Notes on Triumph of the City, part III

More of my long-form dissection of Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City. You can find Part I here and Part II here; Part IV and a coda follow.

6. What’s So Great About Skyscrapers?
– On Paris: “That thoroughfare [the Boulevard St.-Germain], like the Boul’Mich…was created by Haussmann, carved out of a mess of older streets.” That’s rather a tendentious way to put it. Whatever its eventual benefit to Paris, the Haussmann plan was primarily and explicitly motivated by the desire to enable policing, control and potentially military suppression of obstreperous working-class districts. And “mess”? That’s practically Corbusian language.

- “Too much preservation stops cities from building newer, taller, better buildings for their inhabitants.” For Glaeser, newer is always taller, and taller is always better.

- The oft-told tales of the safety elevator and the curtain wall. At one point, I was going to lead into my own book with a round-up of technologies that had catalyzed new paradigms in urban form; reading this, for what feels like the eleventieth time, makes me really glad I chose not to.

- Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Glaeser pulls a “you didn’t build that” on Ayn Rand, arguing that the architects she based her Howard Roark on, far from being lone, heroic actors, were “deeply enmeshed in an urban chain of innovation.” You might almost say…a community.

- “[Tall buildings] gave factory owners and workers space that was both more humane and more efficient.” I imagine the 146 mostly immigrant, mostly female garment workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire might have had something rather pungent to say about that. No: the historical record is explicit that it was working-class activism and the regulation that resulted that forced the owners and operators of tall buildings to make them safe — regulation of precisely the sort that Glaeser, last chapter, implied ought to be beyond the scope of local government to apply.

- “Cities are ultimately about the connections among people, but [tall] structures…make those connections easier.” No, they do not. At best, they allow more people to inhabit a given area of the Earth’s surface, generating more potential for interconnection and exchange at or close to ground level. I don’t want to be a pedant about things, but from Pruitt-Igoe to Trellick Tower, the Westway Sound and the reflections of Mick “I ain’t never lived below the fifth floor” Jones, I think the verdict is in on the inherent capacity of tall residential buildings to organize robust social connection. The question, in the end, is one of sensitive design, which is something that doesn’t seem to exist in Glaeser’s monochrome world of regulation and incentives. For that matter, it’s not absolutely necessary to build up to achieve Glaeser’s ends; not that I’m necessarily suggesting it as a model, but Kowloon Walled City achieved some of the highest recorded residential densities in human history, and never exceeded fourteen stories.

- On New York City’s post-1960 zoning code: “There were thirteen different types of residential districts, twelve different types of manufacturing districts, and no less than forty-one different types of commercial districts.” This ain’t Sim City, kids. Actually, I do agree that the NYC zoning regulations are overly complicated, and though I probably differ sharply from Glaeser in terms of the kinds of changes I’d like to see made to it, I would like the code to permit certain kinds of commercial (and even, potentially, light-industrial) activity in previously exclusively residential areas. I’d also like to see more experimentation, in the US, with mixed use within the envelope of a single building, à la Tokyo, Seoul or Hong Kong.

- “People who live in high-rises [defined how?] are about 6 percent more likely to be victimized by street crime than people who live in single-family dwellings, even controlling extensively for individual attributes of each potential victim…My own interpretation of these facts is that the taller towers, occupied by the poor, are often public housing projects, where poverty is concentrated and ground-floor retail is rare. These conditions mean that streets can become dominated by troublemakers.” Really? My interpretation of these facts is that sometimes a statistical correlation doesn’t actually tell you that much that’s useful.

- “[Jane Jacobs] also argued that two hundred homes per acre was a ‘danger mark’; once neighborhoods crossed that point, they risked sterile standardization…For the government to mandate a single style of urbanism is no more sensible than for the government to enforce a single style of literature.” Whoah. Just a huge, unsupported leap here from “Jane Jacobs argued” to the notion of some draconian government mandate. That’s the cheapest sort of demagoguery.

- When Glaeser says of Jacobs that “[h]er urban vision was very much grounded in the experience of her own Greenwich Village neighborhood, with its taverns and thinkers and low-rise townhouses,” he seems to be suggesting that she’s making an inapposite and parochial application of a local preference as a general principle. He even comes right out and says that “one’s own tastes are rarely a sound basis for public policy,” as though the ideas expressed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities were merely a matter of preference, and not the result of long empirical observation. It’s hard to interpret this as anything but patronizing. What’s worse: the sole example Glaeser is able to offer of Jacobs resisting new high-rise structures explicitly concerns a proposed development in her own neighborhood.

