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Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter,… (2011)

por Edward L. Glaeser

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A pioneering urban economist offers fascinating, even inspiring proof that the city is humanity's greatest invention and our best hope for the future.
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If you're into urban economics at all, or even just have an interest in how living in whatever city you're in improves your life, anything by Glaeser should be mandatory reading. He's a Harvard economist who also writes for the New York Times' Economix blog about urban issues, and this book is a synthesis of much of his recent work on cities.

The first part of the book is dedicated to enumerating the many economic advantages that urban areas provide over non-urban areas, especially in their role as innovation incubators. One great insight he throws right at the beginning is that cities themselves are actually an invention - the concept of collecting buildings close together to facilitate trade and idea-sharing was something akin to the concept of running electrical pulses across wires or building irrigation channels for crops - and that this insight, that people do their best work when surrounded by other people, has helped spur countless other inventions since. The multiplier aspect of cities, the way that they encourage the commerce and idea-sharing that improves human lives, is something he explores at great depth, and it doesn't take long at all before the reader is caught up in his infectious enthusiasm for the many benefits of urban living. Each chapter in the beginning and the end thirds is full of mini-history lessons from around the world - Nagasaki's role as a port town, Bangalore's place in India's technology boom, Silicon Valley's genesis as a research center, New York City's struggles with growth and crime, Baghdad's history as an intellectual mecca - each of which are the distillation of vast amounts of research, and the cumulative impact of the artfully linked statistics is enormous.

Even the most hardened suburbanite would be forced to reconsider their SUV and backyard patio after just that first section. Glaeser himself was born in Manhattan, which he admits colors his judgment, but that never obscures the facts that back him up, and the middle third of the book, once he's finished touting the substantial health, educational, and romantic benefits that cities have brought to humanity, is an explanation of why so many people, including him, have eventually turned their back on these dynamic growth engines and decamped for the suburbs. There's a somewhat poetic cast to this story of migrations from farms to towns to big cities to suburbs to exurbs, but in Glaeser's reckoning, the biggest contributors to sprawl and deurbanization in the US are prosaic things like the invention of the automobile, the popularity of air conditioning, and in particular overzealous land regulations in the older, colder Northeast metro areas. Cities may have profound influences on economic activity but they are not exempt from the laws of economics themselves, and if housing supplies are limited by historical preservation boards, rent control laws, mandatory parking lot statutes, and poor zoning regulations, then the cost of living will increase and people will move to areas where there are fewer artificial constraints on growth.

Now that the data from the 2010 Census has been released, it's become clear just how dramatic the consequences of different attitudes towards growth are: Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and other metropolitan areas that place few obstacles to housing construction have expanded dramatically, while New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, etc. have struggled to move beyond their decades-old population plateaus and in some cases, like Buffalo, Detroit, and Cleveland, are seemingly unable to stop their slow downward spirals. Now obviously there are many potential factors behind these shifts, such as national-level phenomena like business cycles, taxation rates, immigration patterns, the shift from manufacturing to services, explicit and implicit car subsidies, the aging of America, and many more, but it's hard to look at the vast cost, quality, and lifestyle difference between buying a tiny TriBeCa studio and the equivalently-priced Friendswood ranch house and conclude that this choice plays no role in determining where people choose to live.

There's a fascinating breakdown of The Woodlands, a master-planned community a few miles northwest of Houston. I happen to have some friends from this city, and so I enjoyed that what they all consider the epitome of a bland exurban wasteland was originally designed as an environmentally-responsible garden city. The enduring paradox behind "environmentally friendly" developments like The Woodlands is that the more their architects plan for parks, green spaces, and open wooded areas to preserve a sylvan character, the less environmentally friendly they actually become. New Yorkers (and residents of big, dense cities) use vastly less energy in heating and transportation than Woodlanders do because they're able to take advantage of economies of scale and proximity - the true tragedy of modern NIMBY environmentalists is that by pushing people to the suburbs and less dense cities with restrictive zoning laws and historical preservation districts, they encourage much more harm to the environment than if they had simply let more people move to New York.

