GOING TO TOWN
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier
By Edward L Glaeser (Macmillan 336pp £25)
After the Portuguese arrived in 1543, the xenophobic Japanese restricted foreigners to the city of Nagasaki. The Portuguese were eventually kicked out for meddling in politics and religion and were replaced by the Dutch; but they, too, were penned up in the city. For 300 years Western technology flowed in through this one port and the smartest people in Japan travelled there to encounter Europe's finest. Nagasaki, says Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, was the foundation of Japan's greatness.
Xenophobia turned this city into a hothouse of ideas. People met face to face and discussed the latest technology. The Japanese absorbed and improved Western innovations and became, in the twentieth century, a military and economic superpower, able to challenge and often beat the Americans at their own games. Without a city it would not have happened.
Triumph of the City is a thrilling and very readable hymn of praise to an invention so vast and so effective that it is generally taken for granted. More than half the global population already live in urban areas and, every month, five million more flood into the cities of the developing world. The crowds and poverty of Mumbai and São Paulo horrify Western eyes. They shouldn't, says Glaeser: they are signs of growth, energy and aspiration. Cities are our best and brightest hope.
The idea runs into more than 200 years of resistance. Not long after the Industrial Revolution took hold, the Romantics turned away from smoke and dirt to celebrate the air and light of untouched nature. In America, Henry David Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond to live the solitary, simple life, and convinced generations of Americans that cities were bad and nature was good.
They had, Glaeser admits, a point. The early industrial cities were disease ridden and dirty. But they were, more importantly, efficient and profitable and there were enormous commercial and political incentives to make them work. This could be achieved at a stroke: Napoleon III gave Baron Haussmann carte blanche to turn slum-infested Paris into one of the wonders and delights of the modern world. Or it could be done by trial and error: Glaeser gives a brilliant account of the stop-start progression of New York to its late twentieth-century apotheosis as the cultural and economic centre of the world. Either way, it happened because these places were truly effective markets of ideas and innovation.
For these and many other reasons, we should not be so upset by the spectacle of urban poverty. The poor flock to cities in the hope of becoming richer (which, by and large, they do). They also reinvigorate the urban economy. It is folly to drive them away (as we do) by forcing property prices to soar with capricious planning regulations. Local communities may be right to fight for their neighbourhoods against developers, but it is not necessarily right to let them win. It is better for successful cities to build and thereby hold property prices in check.
It can go wrong, of course. In Glaeser's view, this is primarily because municipal authorities fail to understand the principal virtues of their cities. Paris, as many Parisians say, is in danger of becoming a museum because of the sanctity accorded to Haussmann's boulevards. Glaeser defends their preservation but argues that the French made a mistake in creating a huge high-rise development - La Défense - so far from the centre. Far better, he says, to have zoned Montparnasse as a new commercial district. This would have revitalised much of the centre without destroying its fabric. Mumbai, meanwhile, could save itself from ever more inefficient sprawl simply by relaxing rules on building height.
In America, it is the suburbs that have proved to be the real disaster. Glaeser is repentant on this subject himself. He moved to the suburbs when he had children. His entirely legitimate excuse is that the government made him (and millions like him) do it. By undertaxing petrol, subsidising mortgages and imposing tight planning restrictions on inner cities that drove up prices, it made flight to the 'burbs more or less inevitable for the middle classes.
This is a disaster because nothing is more inefficient than a 'burb. Suburbs wreck the countryside and consume far more of everything than cities. Houses are costlier to heat and cool than flats, and suburbanites drive thousands more miles per year than city dwellers. Moreover, suburbanites mingle less and lose the face-to-face contact that makes being an urbanite so much more creative.
This leads to the strongest and newest argument in favour of cities - they are good for the environment. This overturns the conventional wisdom learned from Thoreau and the Romantics because humans being close to nature is bad for nature. To live in the country or the suburbs is to have a vastly larger carbon footprint than any urbanite. Every aspect of your life will involve more consumption.
Glaeser illustrates the conflict between pastoral environmentalists and the new urban greens with an account of the contrast between Prince Charles and Ken Livingstone. The Prince dreams of the simple life in which people live in villages of stone cottages, eat organic food and knit their own cardigans. Unfortunately, they also drive miles to supermarkets and commute to the cities while burning heating oil, one of the most carbon-releasing fuels. Red Ken, in contrast, favoured high-rise buildings, congestion charging and a general commitment to the delights and efficiencies of urban density. Ken gets Glaeser's vote.
Full of characters - most are somewhat less familiar to us than Charles and Ken - and replete with lightly borne learning, this is a tremendous book, not least because, like me, you will find yourself constantly seeking reasons to disagree. Like the poor in the city, this is a sign of success. If you hate the city and get moist-eyed at the thought of the country, then, one way or another, Glaeser is the man you will have to take on.
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Bryan Appleyard writes on everything for The Sunday Times and is writing a book about everything.