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Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

By Edward Glaeser
Penguin, 2011

City lights are romanticized just as they are demonized. Urban areas attract the majority of the world’s population, and in the United States, the percentage is approximately two-thirds. Some
people feel that life in the grander metropolises—places like New York, London, Tokyo—is too much, too busy, too crowded. Still, as Edward Glaeser writes in Triumph of the City, “On a planet with vast amounts of space (all of humanity could fit in Texas—each of us with a personal townhouse), we choose cities”, and the subtitle promises high
returns from this judicious choice.

I am no die-hard New Yorker, but I love the city
where I live. In fact, I moved here for many of the reasons described in Glaeser’s book—access to artists, intellectuals, entertainment, and their interconnected cultural circles. Many friends from earlier phases in life preceded me in moving, so I had a ready-made social group when I arrived.
And I use public transportation daily, including a work commute back and forth to New Haven, Connecticut, which is easily more than double the average 48-minutes spent on public transportation commutes, according to Glaeser’s research.

Why would I do such a thing to my schedule (let alone my wallet)? It is exactly as Glaeser describes: “Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.”

The phenomenon is evident in our daily lives from the inner city to the hinterland, but the explanation is still no less valuable. In a time where access to the unfamiliar reaches of the globe is made infinitely easier, where delivery of foreign goods and knowledge is managed by a few button clicks, one might begin to think that the clustering of human life around the city is now unnecessary. Glaeser’s book does away with that misinformed conception. Not only is the 21st century conducive to the further rise of urban centers, but more than ever, proximity to the nexuses of ideas and human activity is the driving force of our development. The author navigates a lot of information and numerous factors for urban growth and decline. Consequently, the narration can seem disjointed, jumping from one locale to another, from one seemingly separate condition to the next, but the book’s organization prevents Glaeser from repeating himself. He covers cities worldwide, broadly and convincingly relating the arc of human achievement with the virtues of the city.

When I moved from New Haven two years ago, New York was hardly a space of promise, and in the throes of the economic recession, nearly a third of my friends were unemployed. Affordable housing was eminently marketable, even if commonly passed over, and I ended up finding an apartment in Harlem comparable in size and cheaper in rent for the trade-off of one additional roommate. Again, the question I’m still asked most often about my decision is: why? I’m young, single—there’s even a line in here about the draw of publishing salaries —the city is a personal ad that many answer:

In 2008, the island of Manhattan housed 1.4 million people over the age of fifteen. Out of that group, about a third (460,000) were married and living with their spouses. About half of the population had never been married and about another 139,000 people were divorced. In the United States as a whole, about one half of people over fifteen are married and living with their spouses. Manhattanites are much more likely than other Americans to be singles between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four.

As I presume is true of all grander cities of the world, you can’t fathom the idea of leaving without some change in circumstance—employment, marriage, family, health, etc.—whether voluntary or not. I have an exit strategy, but it’s hard to think that one day I would wake up and think “I’m done,” ready to uproot and move away a month later. Once you’re drawn in, there are many reasons to stay, for both the individual and society, Glaeser argues.

On the societal level, even without unfavorable climate change, a big concern is energy consumption. This summer as everyone feels the usual climb of the heat index, the frequency of gas station fill-ups, and the electric bill, we should ask ourselves why we exhaust resources the way we do. Personal investment is reason enough to evaluate how money is being spent on energy use, let alone the greater responsibility to our planet and its communities. Reversing popular claims for suburbanization from the days of Lewis Mumford (who is little mentioned but implicitly defied throughout Triumph of the CIty), Glaeser invokes the pastoral Thoreau to make the point:

Cities are much better for the environment than leafy living. Residing in a forest might seem to be a good way of showing one’s love of nature, but living in a concrete jungle is actually far more ecologically friendly. We humans are a destructive species, even when, like Thoreau, we’re not trying to be. We burn forests and oil and inevitably hurt the landscape that surrounds us. If you love nature, stay away from it.

Glaeser admits that he is no climatologist, yet he makes a claim bound to be even more unpopular to rural sensibilities: “Anyone who believes that global warming is a real danger should see dense urban living as part of the solution.” That density moves the individual towards shared consumption of resources—public transportation and domestic utilities least among them—but it’s a hard change to make.

I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the stellar energy-consumptive cities for its modest size. It ranks alongside Houston, Birmingham, Memphis, and Oklahoma City in the top five US cities with the highest carbon emissions per home. As a kid, summer was easily my favorite season, not because school was out, but because I am truly a hot climate lover (minus the increase in disease rates and insect sizes as you approach the Equator). I could enjoy the heat because outdoor activity was a more voluntary occasion. From the air conditioned house, it was only a few steps through the stuffy garage or across the scorching pavement to the air conditioned car, another few steps to the air conditioned store – rinse with a glass of sweet tea and repeat.

