Book Review: Triumph of the City

I recently finished reading Edward Glaeser’s book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. It was a pretty in depth look at the economic, environmental, social and political benefits of living in highly dense cities.

I was in agreement with Mr Glaeser for most of the arguments he put forth in his book. Highly dense cities provide the only really sustainable way to grow going forward. Urban citizens drive less, are healthier, and use less electricity & natural gas, yet are more productive than their suburban or rural counterparts.

One of the concepts is how to properly grow a city. By looking at examples of poor city management compared to successful ones. Detroit installed a monorail to nowhere in a classic make work project boondoggle, where as Atlanta invested in educating it’s citizens and is currently booming. The point is that investment should be made in people rather than places. Infrastructure projects should be built when the demand is there for it and not in anticipation of demand. Invest in educating citizens or attracting smart people and then get out of their way to let them build the city.

The elevator is the most efficient and safest mode of transport ever invented – it should be used more. Every time a city decides to turn down a proposal to build a tall condo building in the heart of a city they are displacing that growth somewhere less efficient and increasing the cost of living for everyone. One 40 story condo building with 5 units per floor provides homes for 200 families. To accomodate the same 200 families in the suburbs would require clear cutting over 200 acres of land, pave new roads, and add sewer lines and water services which will need to be maintained. That new suburb community will then have to commute by car generally to get to work resulting in more road congestion. The additional time and space it takes to build 200 single family homes compared to one tall building keeps the supply of houses down and puts pressure on housing prices to go up.

This effect is something that happened in the city I grew up in: St. John’s. Overly restricted building rules for downtown to preserve heritage, and elsewhere to prevent obstructing views resulted in a growing sprawl of gnarly streets. The recent boom in oil business in the city has brought in many more people to work. The resulting spike in housing demand cannot be met at the pace of building suburbs and so housing prices have skyrocketed. A couple of tall condo towers downtown might have delayed the need to build Kenmount Terrace suburb, resulting in 100’s fewer cars congesting Kenmount road. With car accidents being a leading cause of death, building a tower might even save a few lives.

One possible solution for a case like St. John’s was made in the book. Paris is also a city with very restrictive building requirements. To accomodate the demand for housing and comercial space in the city they created La Defence, an area of high density where large businesses could situate themselves without having to deal with expensive historic buildings in the center of Paris. It is close enough to the old city to still come in for a lunch break or to have a meeting. St. John’s could follow this model by finding a location to allow for growing upwards which is also close enough to downtown to have a short and frequent bus running.

If St. John’s ever built new colorful skyscrapers on the south side hills to overshadow the ugly massive gas storage tanks it might entice me to move back.