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

It’s been said that Parisians romanticize the French countryside and the rural French deify Paris as fervently as New Yorkers dismiss the rest of America and real Americans disavow New York. Edward Glaeser, who was raised in Manhattan and is now an economist at Harvard, has made turning our provincials on to the metropole a patriotic project. Since the early 1990s, he’s published reams of technical papers modeling urban histories and futures. Now comes the popular omnibus to convince the rubes themselves, and perhaps their rulers, too.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (Penguin Press, 352 pages, $29.95) is provocative enough as a compendium of gee-whiz studies on development, housing and demography; we learn, for example, that it takes $100,000 in tax breaks to create one job in Detroit, where the average house is valued at $82,000. But Mr. Glaeser also pitches Triumph as a definitive apology for the urban writ large. He meanders through Shogunate Edo (Tokyo), Abbasid Baghdad and Athens in the fifth century B.C., places where the hard numbers of his stock and trade are hardly available. These detours are meant to undermine what Mr. Glaeser considers a deep-seated animus toward cities, afflicting even such progressive icons as Rousseau, Thoreau and Gandhi.

This purported anti-urban bias is, befitting its pastoral interests, rather full of straw. Who would deny that “cities, the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace”? Who could possibly believe that the solution to third-world poverty lies in “plac[ing] our belief in rural life”? How could anyone falsify-or confirm-the claim that when human beings de-urbanize (as after the fall of Rome), “knowledge itself move[s] backwards”? 

But look past the rhetorical flourishes, and you see an ambivalent verdict on post-1960s urban policy: It is often the actors most philosophically “urbanist” in intent that are the most deleteriously anti-city in effect. Mr. Glaeser brings us, in striking detail, a gated subdivision in the Houston outskirts called “The Woodlands.” The city dweller’s inborn cultural revulsion to the place is the stuff of any number of Sundance dramas: the sterility of the McMansions, the moral vacuity of the micropolitics, the ecological nihilism of the SUVs. But the appeal of such prefab townlets—one million people have moved to the Houston area since 2000—has little to do with culture; the Sun Belt beckons because urban California and the Northeast have radically distorted the market for any city’s most crucial commodity: property.

The old canard that New York real estate is expensive because Manhattan is an island is, well, a canard: “It doesn’t take more land to add an extra story to a high-rise, so the lack of land can’t explain why Manhattan prices are so much higher than the costs of adding an extra story. … In America’s expensive coastal regions, housing supply is restricted not by lack of land but because public policies make it hard to build.”

Once the untamed capital of architectural phallicism, New York now has the nation’s most absurdly specific zoning laws, with piranha community boards to match. Houston has none at all. You cannot believe that vertical New York is a superior model of urban development to Houstonian sprawl and remain supportive or neutral about codes that, in the long- and medium-term, effectively limit traditional city centers to the very rich and very poor. “Affordable housing” is a numbers game of growing demand and artificially constricted supply: Adding a hundred penthouses might impede a neighborhood’s “character” (an upper-middle-class problem if there ever was one), but it’d make housing cheaper overall.

Numbers are hard, cold things. Still, humanists do their cause a grave disservice by yielding the ground of analytical rigor to the developers. To prod his caste’s squishy left-liberalism of feelings over systems, Mr. Glaeser is a self-conscious extremist about the failures of American zoning and historical preservation. But, of course, Mr. Glaeser likes old American cities, and ancient European ones, too.

His laissez-faire prescriptions for development-roughly, architecture freed from the dictates of social engineering-thus have higher purchase for the global boomtowns that will decide our fate as a species. Salvation, if it comes, will be a skyscraper. Having emerged in the 19th century, the majestic avenues and uniform, filigreed facades of central Paris might justify that city’s long-standing aversion to height-since 1974, restricted to 83 feet. But why do restrictions in Mumbai, “one of the most densely populated places on earth,” limit buildings to “an average height of only one-and-a-third stories?” Certainly not for architectural splendor. The squat skylines of Mumbai represent a dangerous disjuncture between today’s frenetically entrepreneurial India and the pastoralist leanings of a newly independent India influenced, ironically, by then “fashionable ideas of English urban planning.” In short, “Limiting heights didn’t stop growth; it just ensured that migrants had to squeeze into less space.”

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