EDWARD GLAESER: Triumph of the city: How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier

Bohumil Kováč

The book was recommended to me by another urbanist in connection to the process and primarily the result of the public discussions on an urbanistic study for Petržalka. Anyway, let us start with the introduction.

Edward Glaeser (1967), a professor at Harvard University, is an urban economist and empiricist who presents us his views on cities through his rational optics. He deems towns and cities, where more than half of the planet’s population currently lives, to be a fundamental invention and the driving force behind advancement of the humankind. He admires the ability of town/cities to continuously come up with new ideas. And this applies not only to the past, but, as the whole text suggests, this ability is the biggest hope of the human race for the future. As for the reasons for the success of cities, Glaeser sees them in the level of education, cultural opportunities, general diversity and attractiveness of social contacts and he supports his views with multitude of arguments which basically comprise the whole book. The author reflects on how cities, for example Detroit, handle crises and what causes such crises. For example, he remarks that the successful development of the city of Houston consists, among other things, in the fact that it has no zoning plan. The engaging book goes from topic to topic, such as transport, suburbs, greenery and verticality of cities. Glaeser considers verticality to be the one prospective concept for effective and ecological use of the territory of cities since the inventions of an elevator, steel and reinforced concrete. He also explains many historical facts from the past and not so past history of the construction of cities, for instance in relation to Haussmann’s renovation of Paris and current height limitation restrictions imposed on cities. Furthermore, he discusses social issues and the dynamics of the growth of urban population, also by comparing cities in different parts of the world. The author perceives a city as a social unit and, interestingly, concludes that although the influx of the poor into cities causes problems to the cities, it is not a manifestation of their weakness, but the opposite, it shows the power of their attractiveness. He believes that the level of poverty in cities is significantly lower compared to the rural areas and he supports this with examples from South America. He also touches on the topic of activist participation in the development of cities. For example, right in the introduction, he describes a paradox known only to a minority of experts, that if we try to prevent new construction in one neighbourhood to protect the greenery, the overall effect could be that the whole world will become browner. Environmentalists might have contributed to improving the quality of life in the areas where they live, but they (globally) harm the environment by displacing new construction towards the outskirts of cities. Development of cities is associated with continuous construction or renovation, and although the activists understand the necessity for the construction, they also argue: “not in our backyards”. “…We must be less tolerant towards the activists that prevent the growth of cities, as this ultimately reduces the production of greenhouse gases”, claims Glaeser. This approach results in the special expansion of cities, stretching of the infrastructure paid from the taxes of the residents, thus making it more expensive (and the money spent on it thus is not available to cover the costs of maintenance of the inner cities), with a loss of agricultural land (although we view the cutting down of tropical forests with the objective to gain more farmland negatively, we are responsible for the loss of such land on the other side of the world, thus we do the very same wrong thing ourselves, note by the reviewer). Despite the increasing sprawl of cities, Glaeser perceives the criticized suburbia as a success of the city, as a sign of its attractiveness. Prof. Rudolf Šteis (an urbanist and pedagogue at the FA STU) used to refer to this process of the influx of people into cities and their dispersion into their surrounding as the concentration-decentralization urbanization model.

Glaeser characterizes traffic and means of transport as elements that have always been a determining factor with respect to the appearance of cities, similarly to how walking used to limit the size of towns. Glaeser points out that hand in hand with the expansion of railways and public transport, town centres would flourish around stations and ports/harbours. Glaeser also mentions cities that are designed with the movement of cars in mind and concludes that those cities usually lack such a centre. Political leaders and experts should notice the basic law of traffic jams explained in this book, which states that instead of reducing the space provided for cars (by narrowing the traffic lanes and reducing their numbers), we do the exact opposite, whereby we just attract more cars into the traffic. Glaeser thus deciphers the psychological aspect of the traffic issue. While many factors can be calculated (e.g. water consumption, etc.), traffic cannot – it is a psychological phenomenon. When teaching urbanism theory and design, we remind students of these facts. A solution to the traffic problems thus lies in the minds of the people, provided that there are some alternatives to cars available. The second aspect of the traffic solution is the price of the traffic. The use of urban roads free of charge is perceived as a “human right” in the USA. However, Glaeser disagrees with it and claims that: “It is impossible to satisfy the demand for something that is for free”. I have underlined a section in preparation for my lectures: a natural solution to this problem is to charge for traffic, so that the drivers bear the whole costs associated with it – it means not only their own costs but also the costs incurred due to the loss of time they cause to other drives with their presence in the traffic space. Glaeser uses Singapore as an example of a dense city where the traffic system functions well thanks to the sophisticated policy involving the imposition of tolls and charges. Furthermore, he is of the opinion that the attractiveness of the city consist in the fact that due to its natural and political borders, there are no conditions for its sprawl, only for its vertical expansion. He also comments on the positive effect of many administrative measures that often can have a rather tough outcome for its residents (e.g. sanctions, etc.).