- “Perhaps a new forty-story building won’t itself house any quirky, less profitable firms…” Note that “firms.”

- In an anecdote regarding a proposed Madison Avenue tower, Glaeser performs the neat rhetorical jiujitsu of forcing his opponents to concede their alignment with the doubly odious Tom Wolfe. I feel the sudden need to take a long, hot shower.

- “The cost of restricting development is that protected areas become more expensive and more exclusive.” I’m just curious as to why, in any of this discussion, sensitive design is never explored as a way of squaring the circle? Why does it have to be all or nothing — snooty Mrs. Wilberforce clutching her pearls and sighing in relief at the preservation of her district, or the developer cackling in demented total victory as his soaring skyphallus sunders the fabric through which it’s being thrust?

- OK, here we’re in total agreement: like many cities, New York City certainly does need to build much more affordable housing. But when he argues that “[i]f there were no rules restricting new construction, then prices would eventually come down to somewhere near construction costs,” Glaeser simplemindedly bypasses all the other tools municipal administrations presumably have access to.

- “Limiting high-rise development doesn’t guarantee interesting, heterogeneous neighborhoods. It just guarantees high prices.” But allowing developers unimpeded access to do what they will with a parcel clearly doesn’t guarantee interesting, heterogeneous neighborhoods either! You’ve got ideological blinders on, Ed, and it’s not helping you make your case.

- In describing the Haussmannization of Paris: “Still, the emperor wasn’t just building defensible space.” Somewhere, poor Oscar Newman is gritting his teeth.

- On the difficulties of erecting tall buildings in late 20th Century Paris: “The Montparnasse Tower was widely loathed, and the lesson drawn was that skyscrapers must never again mar central Paris.” Maybe this is because the Montparnasse Tower is a terrible example of a skyscraper — absolutely graceless in every respect, and totally unloved even by someone like me, with the fondest feelings for Centre Point and the Pan Am Building. I very much doubt that the city that had embraced the unprecedented Eiffel Tower would have turned its back on a more distinguished example of tall architecture. Once again, the question of design is absent from Glaeser’s considerations.

- Of the relation of La Défense to the core of Paris, “[t]he natural thing is to have tall buildings in the center, where demand is the greatest, not on the edge.” Had La Défense been more thoughtfully planned, designed and executed, though, it would have become a new center — a Shinjuku or Shibuya to the historic core’s Ginza.

- Now we’re onto Mumbai. “One curse of the developing world is that governments take on too much and fail at their core responsibilities. Countries that cannot provide clean water for their citizens should not be in the business of regulating currency exchanges.” Here we have the most annoying habit of the common-or-garden discussion-board ideologue, writ (very) large: the inability to think two independent things at once, without yoking them in a false, zero-sum opposition. (Is there a pithy Latin name for this logical fallacy?) Perhaps the skill sets that would allow bureaucrats to manage urban water supply and national-scale currency markets are vastly different, and in sharply unequal supply. Or more likely still, perhaps these two areas of endeavor have nothing to do with one another, or are linked each to the other in only the most tenuous and indirect manner. Quite possibly it’s fair to demand of a government that it accomplish both tasks.

- On Mumbai’s public transit: “In 2008, more than three people each day were pushed out of that train to their death.” As ready as Westerners generally are to accept depicitions of Indian urban squalor at face value, I find this figure kind of hard to believe, and my skepticism is only increased by a quick Googling: the only record the Internet has of the citation in its entirety (“Blakely, ’17 People Die Every Day Commuting to Work in Mumbai, India.’”) points back to Glaeser’s own book.

- Comparing Mumbai to Singapore, the most apples-to-oranges comparison thus far in a book which has not notably been lacking in same: “[U]nlike Mumbai, its government is among the most competent in the world…as a result, Singapore’s downtown functions well, because it’s tall and connected.” It seems odd that someone to all appearances so viscerally opposed to overregulation would find praise for Singapore, perhaps the most regulated urban environment on the planet.

- “Even vast Tokyo can be traversed largely on foot.” No. Believe me, I’ve tried.

- I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees here. It’s not as if I particularly disagree with the policy prescription Glaeser’s making for Mumbai. In this particular case, and knowing the limited amount I do know, I buy the argument that “corridors of [housing] skyscrapers,” if they could be safely built, would “decrease the pressure on roads, ease the connections that are the lifeblood of a twenty-first-century city, and reduce Mumbai’s extraordinarily high cost of space.” Anybody with a more intimate knowledge of the place want to weigh in?

