Social Studies of Environmentalism

Triumph of the City

In Reviews on May 24, 2011 at 7:00 am

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Architectural critics once warned New Yorkers about skyscrapers that surpassed the height of the thirteenth floor. They argued buildings any taller than 125 feet would paint the sidewalks with permanent shadows and force the cavernous streets to flood with congestion. People would flee the chaos and property vales would plummet. Time would prove them to be both right and wrong. This ambiguity sets the stage for Glaeser’s surprising assessments of the successes, failures, and promises of cities. The author navigates issues ranging from sanitation in the world’s slums to ranking systems of jet-setting haute cuisine with the eye of an economist, writing in truest form.

Cities are contradictions in themselves.  The high costs of city living, from rent to groceries, might seem entirely inhospitable and unattractive to low-income families, yet cities increasingly house large numbers of poor residents. Glaeser provocatively identifies both high living costs and poverty as signs of urban success. The first is easy enough to comprehend. Strong demand drives housing costs upward. Cultural activities, jobs, and ample supplies of singles draw younger professionals to cities despite the high cost of milk and bread. Billionaires can live anywhere they like, but they frequently choose to live in cities – London alone accommodates 32 of them. According to Glaeser, however, the world’s poor are just as keen to cash in on the promise of urban life – “cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people,” he claims. By this accounting, urban poverty is a sign of a successful city.

We would be better served, Glaeser argues, to judge the poverty of urban residents not against the wealth of those living in penthouses but against the comparatively dire and disconnected conditions of the rural poor. Poor and rich urbanites alike are better off than their suburban and rural peers by many measures. Even adjusting for education, employment, and income differences, urban residents experience lower rates of cancer, suicide, and accidents. They live longer too. The death rate of 25-34 year-olds in New York City, for instance, is 60% lower than the national average. (Other age groups follow the same pattern albeit to a lesser degree.)

Glaeser argues these benefits persist even despite the failures of harmful urban policy initiatives lined up against cities. First, he derides rent control for strangling housing supply and in effect reserving cities as playgrounds for the rich – “what poor artists can afford to live in central Paris today?” he asks. Unleashing the developers and standing up to preservationists is the best way to grant affordable housing, according to Glaeser.

Second, he blames political instruments such as the homeowner’s mortgage deduction for drawing people to suburbs, leaving urban renters to subsidize flight from their own cities. Capping qualified mortgages at $300,000 would ease the impetus while protecting the middle class.

He also describes how urban transit systems remain under-funded as tax dollars flow at twice the per-capita rate to subsidize suburban sprawl. Meanwhile, city dwellers are left to absorb the costs of social services programs that are overburdened as the poor increasingly flee car-centric suburbs to live in walkable cities. “A nation’s poor are every citizen’s responsibility, not just the people who happen to live in the same jurisdiction,” Glaeser argues. “It is fairer, both to the poor and to cities, if social services are funded at the national rather than the local level.”

Still Glaeser doesn’t think public funds should go toward rebuilding failed cities like Detroit or disaster-prone cities like New Orleans. The ball parks, public housing, and subsidized office buildings unveiled at politically-popular ribbon cutting ceremonies in declining cities are ultimately a waste of money. Glaeser maintains public policies should “help poor people, not poor places.” He holds up the example of New Orleans, where the proposed $200 billion to rebuild the city might have been better allocated by writing a $400,000 check to every resident, allowing them to choose their own destiny.

This individualist free-market flair runs throughout Glaeser’s exposé, but with hardly an ounce of reflection into its own culpability in the situation at hand. Like any pioneering work, Triumph of the City also has its share of clumsy moments and inconsistencies. Most of these can be pardoned given the book’s sweeping scope. One cannot.

Glaeser attempts to show how blacktop is environmentally greener than grass but his argument would have been far more convincing had he engaged with the vast literature on environmental risk and resource constraints. For instance, he admires the urban theories of Jane Jacobs but trumps her in a rush to endorse expensive skyscrapers. Skyscrapers have certainly thrived in an age of cheap energy and materials. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence the world’s tallest skyscrapers stand within a stone’s throw of a major stock or commodity exchange.) But times have changed. How will volatile energy and commodity costs affect skyscraper construction and specialized maintenance requirements? Will skyscrapers go down in history as a sign of urban vitality, or as epitaphs of a society fueled by the exuberance of low-cost energy? These and broader resource related questions remain unanswered.

Still, Glaeser has created a persuasive case for supporting cities and their residents. His book is remarkable in this genre for its appeal to liberal economic principles. This angle will make the book palatable to readers who would not otherwise consider themselves to be urbanists. Triumph of the City is set to become a widely influential book in the public understanding of urban policies and their consequences.

- The Editors of Critical Environmentalism

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