Edward Glaeser: The triumph of the city


How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier


Edward Glaeser is an economist. He is not a designer, nor an architect, a planner, or an urbanist. He has probably never used CAD. So why is his opinion on what makes cities so great, so valuable to architects?

Triumph of the City How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, by Edward L. Glaeser, New York, The Penguin Press, 2011

Denise Scott-Brown understood the value, as she attests in her own article in this issue, so much so that she invited an economist to teach her students in a design studio focusing on Levittown (a small suburb on Long Island, New York). Indeed, Levittown is a focus of Glaeser’s Triumph of the City as he takes aim at the suburbs, deriding them for their lack of density — something which is essentially the core thesis of this book. However, what makes this a worthwhile read is understanding why density works according to an economist. Glaeser outlines this using hard figures, one example being that the average single-family detached home consumes 88% more electricity than the average apartment in a five- or more-unit building.

For Glaeser, the city has triumphed due to its ability to connect people, and more importantly, facilitate the pollination of ideas. This attribute, in direct relation to today, is traced back in New York to the 1800s with the distribution of books: ‘Even New York’s publishing pre-eminence ultimately reflected the city’s central place on transatlantic trade routes, as the big money in 19th-century books came from being first printer out with pirated copies of English novels. The Harper Bros really arrived as [national] publishers when they beat their Philadelphia competitors by printing the third volume of Walter Scott’s Peveril of the peak 21 hours after it arrived in New York by packet ship’. (And yes, this is where we get the contemporary notion of ‘pirating’ something).

The asset of being able to distribute knowledge and information quickly and efficiently, though, goes back even further and beyond America’s shores, which Glaeser acknowledges through many examples. One is the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. The Abbasid caliphs established the literal intellectual powerhouse, roughly 50 miles north of ancient Babylon. ‘They collected scholars as if they were valuable baubles and eventually matched those minds in the House of Wisdom, a sort of research institution whose first job was to import the world’s knowledge and translate it into Arabic. The scholars translated, among many other works, Hippocrates’ Aphorisms, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle‘s Physics, the Old Testament, and the Sindhind’. The latter tome is a compendium of Indian mathematical knowledge and at the start of the Ninth Century, the scholar, Mohammed Al-Khwarizmi, drew from Sindhind to develop algebra, which he essentially named. Through the House of Wisdom, ‘the philosopher Yaqub Al-Kindi wrote one of the first treatises on environmentalism, and later made Greek philosophy compatible with Islamic theology’. Baghdad became the centre for much more, too. ‘Medical knowledge came to Baghdad from the Persians; papermaking was brought there by Chinese prisoners of war’.

Of course, if we are discussing the dissemination of knowledge (or anything for that matter), the role of infrastructure is a pivotal to this conversation. Back to the Big Apple: the great liquid highway – the Erie Canal in New York State – reflected New York’s geographical advantages and the willingness of its government to bed vast sums of public money. ‘They were right to bet; the canal turned a profit almost immediately because the huge demand for East-West transport. Cities soon sprung up on the Erie Canal’s path, creating the trading network that would make it possible for farmers to move West. Syracuse initially specialised in shipping salt, Rochester became America’s flower city and Buffalo was the waterway’s western terminus’. America’s canal system flourished, and from 1850 until 1970, at least five of the 10 largest American cities were along that route.

Rail was also crucial to the success of cities, in part, courtesy of Gustavus Swift’s invention of the refrigerated rail car that could keep slaughtered meat from spoiling in transit. Between 1890 and 2011, the ‘real’ [inflation adjusted] cost of moving a ton a mile by rail dropped from $0.20 to $0.02.

Yet despite how crucial ample infrastructure was to the success of the city, it is, in Glaeser’s analysis, the result, not cause of success. He points to the failure of the Detroit People Mover, a development that tried in vein to pre-empt demand for infrastructure but ended up haemorrhaging money and being a drain on the city’s resources instead. Even with this in mind, there are benefits to public health that come with such infrastructure: ‘driving drunk is far more deadly than taking the bus while intoxicated’.

Building infrastructure goes hand-in-hand with policy, too. When Ken Livingstone introduced the congestion charge in London in 2003, there was a 20 percent reduction in driving in the first two weeks. Overall, congestion in the city dropped by 30 percent over the following two years and public transit usage boomed.

