TLC Book Tour Review of “Triumph of the City” by Edward Glaeser

Note: This book is reviewed as part of TLC Tours.

This book, full of interesting statistics and fun trivia about cities, also has a more serious message to convey. Glaeser maintains that cities are absolutely essential for the elevation of civilization. They “magnify humanity’s strengths” by virtue of putting people and ideas in close proximity with one another. They encourage “competition and diverse innovations.” Moreover, he avers that cities are greener (in terms of carbon footprints) than suburbs, and amasses an impressive array of information to prove it. And he calls for more “spacially neutral” policies that advance the cause of cities rather than favoring suburban sprawl.

To Glaeser, United States cities are marvelous creations, but they could be even better if the federal and local governments pursued more rational economic policies. According to Glaeser, three main aspects of current governmental policies favor suburbs over cities:

1. The federal tax deduction for home mortgage interest is not available to most city dwellers, who tend to be renters.

2. Transportation dollars disproportionately go for highways and access to outlying areas, rather than to light rail or subway systems for intracity movement.

3. Local funding for neighborhood schools cause the best schools to be built and maintained in the most prosperous (read “suburban”) neighborhoods. Urban schools, run by a “public quasi-monopoly,” generally cannot compete with the superior schools found in the suburbs.

Glaeser proposes a number of remedial policies:

1. Embrace nationwide quality schooling funded at the top-most level of government, or adopt a large-scale voucher program that would inspire urban competition for better schools. Especially in declining cities, spending on education should take precedence over spending on infrastructure.

2. Streamline city building and land-use codes that over regulate and thus drive up the cost of residential construction in urban areas by artificially constraining the supply of housing.

3. Deal with poverty at the national level so that city denizens cannot escape the financial burdens of their neighbors’ poverty by fleeing to the suburbs.

4. Stop subsidizing home ownership. This practice not only rewards suburban sprawl, but also “encourages Americans to leverage themselves to the hilt to bet on housing … and actually pushes up housing prices by encouraging people to spend more.”

5. Impose a tax on carbon emissions. Since cities generally are greener than suburbs, such a tax would be borne primarily by suburbanites who do not drive fuel-efficient cars or live in energy-efficient houses.

Edward L. Glaeser

Discussion: Glaeser received his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago. Like almost all “Chicago school” economists, he believes in the power of markets to allocate resources efficiently.

Glaeser discounts or ignores “values” that are not economic in nature. In so doing, he takes issue with the groundbreaking theories of Jane Jacobs, whose influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities challenged the way planners understood urban spaces and public policy. Advocating low-density dwellings, her concept of a city was a beehive of diversity, spontaneity, and dynamism. The appeal of Jacobs’ city streets, which ideally pulsate with blues, barbeque, boutiques, and book fairs, is undeniable. But Glaeser argues that preserving older one-story buildings means that housing supply cannot meet demand. Prices will inevitably increase, and cities become affordable only to the prosperous, eliminating the diversity so cherished by Jacobs.

Jane Jacobs

Unlike many of the Chicago school, Glaeser sees a significant role for the federal government as an instrument in rationalizing the burden of dealing with poverty. But his idea that the federal government should take steps to ameliorate urban poverty is not likely to be implemented even if it does identify the most efficient venue for dispensing such aid. As he points out himself, the inherent conservatism of the U.S. government, combined with the effect of racial cleavages on sympathy for the poor, militate against the enactment of wide scale remedial action.

James Trefil, a physicist who examines cities from a scientific point of view in A Scientist in the City, makes many of the same observations as does Glaeser, but comes up with a different conclusions. He believes that advances in information technology along with changes in the nature of warfare will make a pivotal difference in the evolution of cities.

Because the effects of terrorism are so disruptive – especially if skyscrapers are involved, Trefil doesn’t think highly centralized systems make much sense. New developments in high-speed trains can reduce car dependency to go from “Edge Cities” and suburbs to the center, if travel is necessary. But information technology – including increased use of video conferencing – may eliminate even that need.

Rapid Commute, oil on canvas by Olive Ayhens

If, Trefil proposes, just half of the labor force works from home on any given day, the harmful environmental effects of commuting will be eliminated, and each worker’s time will become more efficient as well. Shopping can also be done online, and restaurants “will join the dispersion” as in fact they always have done. Trefil’s book is a good companion volume to Glaeser’s, because he has a different emphasis (i.e., the natural forces that shape cities) and because his analysis of the same phenomena differs somewhat as well.

Evaluation: Glaeser’s book can be read on two levels. On the one hand, it is an entertaining, fact-filled compendium about the past and recent history of cities. It is also a treatise on how cities can thrive in the future, and indeed, why they should. This thought-provoking book is enjoyable on both levels.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Penguin Press, 2011

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17 Responses to TLC Book Tour Review of “Triumph of the City” by Edward Glaeser

  1. Julie P. says:

    I’ve never lived in a real city! I think the authors makes some valid points. Interesting review.

