(Some of) the right things for (most of) the wrong reasons: Notes on Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, part I

Part I of a series. II, III, IV and coda.

Hey hey! It’s been awhile since I shouted at ya. I’ve been busy working on my book, which is for the most part a profoundly involved (not to say obsessive), asocial and head-down activity, so I haven’t really had that much to say here.

Even though it only represents the smallest portion of the hundreds of books, scholarly papers, articles and other documents I’m consulting as I craft the arguments at the spine of my book, I want to share with you my notes on Harvard economist Ed Glaeser‘s recent Triumph of the City. I do so because it’s a work on urbanism that is enjoying a relatively warm reception among nonspecialists — in some quarters, earning mention alongside Jane Jacobs’s undying Death and Life of Great American Cities — and I’m rather at a loss to determine just why this should be. It’s an infuriating book: a rambling collection of just-so stories, ungrounded assertions, platitudes and cherrypicked examples, that winds up arguing for not-stupid policy on what strike me as fundamentally the wrong grounds.

What Glaeser gets right is captured in an assertion he makes many times in the course of the text, and which I happen to agree with: cities are fundamentally comprised of the people who live and work in them, and the health of cities ultimately depends on the structure of opportunities available to those people. Where he goes wrong, badly, is in couching this understanding in the usual neoliberal justifications for untrammeled markets and, especially, in his constant conflation of intelligence, wealth and entrepreneurial instinct. And while he’s nowhere near as thuddingly tone-deaf as The Mustache, he does have an odd gift for undercutting his own arguments. The saddest bit of all of this for me is that Triumph‘s wrongheadedness at every turn threatens to overwhelm the very significant number of beliefs Glaeser expresses that I hold in common with him, chiefly having to do with his obviously sincere and unabashed love for the urban form and all its many gifts. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, I just think he’s written a bad book.

At any rate, herewith my more-or-less detailed notes on the book, so you can decide for yourself whether or not this is a book worthy of attention. Full disclosure: Glaeser and I share a speaking agent. As well, having read Triumph on a Kindle, I apologize for the lack of page references in the following.

Introduction: Our Urban Species
– “The great prosperity of contemporary London and Bangalore and Tokyo comes from their ability to produce new thinking.” Except Bangalore produces no new thinking, that I can see. As far as I can tell, its sole “innovation” is aggregation of cheap, nominally English-speaking labor.

- “In the richer countries of the West, cities have survived the tumultuous end of the industrial era and are now wealthier, healthier and more alluring than ever.” Tell that to anyone who lives in North Philadelphia!

- He argues that studying New York can help us understand urban dynamics writ large. I’m emotionally sympathetic, for obvious reasons, but find New York actually rather atypical, and arguably not the greatest way to look at the challenges faced by 21st century cities.

- The perennial theme that globalization has increased New York’s net advantage as an exporter of ideas. “Idea-producing entrepreneurs,” though, collapses a whole range of endeavors, from those which actually result in great increases in collective value to those (i.e. novel financial instruments) which result in its concentration and/or destruction. I don’t believe the innovation we see in the latter sectors is necessarily something worth encouraging, let alone subsidizing — especially when it can be shown to harm the host body. (He correctly identifies the beneficiary of this activity as “New York’s bankers” rather than “New York,” and it’s not at all clear to me how much of the nominal value generated remains in the city. High-end condos, luxury retail and dining, bottle-service clubs?)

- “Today, 40 percent of Manhattan’s payroll is in the financial-services industry”! That’s 40% of payroll, mind you, not 40% of employment. We might think of the disproportion between the two as the Adjusted Douche Index. Similarly, the “2010 average weekly wage in Manhattan was $2,404, which is 170 percent more than the US average.” I’d like to see mean and median numbers.

- OK, here he says something true: “[P]roximity has become ever-more valuable as the cost of connecting over long distances has fallen.” He goes on: “Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, denseness, closeness.” Not sure how he accounts for the amazingly low density of Silicon Valley in this schema, having previously lionized its creativity.

