Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier
Edward L Glaeser
Macmillan, 456pp, £25

Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard, is widely acclaimed as a genius. A prolific writer of academic papers, a regular contri­butor to the New York Times, a frequent visitor to the White House and other centres of power, he is not exactly a hidden treasure. Nevertheless, this is his first mainstream book and it should help raise his profile further. That has to be a good thing.

Glaeser is a dandyish New Yorker with a distinctive voice. He is hard to categorise intellectually or politically. He is a zealous proselytiser for cities and almost all his work, much of it summarised here, has been devoted to understanding how policy can ensure their success. Yet his enthusiasm is not limited to conventional praise of the lifestyle pleasures of urban spaces - the shops, restaurants and galleries - though he has a personal taste for these. The benefits that cities bring go much deeper than that.

First, cities are great engines of innovation and economic growth. That was true historically when the expansion of urban areas hugely reduced the cost of transport and communication and made possible much greater division of labour - and it remains true despite the advent of distance-reducing technologies such as the car, phone and internet. As Jane Jacobs, one of the few urban theorists to earn Glaeser's praise, understood, innovation depends on face-to-face contact between people bringing different skills sets and perspectives to bear on common problems. For this reason, the contemporary knowledge economies of Berkeley or Bangalore derive as great a benefit from being cities as did the industrial economies of 19th-century Manchester or 20th-century Detroit.

Moreover, he contends, cities are good for those less well-off. It is a deep confusion to suppose that because poor people flock to the cities, cities make them poor. On the contrary, if impoverished village-dwellers move, it is because they are smart enough to know that the city represents their best chance of escaping poverty. The residents of Rio's favelas are poor, but not as poor as those from Brazil's rural communities. "About three-quarters of Lagos residents have access to safe drinking water," he writes, "a proportion that is horribly low but . . . far higher than any place else in Nigeria."

Cities don't just generate wealth; they tend to do so in ways that minimise harm to the environment. Some of the most enjoyable sections of Glaeser's book are where he takes aim at the self-deception of those who think that country life is somehow greener than living in the city, though everywhere in the modern world rural settlements make far more intensive use of energy than do their urban counterparts. (That does not mean we should frown on living in the country, or holidaying in it; but it can't be passed off as a badge of environmental virtue.) Rousseau, Ruskin, Tolstoy and Gandhi were wrong to champion old-fashioned village life; so is Prince Charles. Their nostrums are a recipe for ignorance, poverty and environmental degradation.

It is one thing to defend cities, quite another to know what makes them work. Here, too, Glaeser is consistently insightful. He is no free- market ideologue, but he does have a strong sense of the power of markets, the good they can bring, and the limits of our ability to defy them. Where urban policy goes awry, he says, it tends to do so in two particular ways.

First, city leaders, especially those in fast-declining areas, too often build in the hope that new residents and jobs will follow. Naturally, public investment in the built environment is vital to retaining or attracting residents and businesses, yet it can only be one part of a repertoire of policies that includes improvements to education, skills, policing and other public services. We should also accept, however, that certain former industrial cities are past their prime and cannot be "regenerated". Good policy can help them "resize" successfully, but nothing will restore their glory. The author believes that the billions of dollars spent trying to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina should have been given to those who lost their homes, enabling them to move to other cities with better prospects.

Which brings us to the second policy failure that Glaeser identifies. Too often, successful cities attempt to limit growth and put a break on construction. Yes, they need to protect what is most valuable in their environment, but, he says, if they limit growth too much through caps on density, height or outward expansion, house prices will shoot up in a way that benefits wealthy property-owners and no one else. He takes well-aimed shots at "conservationists" who pass off their opposition to development as environmental correctness when it is something much more self-centred.

He could be writing about London - but it is treated more positively than that in this book. Glaeser is impressed by the way Ken Livingstone went for growth when he was mayor, encouraging tall buildings and higher density and investing in public transport. I suspect, however, that he thinks Livingstone should have been bolder about making inroads into London's greenbelt.

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London at the think tank Demos

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London think tank, and the author of 10 Ideas for the New Mayor.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?