Glaeser has three suggestions for municipal governments to reduce this flight. First, replace permitting with simple fees based on easy criteria. If adding a bar to a residential neighborhood imposes hidden costs on that neighborhood, then simply set a price on those costs and charge the bar owner up front, rather than going through a tortuously slow approval process. Second, cap the number of undemolishable landmarks the city can have. Cities are all about growth and change, and, contra Jane Jacobs, the more buildings get designated as historical and therefore immune to demolition, the higher prices have to rise in surrounding land to accommodate demand. Setting a reasonable cap would allow cities to add new buildings as appreciation for their merits grows (remember that even the Eiffel Tower was hated at first), and also force them to delist buildings which would be better served by a wrecking ball. Finally, and this is where he loses me, he suggests devolving some powers of zoning/building approval from City Hall to individual neighborhoods. In my experience, the fiercest opponents of growth are the people most directly impacted by it, who moved to a neighborhood expecting a certain lifestyle and want to freeze their own preferred configuration of shops, libraries, offices, and parks in time.

While Glaeser's points about the downsides of centrally-directed growth are well-taken (that Baron Hausmann had the backing of the Emperor for his revitalization of Paris was surely key to its success in the face of the massive number of people his works displaced), I think it's difficult to look at the fierce opposition to growth as embodied by Regional Growth For Northcross, to use a random Walmart-hating example from my hometown of Austin, and conclude that neighborhoods actually don't have enough say in who sets up shop down the street. Strengthening the property rights of land owners is probably a safer bet for cities that want growth, and this means all land owners - individual homeowners and shopping mall builders alike.

One aspect I wish he had spent more time on was the legal regime on the state level that encourages sprawl - in the US, cities are creations of their states, whose legislatures are dominated by rural and suburban interests. I've long thought that things like funding and transportation planning should be done on a metro-level basis, because that seems like a more appropriate unit of urban policy than the state or city limit-level mechanisms in place now. Seeing cities as integrated systems and adjusting resource allocation accordingly rather than the atomized units they're currently treated as would go a long way towards allowing people to make choices about where to live that are less heavily tilted towards the suburbs, and in the process would save us a lot of money. That theme - progress as fairness, with the removal of barriers to urban growth as one of the single best ways we have to ameliorate poverty and create wealth - is reiterated here as eloquently and effectively as you'll find anywhere. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Fascinating but a bit too political. I don't like liberals who slag off scotch eggs and see nothing but rainbows in unicorns even in the darkest of slums. A bit of cynicism would'be improved this book. ( )
  Paul_S | Dec 23, 2020 |
too much NYC porn/dick sucking. ( )
  adaorhell | Aug 24, 2018 |
I find Glaeser makes an excellent case for the city dispelling many myths about cities a providing critical insight into why cities are awesome as well as why seem to abandon them. The downside to Glaeser's text is that he does not dedicate sufficient space in this text to discuss the racial motivations that were so critical phenomenon like suburbanization and geographic concentration of minority groups and how that influences perceptions of urban areas. ( )
  _praxis_ | Mar 4, 2018 |
How our greatestinvention makes us richer, smaarter, greener, healthier, and happier
  jhawn | Jul 31, 2017 |
Mostrando 1-5 de 19 (seguinte | mostrar todos)
Refreshingly, Glaeser doesn’t rely on politics for his explanations. He cites providing clean water and healthy streets as necessary functions of municipal governments, but heaps dismissal on massive building projects to “revitalize” cities. His greatest scorn is reserved for the governments of cities like Mumbai, which excessively regulate new building projects while failing to provide basic services. Glaeser spends the middle portion of the book discussing new buildings and housing developments, and compellingly makes the case that cities like New York, Paris, and San Francisco, which heavily regulate new buildings, ill-serve the middle class, who move to places like Houston—fast-growing, affordable, and lacking building regulations.
adicionada por sduff222 | editarThe A.V. Club, Rowan Kaiser (Feb 17, 2011)
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.

» Adicionar outros autores (6 possíveis)

Nome do autorPapelTipo de autorObra?Estado
Edward L. Glaeserautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculated
Corriente Basús, FedericoTradutorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
James, LloydNarradorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado

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A pioneering urban economist offers fascinating, even inspiring proof that the city is humanity's greatest invention and our best hope for the future.

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