- There’s a passage praising Mumbai and Kolkata and Bangalore. I’m always uncomfortable with rhetoric that praises the rise of India’s cities (in the absence of ever having been there myself I can’t legitimately say anything stronger than “uncomfortable”) because it seems to so casually paper over the enormity, culturally structural intractability and abjection of Indian urban poverty as I understand them.

- Cities as “collaborative brilliance.” Yes: collaborative, as in an exchange that can’t be reduced to transaction.

- Here’s an offensive bit: “The failure of Detroit and so many other industrial towns doesn’t really reflect any weakness of cities as a whole, but rather the sterility of those cities that lost touch with the essential ingredients of urban reinvention.” I guess it had nothing to do with the enormous structural changes propagating through the economy as it made the turn toward services, then. And mere paragraphs later he asserts that “no public policy can stem the tidal forces of urban change.”

- “[N]ot all urban poverty is bad” (!) because, apparently, cities “attract poor people.” I think I see the argument he’s making here — wherever patterns of high mobility obtain, the presence of poverty in a place could actually be constructed as an implicit index of opportunity — but I’m not sure there’s a more offensive way to make it.

- If I understand him correctly, he positions the “reinvigorat[ion of older cities like London and New York] as places of consumption” as a good thing. “Today successful cities, young or old, attract smart entrepreneurial people, in part, by being urban theme parks.” God, I don’t know where to start with this. (Maybe that collapse of “smart” and “entrepreneurial,” as if starting a company was the highest and best purpose to which intelligence could be put?)

- The reverse commute (collapsed with largely-absentee ownership) as a mark of success. “Middle Eastern millionaires aren’t the only people buying pieds-à-terre in London and New York, and Miami has done well by selling second homes to the rich of Latin America.” Has it? In my experience, the life of a neighborhood is if anything impoverished when it tips past a certain threshold of ownership by folks who are only in residence a fraction of the time.

- OK, here we go. “Many of the ideas in this book draw on the wisdom of the great urbanist Jane Jacobs…She understood that the people who make a city creative need affordable real estate. But she also made mistakes that came from relying too much on her ground-level view and not using conceptual tools that help one think through an entire system.” Tell me more, o great Master! Particularly, what are these “conceptual tools” of which you speak? “Because she saw that older, shorter buildings were cheaper, she incorrectly believed that restricting heights and preserving old neighborhoods would ensure affordability.” His argument here amounts to an assertion that regulation of land use (especially on new or higher construction) results in historic cores that are “affordable only to the wealthy.” Of course, regulation that mandated against speculation, that required that property be used as a primary residence, would have a countervailing effect.

- This introduction just lurches from one set of ideas to another. He pivots from talking about the absurdity of Mumbai’s land-use regulations (about which I have no meaningful opinion) to the notion that the form of American cities ultimately owes more to the car than the skyscraper. I have no problem with the idea that “[t]ransportation technologies have always determined urban form,” except maybe for that unqualified “determined,” but what about the impact of regulation?

- The train-and-elevator ensemble produces gridded layouts with perceptible centers, while the car generates an acentric sprawl condition. OK.

- “Living and working in car-oriented Silicon Valley offers plenty of proximity,” but, alas, only very rarely of the unplanned, spontaneous sort. Maybe you run into people in the Whole Foods, in the Apple Store, at Tamarine in Palo Alto?

- “Speed and space are the big advantages of car-based living. The average commute by public transportation in the United States is forty-eight minutes; the average commute by car is twenty-four minutes.” Ugh. What are the distances involved, what levels of subsidy were found to be present, etc. etc. At least, after several paragraphs singing the praises of car-oriented lifestyles, he acknowledges the environmental and sustainability benefits of high-density downtown living.

