Big, good cities of the future

VIDYA RAM | Updated on: May 17, 2012


An examination of New York's past and Rio's present leads the author to conclude that “cities, not farms, will save the developing world.”

With urbanisation proceeding at breakneck speed, it is hardly surprising that cities have received a good deal of attention. There is no shortage of biographies charting the triumphs and upheavals within individual cities across the world. Less common are comprehensive attempts to understand them and find the threads that bind the evolution of cities from Mumbai to London to Rio, in the way Harvard University Economics Professor Edward Glaeser does in Triumph of the City , shortlisted for 2011's FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award.

The book is part history, chronicling the rise of cities as far apart as Tokyo and Milan; part analysis of what made cities such as New York succeed and others such as Detroit fail; and part vision of how cities of the future will have to look if they are to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

The engagingly written work is peppered with colourful anecdotes that help one digest the meticulous attention to detail and statistical research (one learns, for example, that urban households spend 25 per cent of their total budget on footwear). Interesting nuggets are thrown in — such as the role the mathematician Blaise Pascal played in the progress of urban planning, with the world's first public bus line in Paris in 1662.

It is also a book of strong conclusions, with Glaeser taking on many of the “fallacies” he thinks have led many an urban policymaker down the wrong path — always illustrated with examples to drive his point home. An examination of New York's past and Rio's present, for instance, leads him to the conclusion that “cities, not farms, will save the developing world” and that urban poverty, in contrast to what exists in rural areas, can offer a “path towards prosperity for the poor and for the nation as a whole.” Cities don't create poverty, he argues, but instead attract the poor who hope to improve their lives. He even draws a parallel between Mumbai's slums and New York's once-poor Greenwich Village several decades ago. Both, he argues, were “well functioning” social spaces where misbehaviour was “quickly noticed and dealt with, not by the police, but by the community.” He is also optimistic about the role cities should play in combating climate change, arguing that contrary to the commonly held opinion, urbanisation can help, rather than hinder, the move to a greener economy.

The contrast between New York and Detroit leads him to identify oft-repeated mistakes by city governments and urban planners, such as over-emphasising the role that construction can play in saving a flagging city and neglecting the importance of building human capital. “People not structures determine a city's success,” he says.

Cities benefit from strong leadership, but not too much. “When things work right, multiple layers of government — federal, state and city — can check each other,” he says.

One of the striking things to emerge from Glaeser's analysis is that however quickly cities grow and evolve, the mistakes made by those governing them do not. His analysis of the causes of riots, such as those that took place in Detroit in the late 1960s, has a bearing on today — and should certainly help those attempting to understand the violence that has hit cities during the current economic crisis — such as London last year. His examination of the development of New York's municipal waterworks through the years delivers lessons on the dangers of leaving too much in the hands of private sector.

Not all his conclusions will be to everyone's taste. Glaeser is scathing in his criticism of efforts by cities to over-preserve and to push residents into suburban areas; he is very critical of building restrictions in cities such as Mumbai, which he describes as a “straightjacket on growth”. It is upward that they need to grow if they are to flourish and become sustainable places for the future, he says.

It is when examining US cities that Glaeser's analysis is at its most powerful; in comparison, his sketches of other metropolises, particularly in Asia, can seem a bit cursory. Partly, as a result, one doesn't entirely get a sense of the huge shift in urbanisation from the developed to the developing world — a recent Credit Suisse report estimates that by 2037 an astonishing 50 per cent of the world will live in the cities of emerging markets. However, these are just minor gripes. Triumph of the City is a riveting read, which strongly backs his central thesis, namely that cities are one of our most important inventions, enabling “the collaboration that makes humanity shine most brightly”.

Published on May 16, 2012
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