Triumph of the City

The post takes its title from the book I have just finished reading and which I intend to summarise so that you can either enjoy the synopsis and be inspired to read it for yourself, or simply take away my interpretation of the lessons presented therein. [caveat: I initially started reading this book about three years ago and got most of the way through it, but admittedly found some of the chapters repeating the same ideas, which made me put the book back on the shelf and only pick it up recently to finish it, for my personal satisfaction of completeness.] I have decided to use the concluding chapter as a guide to comment on the ideas presented in the book with subheadings as in the original text, which I quote from liberally.

Flat World, Tall City

An important opening thought is contained in the following first three words:

Cities enable collaboration, especially the joint production of knowledge that is mankind’s most important creation. Ideas flow readily from person to person in the dense corridors of Bangalore and London, and people are willing to put up with high urban prices just to be around talented people, some of whose knowledge will rub off.

This idea, coupled with the counter-intuitive concept that slums or favelas are a sign of a city’s prosperity, were amongst those which I deemed as most thought-provoking in this book. The author successfully argues that the growth of cities is both natural and good.

We should not force urban growth, but we must eliminate the barriers that artificially constrain the blossoming of city life.

Give Cities a Level Playing Field

The central theme of this book is that cities magnify humanity’s strengths. Our social species’ greatest talent is the ability to learn from each other, and we learn more deeply and thoroughly when we’re face-to-face.

A further thought, from the point of view of economics (which the author is a Harvard professor of):

Competition among local governments for people and firms is healthy. Competition drives cities to deliver better services and keep down costs. The national government does no good by favoring particular places, just as it does no good by propping up particular firms or industries. It’s far better for companies to compete, and it’s also far better for cities to find their own competitive advantages.

The concept of competition has many applications, discussed below, all of which lead to the betterment of cities and populations, allowing them to continue to thrive when faced with challenges.

Urbanization Through Globalization

Here, the idea of immigration is encouraged:

Immigrants are often a vital part of [the cities’] economic model, both at the top and the bottom ends of the pay scale, and the success of global cities depends on national policies toward trade and immigration.

A number of examples are given, from Google cofounder Sergey Brin, to statistics about Vancouver’s success where a fifth of residents are ethnic Chinese and a quarter are of English origin.

Lend a Hand to Human Capital

The importance of education is presented as follows:

Education is, after January temperature, the most reliable predictor of urban growth, especially among older cities. Per capita productivity rises sharply with metropolitan area size if the city is well educated, but not if it isn’t. Cities and schools complement each other, and for that reason, education policy is a vital ingredient in urban success.

The various statistics and examples given throughout the book leave me in no doubt that if a city is to become and remain prosperous, its population should be well educated. The author also argues that law and justice form another pillar of successful cities and societies.

Education doesn’t just improve a region’s economic prospects; it also helps create a more just society. Giving poor children a good education may be the single best way to help them become prosperous adults.

Once again, the method of improving education, rather than “throwing money at the problem” is to encourage competition amongst schools.

Help Poor People, Not Poor Places

Although the idea may seem harsh or inconsiderate, the author argues that cities in decline should not necessarily be ‘bailed out’, “we should not freeze urban change or artificially forestall urban decline” but rather their population should be helped and allowed to make their own choices which may very well include moving to find prosperity elsewhere.

National government should try to reduce human misery, but it shouldn’t try to stop the great course of urban change. Those currents are just too strong to hold back, and there’s no reason to even try.

The Challenge of Urban Poverty

As alluded to above, with examples such as Rio’s favelas or Mumbai’s slums, “[c]ities attract poor people because they’re good places for poor people to live“. However, the presence of poorer people in the city leads richer people to flee from the city into the suburbs, creating a divide which is detrimental to the city.

A far better and more practical approach would be for higher levels of government to distribute funds in a way that offsets the added costs of poverty. Providing more support for cities that must address the problems of poverty reduces the incentive for richer people to leave those cities.

The Rise of the Consumer City

Following from the previous argument, “successful cities attract rich people as well as poor people.” However, in order for the cities to be successful, a number of needs have to be met by “providing the core public services that have always been the province of cities: safe streets, fast commutes, good schools.” Education has already been mentioned above, as has, in part, the importance of safety. The concept of better transportation is introduced below.

The Curse of NIMBYism

In cities and suburban enclaves alike, opposition to change means blocking new development and stopping new infrastructure projects. Residents are in effect saying “not in my backyard.”

The author explains that NIMBYism may, and indeed usually does, seem reasonable, due to two psychological biases called status quo bias (things are best left as they are) and impact bias (overestimating the negative impact of changes). I would imagine that everyone, no matter how altruistic, can identify with NIMBYism. However, the author quite rightly argues that:

Not all change is good, but much change is necessary if the world is to become more productive, affordable, exciting, innovative, and environmentally friendly.

The Bias Toward Sprawl

Sprawl, an omnipresent phenomenon across the United States which most people can easily picture as sparsely spread houses surrounded by greenery and connected by roads, stems in large part from the effective subsidy of the automotive industry to create a utopia where everyone can drive and own a large house in beautiful surroundings. A utopia which has led to the dystopia of obesity and climate change. As a way of combatting sprawl, effective transportation is key. “We need to build in ways that make increasingly crowded cities more functional.

Green Cities

Dovetailing with the previous section, the argument for living at high densities and walking is made as it “is a lot more environmentally friendly than living in a low-density suburb and driving everywhere.” An important warning is also given:

Over the next forty years, India and China will continue to urbanize rapidly. Their decisions about land use will have a huge impact on energy consumption and carbon emissions. If they live at high densities and use public transit, then the whole world will benefit. If they sprawl, then we will all suffer from higher energy costs and higher carbon emissions.

Gifts of the City

In a final conclusion, the author summarises that:

Building cities is difficult, and density creates costs as well as benefits. But those costs are well worth bearing, because (…) our culture, our prosperity, and our freedom are all ultimately gifts of people living, working, and thinking together—the ultimate triumph of the city.


All quotations above are from “The Triumph of the City” by Edward Glaeser.

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