  2. Sandy says:

    Orlando is probably not the best example because our downtown area isn’t all that bustling, but we have friends that live in a high rise down there, walk everywhere they go, are three blocks from the school, and rarely even get out their car. Sometimes I’m envious of that lifestyle. I think it is simpler, and is pretty darned green compared to my life.

  3. bermudaonion says:

    That does sound like a thought provoking books. The mid-size metropolitan area we live in is doing a marvelous job of revitalizing its city center, but most cities in the South feature urban sprawl, which I find very unappealing, and I get that the government encourages that.

  4. Rural View says:

    I grew up in a city and I’m most happy in that atmosphere. My husband grew up in a small town in Maine and loves the country. Never the twain shall meet apparently so we live in the country. I studied the issue of suburban sprawl when I wrote for a city planning magazine and the more I learned the more difficult it became to decide what to do about it. The Binghamton, NY area 20 miles from us is a prime example, spreading out to enclose small towns to the west and north. Meanwhile downtown is a disaster despite attempts at revival and everyone commutes longer and longer distances. I think if I were a city planner, I would go bananas in about a month. 🙂

  5. zibilee says:

    I am not sure I would read this book because I prefer my nonfiction to be a little more science based, but I admit that the ideas that Glaeser puts forth to be very interesting and thought provoking. Some of the things he mentions in his book seem a bit counter intuitive, but I am far from educated on the matter, so I have no doubt they could be true. I loved this review and loved the fact that it was so well constructed and cogent. Thanks for sharing this with me!

  6. marthalama says:

    I don’t know if I would normally pick this up but your review makes me want to give it a try.

  7. Ti says:

    I almost agreed to sign-up for this tour…almost. I tend to think of cities as living, breathing entities. How they grow, thrive, and sometimes die is always an interesting topic of study.

  8. Valerie says:

    Looks like an interesting book. Probably a good counterpart to “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream” by Andres Duany, et al.

    That said, I’m an suburban mom — but I would definitely consider living in a city if it had good public schools (and certainly would like to once the kids are out of school) — so I definitely agree with Glaeser’s #1 point.

    I’m not sure that subsidizing home ownership would be a solution — doing so wouldn’t make all surbanites think of moving back to the city — but it might lower the rates of suburban flight.

    As for home prices being pushed up artifically — does Glaeser address the issue of rent caps in the cities or anywhere else? Landlords have the power to raise rents sky-high which would be just as bad as home prices skyrocketing.

    • Valerie,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I perhaps wasn’t clear in my review. Glaeser is not saying that subsidizing home ownership is a solution – he is saying we already do subsidize home ownership with the tax deduction for interest paid on home mortgages and by guaranteeing the debts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He feels we should discontinue this practice because it simultaneously increases the demand for home ownership while making it artificially cheaper to own. This causes more people to live in the suburbs than would do so in an unsubsidized market for housing. Thus, discontinuing the subsidization of home ownership would provide an incentive for suburbanites to move back to the city.

      I don’t believe that Glaeser worries that landlords can raise rents indefinitely (rental units have no such tax benefit). Landlords already charge as much as they can get away with, but that amount is limited by competition among landlords for renters. As for rent caps, I also don’t believe Glaeser would ever suggest them. They are unnecessary and downright harmful because once imposed, they remove the incentive to build new housing or to improve existing stock. Cities like Venice Beach, California, discovered that after imposing rent caps owners had reduced incentives to maintain their properties. As a result, housing stayed affordable, but deteriorated substantially in quality.

  9. Interesting information…I’d like him to come live in Detroit and see what he can do.

  10. Now this is a book I would have passed on, but having read your review, I think I might want to try it. Great job

  11. Jenners says:

    Cities exhaust me. I would prefer to live in a medium-sized town where most things were accessible by walking or bike but wasn’t too big. (Kind of like Eugene, OR, where I went to college. That was a great town.)

  12. Ceri says:

    Wow, this sounds like an interesting read. I have to say … as much as I grew up in a small town and don’t mind venturing out into the countryside now and then (I’m lying – I don’t like it. I have hayfever. :P), I’m a city girl by heart. I love the hustle and bustle of people. I love the diversity that cities offer. 🙂

  13. Jenny says:

    I grew up in a medium-sized city that has always felt (to me) like a very, very small town, so there’s a lot that I love about my hometown. BUT if the government would take some time to improve the public transportation system, I think it could change lives. Including mine if they had done it when I was in college.

  14. I have to admit that I’m really not a fan of city life but I can definitely see the benefits that living in a city can bring both to the individual and to society. This sounds like a book I should read for sure!

    Thanks for including references to the Trefil book – it sounds the a great companion read.

  15. JoV says:

    I am actually working in the social housing sector in London and all questions raised are things that I am dying to know and if those remedial actions actually work in all cities around the globe. I would be interested to know how I could get a copy of the book (seems too dear), if the publisher is willing to offer more review copies across the pond.

    I am more of a suburban person rather than a city dweller.

    This is a wonderful review!

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    I’d loveto live in the city for many of the reasons mentioned, but Cleveland is not a place I feel safe. And that was before I had a baby. I would love to live in a city with public transportation that I was able to use. Okay, maybe not buses, but I love trains!

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