- “Few slogans are as silly as the environmental mantra ‘Think globally, act locally.’ Good environmentalism requires a worldwide perspective and global action, not the narrow outlook of a single neighborhood trying to keep out builders.” Uh…does he completely misunderstand what is meant by “think globally”? I have trouble conceiving of what he means by “a worldwide perspective” if it isn’t that.

1. What Do They Make In Bangalore?
– “[Bangalore entrepreneur] Bagchi’s openness is reflected in the obstruction-free plan of his company’s compound [sic!], which encourages employees to mingle.” This “compound” was described, a single paragraph back, as being situated “inside the wall” of the Global Village office park, which uses a “high fence of trees and shrubs” to screen its occupants from the necessity of mingling with the “hawkers and auto rickshaws” and other outcroppings of “messy urban life.”

- “Athens flowered because of small random events that then multiplied through urban interaction.” I wouldn’t accept that from an undergraduate. What features of Athens, specifically, lent themselves to supporting beneficial interaction? If these events were so random, why Athens and not some other city? God, Ed. This is getting into “embarrassing” territory.

- Lest we miss the point: “The growth of [late-medieval] cities run by merchants was considerably greater than the growth of cities led by princes and monarchs.”

- Now this starts to get bizarre: “Urban proximity enables cross-cultural connection by reducing the curse of communicating complexity, the fact that the possibility of a garbled message increases with the amount of information that is being transferred. It’s easy to get across a simple yes or no but much harder to teach someone astrophysics — or economic theory, for that matter.” It’s like he read Shannon (or Gleick’s gloss on Shannon!) and half-understood the idea of redundancy and noise in the channel. Is the argument that proximity of sender and receiver reduces the chance that an error will be introduced into a complex transmission, that cross-cultural communication is necessarily more complex than signals exchanged between a sender and receiver belonging to the same culture, that proximity only happens in cities, that proximity of people with sophisticated ideas only happens in cities? What? Why couldn’t the necessary long-term proximity happen just as easily in another habitation form…like, say, a monastery?

- Again, the discussion of Bangalore is bizarre. The success of Bangalore, in Glaeser’s hands, seems to reduce to the success of Infosys, which in turn seems to have relocated to Bangalore from Pune primarily at the behest of an early client. In other words, in this telling at least, there doesn’t seem to be anything organic about Bangalore, its policy or human or physical infrastructure that gave it an advantage. (Glaeser makes much of the strong advocacy on behalf of engineering education of Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, but he was the prime minister of Mysore state — why then were other cities in the state, principally Mysore city, not so favored?)

- “The Rise of Silicon Valley.” Which isn’t a city.

- “My University of Chicago diploma…”: Surprise me, why don’t you?

- An excursion into the history of Stanford and its ever-cozy ties with industry, all by way of saying Education’s Important, Kids, M’Kay? So far his examples of urban innovation are office parks in Bangalore and Silicon Valley, neither of which seems particularly “urban” as I understand the term. “In some ways, Silicon Valley is like a well-functioning traditional city.” This, apart from stretching the definition of “city” to its breaking point, is intellectually dishonest in the extreme: the Peninsular culture is only able to achieve what it does because it’s densely interlinked with a larger region that shoulders the less-glamorous aspects of the economy.

- Again with the cod-Shannon “curse of communicating complexity” line: “all that cutting-edge technology can be pretty complicated, and geographic proximity helps the flow of information.” Really? Can Glaeser identify a single instance in which close physical proximity between Valley institutions, organizations or individuals brings about the exchange of technical information? Stock tips I can easily imagine; whispers about big HR moves, sure. But “pretty complicated” discussions of “cutting-edge technology”? That happens on Stack Overflow.

- “Only 3.7 percent of the people living in Santa Clara County take mass transit to work.” He means, of course, public mass transit; I wonder what the figure is if you roll in the number of people who take the Google or Apple shuttle, etc.

