An Urgent Ode to the Urban in Edward Glaeser’s ‘Triumph of the City’

If Mumbai threatens to become a Houston with dysentery, other remnants of the British Empire offer a more salutary model. By building vertically and “taxing” the use of public goods with such measures as downtown congestion charges, Singapore and Hong Kong were able to burst from third to first world while remaining walkable and, more or less, affordable. That these 20th-century success stories were city-states-where the national was coterminous with the urban-leads to one of Mr. Glaeser’s more supple insights: In any country with multiple, nested layers of sovereignty, NIMBY-ism becomes more than the ad hoc grievances of individual citizens but rather a structural constraint on political possibility.

The challenge of this generalized, institutional NIMBY-ism grows in step with the realization that the planet is both promiscuously interconnected and finite. For all its representative appeal, American federalism may simply be unequipped for our moment. When local governments shave 10 stories off a Manhattan condo or mandate a 2-acre minimum lot size for some Westchester hamlet, they reduce the infrastructural and ecological burden on their jurisdictions. But if the endgame of such restrictions is to encourage the marginal resident to leave the Northeast Megalopolis or Silicon Valley to new construction in Houston or Phoenix with many times the carbon footprint, the net effect on their constituents, as citizens of the planet, is sure to be negative.

He may not be the lone voice defending cities he imagines himself to be, but Mr. Glaeser is a defender uniquely unsentimental. The city is a means to an end, and when one outlives its purpose, our interventions should work on behalf of its people, not its material and affective memory. Triumph expels countless statistics, but the most shocking is also the most familiar: After Katrina, urbanists proposed spending $200 billion to rebuild a New Orleans in decline long before the storm. This amounts to $200,000 for every household in the metropolitan area-a figure that might rebuild lives elsewhere in the country and world if not spent on rehabilitating a conglomeration that “lost its economic rationale long ago.”

Triumph of the City is, oddly enough, anything but triumphalist. The city is a delicate, miraculous process, it argues, and sustaining it is an act of measured, even counterintuitive reserve. I’m not sure if this satisfies. Mr. Glaeser’s most strident passages involve the environmental parsimony of urban living-again, a fact not nearly as unappreciated as he suggests. (Anyone who’s waited for a late-night G train knows that his lifestyle taxes our geological and moral resources less than most any other American’s.) In a marvelous riff, Mr. Glaeser compares the environmentalism of former London mayor Ken Livingstone—who successfully imported Singapore’s congestion charges—with that of his country’s most profound dolt: Prince Charles, whose love of nature runs toward fox-hunting, boutique organic farming and faux-medieval villages.

And yet Charles-poor, imbecilic Charles-has, in pet-project Poundbury, a positive, and normative, vision of human habitation: a village people drive to with inexplicably winding pedestrian roads and chain stores housed in camp re-creations of Tudor barns. This is, of course, the crux of New Urbanism—an overwrought facade of city living self-importantly implanted into the endless sprawl. Mr. Glaeser is a scion of the old urbanism, the natural evolution of cities as opposed to the self-reference of cityness. But this means embracing Platonic Athens, and Haussmann’s Paris, and speculative New York, and authoritarian-gonzo Dubai as refractions of the same urban impulse. Unlike suburbia or the New Urbania, the real city doesn’t have an obvious physical or social end point, and it is both the laudable honesty and fatal difficulty of Triumph of the City that it doesn’t try to give it one—to give us the formula of a perfected urbanism.

The city, alas, is what we make of it, and what it makes of us.

 editorial@observer.com