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 institutions, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Published by Penguin Press, 2011