- “Height restrictions just force people to crowd into squalid, illegal slums rather than legal apartment buildings.” No. Arguably, one of the strengths of the informal sector is that people will build slum housing (or favelas, or gecekondu) on ground too marginal for any commercial developer, and otherwise considered impossible to build on at all — allowing poor people to live much closer to jobs and other opportunities for exchange than would be the case in any purely legal scenario.

- “Three Simple Rules.” OK, let’s see what we think of these. I take it these will all relate to land use.

- He advocates replacing the “current lengthy and uncertain permitting process [because he has personal experience of what permitting is like everywhere on the planet?] with a simple system of fees.” “If tall heights create costs by blocking light or views, then form a reasonable estimate of those costs and charge the builder appropriately. If certain activities are noxious to neighbors, then we should estimate the social costs and charge builders for them…Those taxes could then be given to the people who are suffering, such as the neighbors who lose light from a new construction project.” It seems inconceivable to me that an economist would not understand this, but perhaps the ostensibly unwieldy permitting process (that every municipality in the world has apparently independently arrived at) exists because (a) it is uneconomic to make a case-by-case determination of these factors and (b) some losses cannot meaningfully be reduced to a dollar value, or ameliorated by a cash payout. Let’s be clear that what Glaeser is calling for here is an entirely new layer of bureaucracy empowered to value the intangible, somewhat arbitrarily — for if there do exist procedures or guidelines he feels ought to be observed in the course of this valuation, he does not specify them. How is this not the worst of both worlds? Finally, we all know that there’s not the faintest chance any such source of revenue would long remain undiverted to other purposes. The naïveté here is astonishing, and I say that as someone much given to my own sweeping re-engineerings of the status quo.

- “Second, historic preservation should be limited and well defined.” No problem with this in principle. We all know who lives in the details, though.

- “Finally, individual neighborhoods should have some clearly delineated power to protect their special character.” Again, fine. The anarchosyndicalist in me agrees with the “power,” and the connectionist in me agrees with the “some.” But when Glaeser says “community control must unfortunately be limited, because local communities often fail to consider the adverse citywide consequences of banning building,” I fail to find this any more persuasive than the argument that advocates and developers often fail to consider the adverse citywide consequences of a single supertall, let alone across-the-board deregulation.

- “The failure of places like New York and San Francisco to build up has pushed Americans elsewhere, to places that embrace new construction. In such areas, like Houston and Phoenix, development is unfettered, and as a result, prices stay low.” Now hang on a second. Awhile back, you were arguing that real wages — the ratio of income to local prices — are disproportionately high in places where one has to be bribed to live. By your own logic, maybe the low housing prices of Houston and Phoenix represent a tacit acknowledgement that these are inherently shitty places to live, while the high costs of New York and San Francisco represent their inherent desirability, and will continue to do so in relative terms whatever amount of new construction is added to the market.

7. Why Has Sprawl Spread?
– “Twenty-four million people visit [Houston’s Galleria shopping mall] each year, making it the city’s most popular attraction.” Whatever else that figure may imply, it depresses the hell out of me. (In fairness, I feel much the same about the evident relative popularity of Helsinki’s Kamppi shopping center vis à vis that city’s streets, but at least Kamppi has the virtue of existing on top of an intermodal transfer point. And, c’mon, man, we’re talking about Helsinki: streets are covered in ice eleventy months of the year.) Is there anything about the Galleria and its offerings that distinguishes it from other malls, or, still more depressingly yet, does it feature the same panoply of brands and choices you might encounter anywhere?

- “On any given Saturday, the mall is mobbed with shoppers, tourists, and people just enjoying its public spaces.” Excuse me, its what? I must have misheard you, because I know you didn’t just refer to a fully enclosed, privately-owned and -operated mall as “public space.”

- He explains the conscious calculus underlying his decision (presumably jointly arrived at with his unmentioned partner) to relocate to the suburbs following the arrival of three children. “This chapter is about…the appeals of car-based living in lower-density places, which have attracted so many people, including myself.” I like that, as an advocate of dense big-city living, he explicitly and in so many words says that he includes this material because “it always makes sense to know your enemy”; I do not particularly like that he advocates so forcefully for a lifestyle he’s not prepared to adopt himself, whatever the results of his calculus. Nobody held a gun to his head and made him have three children, any more than someone held a gun to his head and forced him to send those children to private schools.

