Book Report: Triumph of the City / by Simmon Li

So, I just finished this book, and I felt compelled to write a little about it. I thought it was a great read, and it served to sharpen my own thinking when it comes to cities and their future. To start with, Edward Glaeser (the author) basically argues that cities are good for us, and that instead of restricting city development we should encourage it (it's basically a counter-point to some of Jane Jacob's assertions). Why cities? And why approach city planning in the way he prescribes? Well, simply Glaeser believes that cities are the drivers of human innovation. It follows the basic unlimited economic growth paradigm: if we can innovate forever, we will expand our economy forever. But let's grant that model of economics. His theory fits and works wonderfully. Cities enable many people to live together. This enables them to share ideas, communicate, and plug in with each other on a human level. This aspect of cities is what made them so dangerous in the first place: disease thrives in compact places. It happened in cities, and it happens in our intensive animal farming. Glaeser provides a concise set of recommendations to make cities (and our future) better.

  1. Build up, not out.
    1. Fix housing policy so that it doesn't favour sprawl.
    2. Transit policy needs to be more coherent. At the moment, it fails to encourage mass public transit, and instead favours building roads. (More roads = more use - the tragedy of the commons, in a way).
    3. Address school and education inequalities. Housing policy overwhelmingly favours those mobile enough to take advantage of it. This is a double blow to education as well (local taxes finance local school boards).
  2. Help the people, not the place.
    1. Building infrastructure isn't the way to attract talent or population.
    2. See 1.3
  3. Cities can be better for the environment
    1. Travelling is cleaner
    2. Bulk heating and cooling is more efficient

A lot of what he says in this book makes quite a bit of sense on the surface. And I'm sure it makes sense quite a bit into the details. If you don't have tax structures that incentivize home-ownership, perhaps more people would choose to live in the city. City living, while not necessarily more environmentally friendly, seems to be much healthier for us compared to sprawled living, There is a bunch of research on this. City dwellers tend to walk or cycle more. I don't think over-all city living is entirely more environmentally sound than sprawl living, but he makes many good points. If you have to drive everywhere, that's a lot of emissions. Second, there are efficiencies in use of land and energy. The idea is that you can build up, house much more people on the same physical lot. It makes a lot of sense from the resource scarcity point of view.

I think the best part of the book is the whole debunking of the natural living, small town crap. I firmly believe that urban living is the future. I don't think a "cityplanet" is anything we should aspire to, but clearly cities work. I think fundamentally though the book carries some assumptions thta he doesn't discuss at all. I'm no urban planner or urban economist, but I think these questions are worth asking.

He advocates a balance of new and old buildings, and he doesn't have objections to green space. But how does he reconcile that with mixed use paradigm? I assume that his mantra of building up would mean condo towers with shopping beneath. That's mixed use, but then what about green space? I think it's clear that he places value on green space, but it seems to me that he imagines green space under the old paradigm of urban design. It seems oddly out of place in the wave of urban mixed use planning that he seems to build on (from Jacobs). I think there's some things missing in this otherwise very well put together book. The idea of green space is fairly rigid in the book. There's no mention of green tops, or other urban based green spaces that are not necessarily fenced off, protected parks. And he doesn't really talk about how cities would deal with the increased infrastructure demands of increased density. I don't mean roads and transport necessarily, but even those would have to be addressed. I am really talking about the "hidden" infrastructure, electricity grids, water, sewage, etc. He doesn't talk about it much, and I think, in part, it's okay. Electricity grids are starting to see conversion into so called "smart" grids. Tom Friedman talked about smart grids in his "Hot Flat and Crowded", and I really believe they will help. But sewage and water are expensive to build and expand. I do grant that he makes a point in the book that basically says "Look, this stuff isn't cheap, but it's worth the investment." However, this kind of stuff is always easier said than done, especially in the poorer regions of the world.

Over all, a very good book. I think it lays out a good basis for discussion and questions, but also lays out a good case of the city as an important part of our future.