- On the undying importance of face-to-face communication: “A wealth of research confirms the importance of face-to-face contact. One experiment performed by two researchers at the University of Michigan challenged groups of six students to play a game in which everyone could earn money by cooperating. One set of groups met for ten minutes face-to-face to discuss strategy before playing. Another set of groups had thirty minutes for electronic interaction. The groups that met in person cooperated well and earned more money. The groups that had only connected electronically fell apart, as members put their personal gains ahead of the group’s needs.” Does he cite this study in notes? I could use this as well. He concludes “face-to-face contact leads to more trust, generosity and cooperation than any other sort of interaction.”

- “Innovations cluster in places like Silicon Valley because ideas cross corridors and streets more easily than continents and seas.” This is, inevitably, more complicated than Glaeser makes it out to be. On the one hand, I know what he’s talking about; certainly my own use of specified applications directly dates from my seeing other people using them in person (notably Flickr at the first Design Engaged, and Twitter at LIFT ’07 in Geneva). But that strikes me as being less about physical proximity and more about cultural proximity. My other objection has to do with what I take Burt’s point in “The Social Origins of Good Ideas” to be: the fact that they achieve rapid uptake in a circumscribed environment doesn’t necessarily validate ideas. In fact, they’ve only been exposed to variant perspective within a broader monoculture. (Note that, in general, I have no problem with any argument in favor of the intellectual and economic benefits of high density.)

- Jevons paradox. This is interesting: “As we acquire more efficient means of transmitting information, like e-mail or Skype, we spend more, not less, time transmitting information.” The paradoxes go Jevon and on! But what part of this is route-around for inapposite modal selection at the beginning of a round of communication? You know: the two-second phone call that resolves half an hour of frustratingly back-and-forth texts. Glaeser argues (weakly, but I do buy it) that “all those electronic interactions are creating a more relationship-intensive world.” Which leads me to ask: if knowledge displaced physical strength as the industrial age yielded to the information age, might we now be seeing social facility displace knowledge, as the information age yields to the network age?

- “The printing press helped cities” because book = Bible, a distributed and demotic Bible = Protestantism, and Protestantism, per Weber, “supported economic, political, and social changes that made commerce in cities more attractive.” That’s practically a James Burke argument.

2. Why Do Cities Decline?
– “Eight of the ten largest U.S. cities in 1950 have lost at least a sixth of their population since then. Six of the sixteen largest cities in 1950 — Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis — have lost more than half their population since that year. In Europe, cities like Liverpool, Glasgow, Rotterdam, Bremen and Vilnius are all much smaller than they once were.” These are all manufacturing centers or ports, aren’t they? Glaeser distinguishes commercial centers (Birmingham, NYC; “specialized in skills, small enterprises, and strong connections with the outside world,” presumably unlike Detroit’s skills, or connections to its supply chain) from these manufacturing cities, and argues that they were better positioned to survive the post-industrial turn. So far this is conventional wisdom dressed up in wankery.

- Ah, here’s the contrast: the “vast factories” of the industrial town “employed hundreds of thousands of relatively unskilled workers,” who lack the education to adapt to the requirements of the information age.

- He keeps making this point I don’t think anyone after Corb disagrees with, that the recuperative policies that Rust Belt cities tried, with little success, failed because they “came out of the all-too-common error of confusing a city, which is really a mass of connected humanity, with its structures.” But San Francisco and New York City also overinvest in stadia and “grandiose office towers.” It’s hard for me to see that these strategies are unique to shrinking cities.

- “If Detroit and places like it are ever going to come back, they will do so by embracing the virtues of the great pre- and postindustrial cities: competition, connection, and human capital.” Were these qualities irrelevant, then, to the success of the industrial city? And isn’t this all to imply that these factors are entirely under managerial control? In any other context, we’d call this “blaming the victim.”

- The Erie Canal connected the Hudson to the Great Lakes? Did I know this and forget it, or never know it?

