I completed Edward Glaeser’s 2011 book entitled, Triumph of the City this past weekend. While this book contains a number of useful and noteworthy snippets about the economic importance of cities, especially in the first two-thirds of the text. Sadly though the author leaves out a definitive action plan or useful recommendations in his conclusion. Furthermore, like all too many books, it takes more swipes than are necessary at Detroit and other Rust Belt cities. Come on – tell me something I don’t know. Just once it would be nice to see an author examine the troubled economically cities of the Sunbelt – yes, there are some.
Perhaps it is easy for economists to get lost in the statistics. Plus, the book seems to be more of a cerebral essay on the economic benefits of cities rather than an empathetic call to action. That is all well and good for certain readers, but overly intellectual prose without empathy and/or a viable action plan does little to inspire or motivate. For example, no matter how much of a case you make for life being better for the poor in cities than in rural areas, it does nothing to reduce the pain and suffering millions face. The longer term economic opportunities may be there, but that hardly lessens the daily misery in the shorter term.
Here are a few key points made in the book:
- “While the unremitting poverty of Detroit and cities like it clearly reflects urban distress, not all urban poverty is bad.” (page 9)
- “Human capital, far more than physical infrastructure, explains why cities succeed.” (page 27)
- “The tendency to think a city can build itself out of decline is an example of the edifice error, the tendency to think that abundant new building leads to urban success.” (page 62)
- “Poor rural villages can seem like a window into the distant past, where little has changed for millennia. Cities are dynamic whirlwinds, constantly changing, bringing fortunes to some and suffering to others. A city might bring a bullet, but it also offers a chance of a richer, healthier, brighter life that can come from connecting with the planet.” (page 75)
- “While limits on California’s growth may make that state seem greener, they’re making the country as a whole browner and increasing carbon emissions worldwide. Houston’s developers should thank California’s antigrowth movement. If they hadn’t stopped building in coastal California, where incomes are high and the climate sublime, then there wouldn’t have been nearly as much demand for living in the less pleasant pasts of the Sunbelt” (page 212)
All in all, I believe Triumph of the City is a worthwhile read and it makes some good points. However, to this reader, the book needed more motivational “economic empathy” with definitive recommendations to really grasp your heart and mind in a convincing manner. Otherwise, what’s the point of raising the issues in the first place?