Glaeser also makes the link between infrastructure and poverty. When American cities have built new ‘rapid transit stops’, poverty rates have generally increased near those stops. This doesn’t mean that mass-transit was making people poor, but rather poor people were being able to get around without a car. ‘The fact that public transit disproportionately carries and attracts poor people is a benefit, not a floor’.

Glaeser continues, making the case that cities should be a place for poor people, and that those financially less fortunate are more likely to find success there, rather than in the rural. ‘The absence of poor people in an area is the signal that it lacks something important, like affordable housing or public transportation or jobs for the least skilled. The great urban poverty paradox is that if the city improves life for people currently living there by improving public schools or mass-transit, the city will attract more poor people’.

Using Detroit as an example again, Glaeser stipulates that the city’s post-1960s plight was also down to an exodus to the suburbs (which in turn rendered the People Mover obsolete). But why did Detroit seemingly hollow-out? Glaeser takes the case of the Ford car company to show how a city bereft of innovation can fade away. ‘[Henry] Ford figured out how to make assembly lines that could use the talents of poorly educated Americans, but making Detroit less skilled hurt her economically in the long run. As the car companies got out of innovation and into mass production, they no longer saw any advantages to locating in the city. Dense urban centres are ideal places to come up with new ideas, not ideal places to make millions of model T’s’.

This brings us to the role of education, which as Baghdad showed us, is key to producing and spreading knowledge and ideas. Glaeser argues that if the United States emulated France and embraced nationwide quality schooling funded by the state, there would be less reason to flee urban areas.

Quite the opposite happened, however, in Santa Clara County, California — today the site of America’s greatest information technology hub. This formerly agricultural community became a titan of technology after Senator Leland Stanford, a railroad magnate, decided to build a university on his eight-thousand-acre horse farm in 1885. The chain reactions that followed eventually led to Silicon Valley being the birthplace of Yahoo!, Google, Fairchild Semiconductor International, Intel and HewlettPackard, to name but a few. ‘In some ways, Silicon Valley is like a well-functioning traditional city. It attracts brilliant people and then connects them. […] Silicon Valley’s concentration is also a response to the curse of communicating complexity; all that cutting-edge technology can be pretty complicated, and geographic proximity helps the flow of information.’

Former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, recognised this too. He furthered at an urban level what he garnered from his work on Wall Street, emulating the open office trading floors which allowed anyone to talk to each other across the room, in an albeit frenzied, yet productive, manner.

This winds us back neatly to density. Glaeser detests urban policy that restricts building up. ‘The rules that keep India’s cities too short and too expensive mean that too few Indians can connect with each other and with the outside world. Because poverty often means death in the developing world, and because restricting city growth ensures more poverty, it is not hyperbole to say that land use planning in India can be a matter of life and death’.

This is true outside of India as well. The average life expectancy in counties with more than 500 people per square mile is nine months longer than in counties with fewer than 100 people per square mile. And about three-quarters of residents in Lagos have access to safe drinking water, a proportion that is horribly low but that is far higher than any place else in Nigeria, where the norm is less than 30 percent.

Glaeser also argues that dense (read: tall) cities use less energy and are subsequently more sustainable. New Urbanist towns on the other hand, like Poundbury in Dorchester, Seaside in Florida and Disney’s Celebration, are not. In Celebration, 91 percent of people who leave their homes take cars; In Poundbury, three-quarters of its residents drive on their shopping trips.

Triumph of the City was published in 2011 and it’s certainly interesting to note how much the conversation surrounding sustainability has moved on, particularly with regards to acknowledging embodied carbon. ‘Environmentalists can make the case for green are living in densities, but to do this they must give up their antipathy to concrete’, writes Glaeser. He also rallies against environmentalists who have  slowed development in San Francisco, arguing they have limited the city’s potential to densify. In this light, he is also pro knocking down — justifying the demolition of Les Halles in Paris and Penn Station in New York.

Despite this, Glaeser makes abundantly clear the virtues of having dense, connected cities and also of education and innovation. The latter two virtues are the be-all and end-all, in his eyes, when it comes to urban policy.

Book digests

As the world gets more complex, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with even the most essential reading. This is particularly so for architects because so many fields of learning impact upon its creation, interpretation and assessment.

To accumulate into a useful archive, each issue of Citizen includes digests of writings readers deem particularly useful or revelatory. Because the best writing tends to be of long-term value, digests are not restricted to those of recently published material. And the selection is largely left to readers to reflect the diversity of architects’ interests and inspirations.

Readers willing to contribute to this ongoing series are encouraged to first contact the editors proposing a book or article they consider particularly appropriate.


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