simplistic analysis. Large-lot zoning requirements -- which he rightly disdains -- are surely a much bigger problem than sensible rules to protect water quality, farmlands, floodplains and wetlands, for instance.

For a guy who appears to have visited cities around the globe -- from Hong Kong to Houston -- Glaeser can be oddly oblivious to the fact that most cities are not New York. He lets textbook-bound theory blind him to the complexities of real-world urban economies. For instance, he equates residential "density" with "skyscrapers."

In his eyes, skyscrapers are the height of green living. But as architect Michael Mehaffy and others have pointed out, tall buildings can be less energy-efficient than shorter ones. In cities lacking the intense development pressure of a New York or Hong Kong -- i.e., most other U.S. cities -- one skyscraper can suck up a disproportionate chunk of the existing market, leading to the odd sight of tall towers surrounded by surface parking lots -- not your greenest landscape. As Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joe Riley has said, six five-story buildings may be preferable to one 30-story building.

Nor is the relationship between skyscrapers and sprawl as direct as Glaeser suggests. Witness the example of Charlotte, N.C. It has no downtown height limits, yet rapacious suburban sprawl continued even as condo towers sprouted in the center city.

Quibbles aside, the book deserves wide readership. With Glaeser’s credentials in libertarian and free-market circles, his scorn for sprawl will resonate more powerfully among those readers than would a similar message from a granola-dusted liberal. To spread the wisdom that cities are not, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, "pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man," but are, instead, the greatest hope for our globe’s survival can only be a good thing.

image of Mary Newsom
Mary Newsom is an editorial board member and op-ed columnist and blogger at The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, where she writes about urban issues and local government. She spent 2007-08 as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and 2005-06 as a fellow at... READ MORE >