- “Ranting about the philistinism of people who choose car-based living in Houston may be emotionally satisfying to some, but it does nothing to help older cities attract more people.” Heh. OK, you got me: guilty as charged. But if you’re going to argue that “[f]or millions, the appeal of suburban, Sunbelt places is real,” what makes you think those “older cities” could do anything at all to meaningfully “compete” with such places? Again, for most people, even those blessed with a high degree of control over their own mobility, I’d wager rather a lot that not everything in life is reducible to some optimal performance-assessment algorithm. For a great many of us, some factors in life are so overridingly important — whether wonderful, like living within walking distance of a grocery that carries Pickapeppa sauce, ancho chilies, Turkish delight and Moroccan couscous, or hugely problematic, like the desire to avoid living among people whose ethnicity or religious beliefs or sexual practices one finds abhorrent — that they introduce a singularity into any such equation. Those for whom Sunbelt suburbs seem like a dispensation of Earthly grace simply aren’t ever going to consider living in a place like New York, no matter how high you pile the storeys.

- “I doubt that I would be in the suburbs if it weren’t for the antiurban public policy trifecta of the [heavily subsidized, convenient] Massachusetts Turnpike, the home mortgage interest deduction, and the problems of urban schools. Eliminating pro-sprawl policies won’t bring back every declining city, and it won’t [tant pis?] kill the suburbs, but it will create a healthier urban system whereby walking cities can compete more effectively against the car.” We are here in almost complete and total agreement.

- “Many older neighborhoods, like New York’s Washington Square and Barcelona’s Eixample, which are now beloved by urbanists, were the sprawl of earlier eras.” They were the sprawl, then they became beloved because (lots of) people occupied them and filled in the spaces between what had been outposts and the pre-existing settlements; in other words, the texture and character of these places changed over time, radically. Give density awhile to bed in, sure, and maybe even Long Island can evolve to the point that my equivalent two hundred years hence will find it crammed from end to end with charming neighborhoods. But that’s not likely to happen until and unless something eclipses relatively affordable automobility.

- Almost three-quarters of the way through comes the book’s extended discussion of public transit…in the context of enabling sprawl.

- “The fifty-foot minimum street widths and straight lines of New York’s 1811 grid were designed to accommodate masses of horse-drawn vehicles, even those, like the omnibus, that hadn’t yet shown up in New York.” Futureproofing avant la lettre. I wish we still did that.

- “[T]he Philadelphia Main Line provides the quintessential examples of suburbs built on steam. In the 1860s, the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired 283 acres in Lower Merion Township, on which it created the town of Bryn Mawr.” Now I know who to blame. An extended tour of mobility and mobility-enabling technologies, from the electric streetcar to (again) the assembly line and the Interstate System.

- Finally we wind up in Levittown, where “[a]voiding unions made it possible for Levitt to use the latest building technologies.” This is offered without qualification. At least Glaeser makes it explicit that Levitt wouldn’t have had a market for his non-union houses had it not been for the provisions of the GI Bill and the FHA.

- “When public policy promotes home ownership, it also pushes people to leave cities.” Well, that rather depends on the policy’s definition of “home,” now, doesn’t it?

- “By eliminating the need for walking, the car supported a quantum leap in the size of land areas that people could occupy. As a result, the inverse connection between density and car usage is extremely strong — across a broad range of cities, as density doubles, the share of the population that takes a car to work typically drops by 6.6 percent.” I believe the car is anti-urban in other ways, as well, as its affordance of capsular containment cuts the commuter off from having to acknowledge and negotiate with the prerogatives of others — most particularly, of course, pedestrians and bicyclists. This will remain true however green and “sustainable” the vehicle’s power train may become, and (depending on the precise details of programming and design) is likely to remain so no matter how autonomously computational its directive intelligence.

- “The fortyfold increase in [requirements for mobility] space that accompanies the shift from walking to cars explains why so much of the land in car-based cities is given over to highways.” By contrast, this is a situation that might actually yield to the widespread adoption of self-guided cars. (Despite my skepticism on other counts of the ostensible value proposition for such vehicles, I tend to buy the argument that peer-to-peer computational management of road-resource utilization will result in faster and much denser traffic; your mileage, as ever, may vary.)

- “Comparing seventy cities worldwide, Matthew Kahn and I found that when countries move from having low gas taxes to high gas taxes [defined how?], the density of development increases by more than 40 percent.” Well, there you go! There’s a lever government can use right now to incentivize increases in residential density, without the risks and drawbacks associated with deregulating construction, and with the added benefit of an enhanced revenue stream, however marginal that enhancement turns out to be. And it’s based on your own findings. I seriously do not understand why you would advocate for anything else, unless you were trying to shape your argument to suit the rigors imposed by an a priori ideological template.

