A Self-Affirmation Manual for Urbanites

Carly Berwick reviews Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City.

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Our particular tribe, predominantly found in the northeastern United States but also occasionally in Mid-Atlantic or Midwestern regions, has developed many adaptive behaviors in response to the challenges of our urban environment. For years we have practiced the nimble avoidance of dog spoor; the determined ignoring of tiny Ziploc baggies on our front walks; the cultivated ability to sleep through sirens and car alarms; the careful exegesis of seasons 1-5 of The Wire; and the strident defense of our way of life to doubting in-laws.

To boost morale and stay the course, we committed urbanites have shared among each other apocryphal tales of a yoga studio/organic dog-grooming place opening nearby or of a new condo conversion of an aging industrial building. We like to tell each other about the superiority of our choice: living on top of one another is environmentally savvy; we actually talk to our neighbors; and we are not just discussing social justice – we are living it, by economically integrating our neighborhoods

Yet still we can’t help but fantasize about that little place in Woodstock or, even, Westchester – so near and so quiet. Especially as the economy has soured, we do double-takes at the idle young men on the corner or the weeds growing in the empty lot near a fallow condo conversion.

Just in time, a Harvard economics professor has arrived to reassure us of the rightness of our way of life. Edward Glaeser’s recent book Triumph of the City is both a manifesto on behalf of the best cities and a self-affirmation book for confirmed urbanites who may just once have considered cheating with a suburb.

Cities optimize human experience, says Glaeser, because:

1) They are models of efficient knowledge transfer, from ancient Athens to modern-day Bangalore. The chance face-to-face meeting in an office corridor or luncheon spot can be as important to innovation as a carefully crafted email chain, and these meetings happen because certain cities become industry hotbeds, a point that books, such as Elizabeth Currid’s Warhol Economy (2007), have made as well.

2) They allow for culture on a grand scale, because they provide enough audience members with disposable income and inclination for theater, art, fashion, and the fine food.

3) They concentrate innovation and ambition and “attract smart people,” by concentrating universities, political power, or sheer pleasure and luxury. Innovation rubs against entrepreneurship in even the poorest slum or favela, a glass-half-full view also taken by Jeb Brugmann in Welcome to the Urban Revolution (2009).

4) They reduce environmental footprints, by squeezing people together in tall and/or close buildings and by near elimination of car dependence. Cars and houses account for forty percent of America’s carbon footprint, says Glaeser, and an urban dweller uses about half the gas of someone who lives in suburban densities.

Not all cities (nor all skyscrapers) are great, though. Detroit residents, you are far from in the clear, says Glaeser. Detroit has lost more than half its population since 1950, and the stragglers struggle with 25 percent unemployment. The lesson: never, ever rely on a single industry to drive a city, and then, when that industry starts to fall, attempt to build your way back with towers, transit, and housing projects that concentrate poverty. Also: try not to enact and enforce racist housing policy. Ok, lesson learned, Detroit’s beleaguered poor cry out. Now what?

Be like New York, answers Glaeser, a born and bred New Yorker turned (oddly) suburbanite himself. Specifically, be like New York financiers, who helped power the reinvention of the city after its implosion in the 70s. It may seem both self-serving and tautological to praise money for making money, but there are other reasons to admire New York, namely its density and its transit system. The alternative is to shrink gracefully and support generous relocation packages.

We might even want to relocate schoolchildren, via vouchers, to richer districts, says Glaeser, who recognizes the problem of concentrated urban poverty and its impact on schooling. An even better, systemic solution is regional and state aid for localities. This works, until it doesn’t—when, for instance, states decide to reduce local aid for schools. Why not change the local funding for schools entirely? Glaeser doesn’t quite go there.

Glaeser also proposes to get rid of most zoning and historic preservation laws, which he finds cumbersome and atavistic, and simply apply fees based on social cost estimates for things like blocking light and, at the same time, make neighborhood decisions even more local, so that block by block residents would decide whether they wanted a bar or a recycling plant nearby. Both of these suggestions sound like zoning by another name, however, and by shifting the decision-making power to block-sized neighborhoods threatens to empower those three gadflies who show up to community meetings. Those who don’t or can’t show up tend to be busy working parents with two jobs who might actually not want a trucking depot down the street and really wish those people to whom they pay local taxes would do their jobs and make a law prohibiting it.

Or maybe I am revealing too much of myself here. I appreciate the professor’s efforts on our behalf, but I also wonder who he thinks has the leisure to argue for hours (and hours and hours—has he ever been to a community meeting?) these minutiae. If it must be me, I would like to be paid for my time.

Glaeser’s ultimate suggestion for supporting cities is to make energy cost what it really costs, externalities included, via a carbon tax and a more equitable return on the amount of income tax cities send to the federal government. In effect, urbanities would start to see the monetary value of their choice then, in dramatic savings on transit and more federal dollars, making the density of pet excrement and noise levels feel that much more worth it.

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Carly Berwick writes about education and culture for Next City, as well as The New York Times, ARTnews, and other publications. 

Tags: new york citybuilt environmentdetroit

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