- “American cities like Buffalo and Chicago, and New York itself, grew on spots where goods had to be shifted from one form of transportation to another.” Intermodal junctions, sure. Actually what Glaeser is describing — in quite a good amount of welcome detail — is a shift in the relative proportion of freight-transshipment modes that began to undercut the heartland cities’ claims to centrality or significance before anyone had ever uttered the words “information society.” Containerized cargo, the completion of the Interstate network and cheap global air freight might have done for Buffalo all by themselves. As he himself points out, the same is true of the industrial cities along the Ruhr and those in the northwest of England linked by the Mersey and the canal network.

- “In general, there’s a strong correlation between the presence of small firms and the later growth of a region. Competition…seems to create economic success.” How many times must we repeat “correlation is not causality”?

- Discussing the Fordist/Taylorist assembly line, Glaeser calles them “an example of that strange creature, the knowledge-destroying idea”: “If people need to know less, they also have less need for cities that spread knowledge. When a city (!) creates a powerful enough knowledge-destroying idea, it sets itself up for self-destruction.” So the seeds of Detroit’s undoing were in the very thing that propelled it to success? And this undoing, therefore, had little or nothing to do with the larger structural forces reshaping the economy? Good to know. (I’m sorry, I’m trying to avoid being snarky, but this thesis is just so stupid.)

- “[Henry] Ford figured out how to make assembly lines that could use the talents of poorly educated Americans, but making Detroit less skilled hurt it economically in the long run.” Unless I’m mistaken, those good (union!) jobs, coupled to federal-level policies from the New Deal straight through to the Great Society, were what made an American middle class possible at all.

- “By the 1930s, only the most foolhardy and well-financed businessman would have dared take on General Motors and Ford. The intellectually fertile world of independent urban entrepreneurs had been replaced by a few big companies that had everything to lose and little to gain from radical experimentation.” But for the bit about experimentation, this sounds like…Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon.

- I think it’s interesting that he correctly identifies the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) (“which allowed states to pass right-to-work laws that forbid the formation of closed shops,” an accurate if rather incomplete summary of the Act’s aims and provisions) as a linchpin in the eventual flight of capital from the industrial North to the South and West. Again, the picture he’s painting undermines his own thesis: what could Detroit and Buffalo and Cleveland have done to prevent the relocation of investment, other than mobilize for the defeat of Taft-Hartley? The act had more impact on the outcomes (not) enjoyed by these cities in the second half of the twentieth century than many another factor, even before Japan and China enter the picture, and it had not a thing to do with any policy organic to them.

- “New York’s resurrection was primarily tied to an explosion in entrepreneurship.” We typically associate that word with the act of starting a business, not with deregulation and putative innovation (like the LBO and, later, the CDO) in the financial services sector.

- “Big, vertically integrated firms [like General Motors and Ford] may be productive in the short run, but they don’t create the energetic competition and new ideas that are so necessary for long-term urban success.” Apparently big, vertically-integrated Japanese firms do, however, because Glaeser goes on to laud Tokyo, which sits at the summit of an economy dominated almost entirely by (wait for it!) big, vertically-integrated organizations.

- “While Detroit’s Big Three had long lost their appetite for radical risk, Soichiro Honda was building fuel-efficient little cars.” Which were the antithesis of risk for Honda, because such cars were precisely and exclusively what their largest market demanded of them.

- “New York responded to the crisis of the 1970s by giving up the dream of ending social injustice at the local level and instead electing centrist, workmanlike mayors — Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, Bloomberg — who were determined to make the city as attractive as possible to employers and middle-class residents.” Well, I suppose that’s one way of describing NYC policy across three decades. Also, isn’t this rather a splendid case of the pathetic fallacy? “New York” didn’t give up any dreams of social justice, because neither it nor the policy-making elite responsible for crafting its probusiness agenda following the era of the Municipal Assistance Corporation had ever had any.