- “Cities can compete [with suburbs], but they need radical new designs that offer affordable housing and quicker commutes.” But for the caveat I made before about the incommensurability and irreducibility of ostensible options, we do not disagree. What we disagree about, fairly considerably, is the nature of those “radical new designs.”

- An extended discussion of the Ian McHarg master-planned community The Woodlands, in Texas. “To all but the most ardent urbanist, The Woodlands is an attractive place. It was won numerous awards, and it attracts plenty of residents.” To which I can only respond that the town’s Wikipedia page is prominently illustrated with a picture of a P.F. Chang’s.

- “Manhattan is a great place to get rich and a great place to spend your wealth…New York [City] is also a pretty good place for poorer people…The city has reasonable social services, and there are plenty of entry-level service-sector jobs with wages that beat those in Ghana or Guatemala [because, clearly, immigrants from those places couldn’t possibly be qualified for anything else]. But what if you’re neither a partner at Goldman Sachs nor a poor immigrant? What if you’re an average American family with two children, skills that put you in the middle of the U.S. income distribution, and aspirations toward a middle-class lifestyle? It’s telling to work through the economic facts of life for a middle-income family deciding between New York and Houston, so that’s what we’ll do for the next couple of pages.” This is, frankly, brilliant — a puissant reminder that I myself don’t know anybody who meets that description, and am not particularly likely to understand or relate to those aspirations. (For whatever reason, I find it far easier to conceive of and internalize a sense of the pressures facing those much further down the economic ladder.) The trouble is that I don’t think Glaeser does either, and the problems start with the notion that any significant American cohort faces that particular choice: between New York and Houston. These simply aren’t fungible alternatives. If even the premise is an abstraction, how can any of what follows be any more grounded in actual experience?

- Having said that, I bow to the logic of the figures he arrays here, demonstrating pretty convincingly that, assuming identical finances, one can enjoy equivalent or greater quality of life in Houston than one could in the New York area. (Of course, this is only true for certain, sharply-circumscribed values of “quality of life.”) Ultimately, however, I don’t think the difference in relative outcomes enjoyed by these or any cities really goes to household mobility but to the mobility of capital. To the degree that they even can move, people are going to go where the jobs are, and if a coherently “pro-business,” labor-hostile region exists (a situation Glaeser himself makes it clear obtains in the US post-Taft-Hartley) and a sector has no particular requirement for world-class talent, I’d imagine that’s where a greater proportion of companies are going to site themselves.

- “Over the past thirty years, Massachusetts towns have imposed stricter and stricter rules preventing new development and subdivisions. One municipality forbids building anyplace where there’s a ‘wicked big puddle.’” Could this last be entirely apocryphal? The comment is unsupported in Glaeser’s notes, and, once again, the only references turned up by a Google search of the term are either to organized nature walks, or to Triumph itself. Nowhere does any such municipal regulation come to light. In any event, it’s not clear what relevance the policies arrived at by Massachusetts towns have for metropolitan land-use.

- “Houston’s freewheeling growth machine has actually done a better job providing affordable housing than all of the progressive reformers on America’s East and West coasts.” Yes, but only at the cost of those affordable houses being situated in Houston. Here I’m (for once) not trying to be snarky, simply pointing out that if we take Glaeser at face value on this point, the overwhelming factor that makes that housing affordable is that it is located in a jurisdiction that observes no restriction whatsoever on what may be done where, and that there are some who may interpret this in itself as a kind of imposed cost. Note that, as I indicated above, I probably favor some kind of limited experimentation with eased land-use controls, and an unsentimental evaluation of the results.

- “Places like New York and San Francisco, which claim to care about providing low-cost housing for the poor, are generally unaffordable. Texas, which has never shown any commitment to social housing, leads the country in building inexpensive homes.” But for the pathetic fallacy, this is fair comment.

- “If the entire world starts looking like Houston, the planet’s carbon footprint will skyrocket…Urbanization will continue in India and China, and that’s a good thing — there is no future in rural poverty. But it would be a lot better for the planet if their urbanized population lives in dense cities built around the elevator, rather than in sprawling areas built around the car.” Again I will be generous and assume Glaeser doesn’t really mean what he clearly implies here: that Houstonians are entitled to the rational choice they’ve made for a car-centered lifestyle, but that urbanizing Chinese and Indian populations deserve no such freedom of choice.

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