A Review of Triumph of the City

by Ashish

I live, as most of you do, in a city.

Now, much as I’d like to, I don’t know each one of you personally. While I’d like to think that I’m a companionable sort of fellow, and while I’d be more than willing to stand a person who came up to me and told me she was a reader of my blog to a drink, it simply is not possible to do so with each and every one of you. For the simple reason that you, WordPress informs me, live all over the world.

How then do I know that you live in a city? Because half of us who live on the third rock from the sun now do so in cities. I’ll be honest with you, as I usually am – I don’t remember if that particular statistic was there in Edward Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City” – but what I can aver is that it is chockfull of other, equally fascinating trivia.

The book is a relative rarity in the field of urban planning, for it actually celebrates the city, rather than castigate it. I should hasten to add that I am no expert in urban planning, and haven’t really read all that many books on this topic, but what little I have read in the form of books, articles or papers usually turns its nose up at cities, and praises instead the verdant, pristine and bucolic life that one would find in cute little villages.

Edward Glaeser is having none of it, not a bit. Why, he asks, with the sort of piercing logic that one finds throughout his book, would those residents of the charming bucolic life traipse into cities in their thousands if life back there was so jolly? And, he goes on in similar vein, if life in the city was indeed so harsh, cruel and unforgiving, why do people not reverse migrate back to their bucolic ways?

It must be, this keen student of deductive logic says, because no matter how bad things get in cities, they still are better than back in the villages. And that sort of makes you sit up and say “Whoa!” At any rate, it made me sit up and say “Whoa!” Because no urban planner had presented thus far to me logic on so attractive a platter. Put like that, it makes enormous sense.

There’s plenty more where that came from, by the way. Professor Glaeser (for he drones on about matters economique at Harvard on days when he’s not provoking thoughts by writing books) is also a big fan of building taller buildings. If cities, he says, are so dang awesome because they pack a lot of people into very little space, then why not pack more people into very little space? And if they are to be packed into very little space, they why not do it by building skyscrapers rather than allowing the gargantuan mess that is Dharavi to continue to fester?

As long as Mumbai remains an extraordinarily productive place to live and work, new residents will flock there. Height restrictions just force people to crowd into squalid, illegal slums, rather than legal apartment buildings. One study estimates that Mumbai’s homes have only about 30 square foot per person, as opposed to 140 square foot per person in urban China. People are forced into so little space in Mumbai because real estate is more expensive than in far richer places like Singapore. Singapore is cheaper than Mumbai not because demand for that prosperous place is low, but because Singapore allows builders to put more floor space on the same amount of land.

Big ticket ideas aside, the book is also an intellectual tour de force. Professor Glaeser takes us on a whirlwind tour across space and time, starting literally from ancient Athens and culminating in modern day Dubai. Boston, Mumbai, New York, Rio, Atlanta, Singapore, and many other cities also preen themselves on these pages, and if nothing else, the book is worth reading because of the breadth of knowledge that one gets to witness.

As I said earlier, the book is full of stuff that is informative and though provoking, and Professor Glaeser makes sure that one remains interested from start to finish. I live in a country that still has a sizeable portion of its people not living in cities, but if the developmental arc of other countries is any indication at all, it is a matter of when, not if.

All the more reason for us to read, and ponder, over this book.