In the handful of cities where it’s possible to get around without a car, the same choices are not so easy. In New York, what I’m used to calling “summer” lasts for about 6-8 intermittent weeks, mostly a stretch of time in July and August, and in this recent heat wave, a frequent flier colleague of mine remarked that “it’s worse than in Singapore.” No matter how many ways you think of to keep the garbage from cooking in the heat, not enough people share the same immediate concern for the streets, where you have to walk to get anywhere. The pavement liquefies under tires and feet, and there isn’t much foliage for oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange; nor is the shade of a building’s face as cool as a canopy of trees. Sleeping without air conditioning means passing out because there’s not enough oxygen circulating to the brain, and then you wake up at odd intervals in sudden need of a deep breath.

The contrast with winter is not any easier for the migrant from a less densely-settled area. A new foot of snow fell weekly for a long time this past winter, but more efficient, shared heating systems in apartment buildings keep hibernators like me from personally adjusting the dial to its Southern Hemisphere setting. Public transportation ran normally, excepting a series of related technical difficulties on Metro North; still, I got to work and school just fine. We have yet to develop a patch or potion to fix everyone’s horribly foul moods for a third of the year, but let’s hope it’s a work in progress. All in all, winters are livable, adding in the aforementioned benefits of choosing to live in the city.

Nashville falls along a fault line of inefficiency. Unlike Sun Belt cities further to the south, it has four distinct seasons of near equal length. You need air conditioning to make it through the hot, humid summers; you need heating to make it through the chilly, even snowy, winters. The difference is usage and spread. Its population density is less than Los Angeles, DC, or New York, for instance: any of these at approximately 1,200/sq mi. (Los Angeles is about 7,500; DC: 9,800; Manhattan: 71,000.) Three interstate highways and several state roads connect the greater metropolitan population of 1.7 million, but the bus system is incredibly indirect for long distances, there is no subway, and no Amtrak station. (Though there is an Amtrak line in Memphis, three hours away.) Despite the fact that Tennessee ties Missouri in bordering a whopping eight states, the primary ways in and out are limited to car and airplane.

Nevertheless, I cheered Nashville for its progressive installation of a commuter rail system to decrease gas emissions from the suburban migration. But with only one line extending out to the northern suburbs, it’s hardly surprising that the trains have yet to draw greater use. Daily use reached 1,000 passengers in the first quarter of 2011. And for an urban area comprised of clusters of suburban neighborhoods, commercially and nightlife-driven downtown has little to offer residents compared to cities originally built with a higher density in mind, though recent construction projects have attracted more people to live. While improvements have been made to the bus system, there remains a stigma against public transportation throughout much of the nation. Owning and driving a car is as much of a show of status and a right to property as it is convenient transportation. The prejudice towards users of public transportation is one that must transform simultaneously with our embrace of more conservative consumption habits.

Whether rich or poor, civilization is the widely encompassing arc of Triumph of the City. The micro examples describe individual cities, but these are definitively macro ideas. We all must do our part. I think Glaeser is right to observe:

Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their lot in life. The poverty rate among recent arrivals to big cities is higher than the poverty rate of long-term residents, which suggests that, over time, city dwellers’ fortunes can improve considerably.

But the argument then goes from prudent to callous:

“In a free society, people choose where to live, either explicitly by moving or implicitly by staying in the place of their birth. A city’s population tells you about what the city offers. Salt Lake City is full of Mormons because it’s a good place to be a Mormon. London has many bankers because it’s a good place to manage money. Cities like Rio have plenty of poor people, because they’re relatively good places to be poor. After all, even without any cash, you can still enjoy Ipanema Beach.”

Glaeser sees urban poverty as a gateway to success, even if it takes generations. Easy for the economist, or even the book reviewer to say, but the greater good of civilization is built on the comparative poverty of others, a sacrifice that we pay in return for certain social and governmental supports. Government policies and economic infrastructure are but a couple of influences on the organization of rural and urban spaces, not to mention their respective associated appeals. What Glaeser finds instead is that the historical human has always thrived within and because of the city.

However, for a book making a case for our present moment, the omission of international influences on forced human behavior is disappointing, especially because there are suggestions throughout the book for how today’s local governments can create tax-incentives on energy and resource use to promote city-living and other best practices from its citizens. Global thinking is called for, in order to combat the evils of sprawl.

There is progress, however, as cities like Nashville show through further development to corral their energy use. If anything, Glaeser’s book leaves the thought that the moment is both better and more urgent now than ever to transform our lives. Whether you live in Detroit, Mumbai, Paris, Vancouver, or Kinshasa—he covers them all—there is much to consider in these pages for the determination of our future. Inevitably as I have done, you begin to think about your own choices in relation to the challenges of so much change in our daily habits. Even Glaeser freely airs his own suburban choices: he is not out to deter or criticize those living in sprawl; rather he wants us to consider how we interact with each other and plan for our surroundings. After a short summer trip to a Connecticut town on the harbor, I wistfully remembered the noise of crickets in the bushes instead of clashing salsa beats blasted across the inner courtyard; children splashing in the Sound instead of broken fire hydrants, but I felt out of place and out of sorts, cut off from veins of life just as entrancing as sailboats drifting on the quiet water. I cannot say I’ll stay indefinitely, but for now I’ll take the city, if even a sixth-floor walk-up.

Ivan Lett works for Yale University Press and is a freelance writer living in New York.