A special chapter dedicated to the topic of safety of cities – “Making cities safer” offers interesting information, for example that the crime level is not directly proportional to the nature of the environment. There are differences in criminality in cities of comparative size, which are difficult to explain. The author does not deem the lower criminality rate to be the result of the police work, but rather of the fact that the residents protect their living space themselves. However, there is an interesting correlation to general social trends – where there is higher corruption, there is also higher criminality rate (measured with the number of homicides). Interestingly, Glaeser compares the negative fluctuations in the behaviour of a city with the positive ones, with periods of “explosive creativity” of the same city. He also mentions the importance of personalities and their influence on the community of a city. A few people are enough to initiate the uplift of cultural level, however, similarly, only a few individuals are needed to disturb for social norms to be disrupted. In relation to this, Glaeser also mentions terrorism for which a city offers favourable environment. September 11, 2001, was not only a day of tragedy for New York, it was also a day of extraordinary togetherness of its residents. Even though many people worried that it would be the high density city that would become a permanent lure for terrorists, it seems that terrorism will not stop the urbanization process. The same applies to epidemiological risks, as a high number of people in small space constitute a health risk. Throughout the book, the author mentions various pandemics that hit cities in the past – and the cities have always recovered. And the author could not have had any idea at the time that the topic would become our new reality in just a few years. “A pandemic city” could be a topic of our new research in the field of urbanism, medicine and sociology: What can urbanism offer to prevent the spreading of epidemics, while preserving healthy social relationships? Glaeser discusses Haussmann’s renovation of Paris also from this perspective, taking into account the fire protection and political aspects and contemplates how to control, from the position of power, urban public spaces which are often used to express civil discontent.

In relation to the pandemics we are currently experiencing, there are interesting ideas on the possibilities of home office work, or on on-line teaching, which we have already tried ourselves. Glaeser refutes theories claiming that due to information technology, cities will lose their advantages and will no longer be able to pull in new residents, i.e. that the relationship between one’s place of residence and place of work will be changed radically. He claims that virtual contact cannot remain the sole contact and that students gain a lot of information from their personal interaction and personal interaction with their professors. This is something we should think about when organizing the teaching process, especially with respect to architecture.

There are thought-provoking chapter titles that will capture the attention of readers, such as: What is greener than asphalt? The author is aware of potential risks associated with climate changes and perceives them as the reason for the reduction of the production of carbon dioxide, also with respect to traffic. He repeatedly concludes that “it implies, among other things, also higher density construction in green areas and restriction of construction in areas that are basically brown”. There are other captivating chapter  titles, such as Flat world – high city or Is London a place for a luxury vacation?, or The taming of housing estates or Why are skyscrapers unique? The chapter titles alone are a proof of a wide range of topics covered by the book.

The text is interspersed with commentaries on books and theories written not only by other urbanists, but also entrepreneurs and politicians. Glaeser describes their personal stories and how they have influenced the development of specific cities or contributed to solving their problems. He has great respect for Jane Jacobs, although he also pragmatically argues with her and disproves some of her protective views. In contrast, he perceives positively Jacobs’s urging for vertically-oriented construction to limit special expansion. Almost every page of the book offers a sentence that should be underlined and discussed. For example, with regard to the search for balance between the protection of architectural monuments and historical buildings and a change: “A more sensible approach to the preservation of monuments and historical buildings will result in an increased pressure towards high-rise construction and the construction of new and higher buildings will in return reduce the pressure to raze other, older buildings”. I would also like to call attention to a sentence on page 17 – “The role of the leadership of a city is not to finance the construction of buildings and railways, but to look after its residents. A mayor that can contribute to better education of children, who then gain the ability to succeed, even on the other side of the world, is doing a good job, even if their city is shrinking…”. The end of the preceding sentence reminded me of my arguments from my time as a vice dean when I was talking to the minister of education, with whom I was on a fellowship stay in the Netherlands. He wanted to know how we determined the number of students of architecture and demanded some indicative number “based on the needs of our economy”. My response was laconic: “Unless you have to rock them in our social safety net, do not worry about where they will find a job”.

Expert readers will appreciate Glaeser’s extensive footnotes, full of facts and references. This book should certainly have a place in the personal libraries of architects and urbanists, right next to the books by Jacobs, Mitscherlich or Hruška. Its Slovak translation was published by Premedia, in the series Civilization in 2019, and the original was published in 2011.