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The Pros and Cons of “Triumph of the City”

20 February 2011 7 Comments

Editor’s note: This book review was contributed by Rust Wire’s economics expert, Lewis Lehe. If you haven’t already done so, make sure you watch his hilarious and informative videos on congestion pricing. – KG

The last ten years have stoked a renaissance in the genre of “books that make social science research accesible to laypersons while additionally developing the author’s own theory.” The king of the genre is the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who set airport bookstores ablaze with “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers.”

Jonah Lehrer is a journalist who wrote “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist who wrote “Traffic.” People love these books. One of my ex-roommates has severe dyslexia and, last winter, he hadn’t read a book in five years. I gave him “Outliers,” and within a few months he had read everything Gladwell ever wrote. Now Victor is truly an outlier.

Unfortunately, the genre’s weak spot has been that all these books are written by journalists, rather than the equivocating career researchers behind the original findings. That’s why it’s refreshing to read a book like “Triumph of the City.” Ed Glaeser is a respected Harvard economist who rejuvenated the entire field of urban economics by doing lots of messy data collection and statistical analysis. “Triumph of the City” is a popular exposition of three of his primary findings and a few of his political opinions.

The findings are:
(1) Cities raise incomes because people are more productive when they interact face-to-face.
(2) Zoning, historic preservation, and pro-home-ownership policies engender sprawl.
(3) Urban dwellers emit less carbon.
The book’s policy prescriptions could be summarized by the following:
(1) Don’t do anything that might cause someone to move to Houston.

Pros:
Everyone should read this book, because it challenges conventional wisdom within the urbanist community. He argues powerfully that many activists’ attempts keep out evil developers just push development elsewhere or make cities more expensive. He’s critical of revitalization programs like light rail and convention centers. He’s critical of historic preservation. One of the most novel cases made is that northern California should allow vastly more sprawl, because Californians emit very little carbon into their perpetually temperate atmosphere.  A liberal Republican, Glaeser’s broader opinions figure frequently and honestly, and he has what I would call the “standard economist political belief”–free markets combined with generous social insurance (see Denmark, Australia, Singapore). If you are fundamentally suspicious of unplanned economic activity, then none of the arguments will move you.

I wouldn’t read the book solely for the arguments, however. “Triumph of the City” is also just a great repository of interesting little piece of stat-porn like:
–”If an area has January temperatures that are 5 degrees warmer, its prices go up by 3%”
–”In Los Angeles, construction costs are 25% higher than in Houston, but housing is over 350% more expensive”
–”More than 85% of people living in multifamily dwelling rent their living quarters. More than 85% of people in single-family detached dwellings own them.”

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the immense index at the end. I predict the books and articles there found will soon become heavily cited in college papers, simply because its hard to find such a great listing of so much research in one place. The index explains a lot of claims which, for brevity’s sake, come off as a little brash or far-fetched.

Cons:
The book has a few drawbacks: Glaeser sometimes vacillates on the scope of the word “city.” He compares the Houston metro to New York City proper too often, and he treats  Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) as though it were a singular city. Glaeser also seems to really love Chicago for being pro-growth, but a recent census release showed its population declined over the past ten years. And Glaeser comes close to using Detroit as a synecdoche for the entire Rust Belt, which is a pete peeve of mine. Pittsburgh is 68% percent white, and a third of its adults have a bachelor’s degree. Detroit is 77% African American, and only 12% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Both places are solidly Rust Belt, yet their demographic differences mean each city faces entirely different day-to-day challenges, as readers of this web site know.

Finally, Glaeser ignores the influence of illicit Codeine cough syrup consumption, which, to me, is the most salient feature of life in Houston, aka “Syrup City”:

Conclusion:
The book will give you lots of food for thought on how you can save your city. But most importantly, you will walk away feeling that your city is worth saving…that there are pressing global issues we can only solve by clustering together amid sidewalks and bus routes…that we can and should  defeat the suburbs of Houston in pitched, hand-to-hand combat.

-Lewis Lehe

  • tacoknee

    this is a well-written article. It sounds like the journalist knows what he is talking about and is articulate in getting his point across. The book sounds like an interesting, worth-while read. Two thumbs up for the Mike Jones snippet.

  • schmange

    Finally someone has satisfied my dual interests in economics and gangster rap in a single blog post. Mike Jones, no less. Well done.

    Also, I would be interested to read how historic preservation creates sprawl. Is it that those policies make it too expensive to rehab old buildings?

  • Lewis

    One thing I should add is that Glaeser believes Houston is a great place for middle class families to live. It’s affordable and has relatively high wages, because there are no limits on construction, and the region builds lots of highways.

    He just emphasizes that it’s terrible for the environment when people move to Houston. The heat means people have their air conditioners on non-stop, so it has the highest CO2 emissions among large US cities. That’s the only real problem with Houston, in Glaeser’s book.

  • Jacque

    Get off on stat-porn, do you? I like that about you.

  • http://motowntotreetown.wordpress.com Andy

    We want more posts by Lewis Lehe! This was a fun review. I placed a request for this book at my library as soon as I heard it was coming out… I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

  • Paul

    I am suspicious of unplanned economic activity, but also don’t believe that such a thing exists. Plans till occur without government involvement, the people then just have no say. I think when democratic forces, regulation, zoning, etc, aren’t there, those who have all the money, elites, will decided how the community develops. Yeah, I’m terrified of leaving things up to the market, leaving the rest of us at the mercery of Capital, with no democratic input, not a good idea. Of course, elites have co-opted the democratic institutions, so it’s not like cities are utopian, ultra democratic planned communities. I think there’s a big book about Robert Moses the city planner that modernized New York City, that talks about this.
    Anyways, well written and hilarious post Mr. Lehe! I agree, more posts by Professor Lehe!

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