- Referring to Coleman Young and Detroit’s local income tax of the 1970s: “Research by four economists found that in three out of four large cities, higher tax rates barely increase tax revenues because economic activity dissipates so quickly in response to higher tax rates.” Like the notable dissipation of the New York City real estate market. Also, “barely” does not mean the same thing as “do not” or “have a negative impact on.” You’d expect an economist to understand that, at least.

- “The mobility of the prosperous limits the ability of any city government to play Robin Hood. The well-off can, with relative ease, walk away from a depressed and declining city.” Note the collapse of “any city” and “depressed and declining” cities, as well as the implicit assumption/assertion that retaining the wealthy has a greater positive impact on overall outcomes any other policy a government might adopt.

- “Instead of trying to attract smart, wealthy entrepreneurial people [there’s that collapse again], [Young] built structures — making the same error as Jerome Cavanaugh, mistaking the built city for the real [i.e. human] city…For decades, the federal government has only exacerbated this tendency by offering billions for structures and transportation and far less for schools or safety.” I’m not disagreeing with the position that we should invest much, much more in education than we do, but that “and transportation” is bizarre. Firstly, how does Glaeser expect the people who, yes, do constitute the “real city” to get around without transportation? And secondly, Federal funds for transportation are disproportionately invested in non-urban modes and systems (i.e. Interstates).

- “The failures of urban renewal reflect a failure at all levels of government to realize that people, not structures, really determine a city’s success.” Finally, something amounting to a testable proposition — and, at that, one whose spirit at least I do not quibble with. (The actuality is that “urban renewal” as practiced in the United States through the early 1970s adopted many misguided policies toward the built environment, but this is not the same thing as asserting there were no good policies that might have been adopted.)

- On the heels of a lengthy dissection of Coleman Young’s faults and their implications for the fortunes of Detroit comes this gem: “Over the last century, no variable has been a better predictor of urban growth than temperate winters.” If this is so, then why write thirty thousand words purporting to explain the factors which lead to urban success? Gah! This book infuriates me!

- “[R]egardless of cost, should the national government even be using the tax code to shuffle economic activity around?” Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that precisely what the tax code is intended to accomplish?

- “Why should national policy encourage firms to locate in unproductive places?” I could as easily ask why national policy should encourage the habitation at all of regions of the country entirely dependent on unsustainable levels of environmental support, like the Los Angeles Basin and much of the Southwest besides.

- “Leipzig is worthy of emulation…for its hardheaded policy of accepting decline and reducing the empty housing stock. In 2000, one-fifth of the city’s home stock was vacant, a total of 62,500 units. After refusing to accept the reality of decline for decades, the city government finally recognized that those units would never again house anybody and that it made more sense to demolish them and replace them with green space.” Note: Leipzig is in what was formerly the DDR, where presumably urban policy was set at the national level, and local government was in no more position to “accept the reality of decline” than was Erich Honecker. “Bulldozing vacant homes reduces the costs of city services, eliminates safety hazards, and turns decaying eyesores into usable space. Leipzig set a target of destroying 20,000 vacant units…In the United States, Youngstown, Ohio, which has lost more than half of its 1970 population, has also embraced this vision of shrinking to greatness [!]. In 2005, the city’s newly elected mayor immediately earmarked funds for demolishing abandoned homes…Parks, open space and large lots will replace once-dense neighborhoods. This strategy won’t bring Youngstown’s population back, but it will make the city more attractive, less dangerous, and cheaper to maintain.” Cross-check these assertions against Ryan’s Design after Decline.

- “[P]overty is usually a sign of a city’s success.” Uh huh. Not for those people, though, right Ed?

Coming soon: Part II.

2 responses to “(Some of) the right things for (most of) the wrong reasons: Notes on Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, part I”

  1. tricia wang says :

    on your point about Ed’s point of celebrating “Idea-producing entrepreneurs,” – Michael Lewis would agree with you – his writing question innovation – that not all innovations are good and that we need to be more critical of the kinds of innovation we celebrate – like those in the financial sector

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