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Commonplace: Bookchin on the “nuclear unit” of a properly constituted politics

Politics, in effect, must be recreated again if we are to reclaim any degree of personal and collective sovereignty over our destiny. The nuclear unit of this politics is not the impersonal bureaucrat, the professional politician, the party functionary, or even the urban resident in all the splendor of his or her civic anonymity. It is the citizen — a term that embodies the classical ideals of philia, autonomy, rationality and, above all, civic commitment. The elusive citizen who surfaced historically in the assemblies of Greece, in the communes of medieval Europe, in the town meetings of New England, and in the revolutionary sections of Paris must be brought to the foreground of political theory. For without his or her presence and without a clear understanding of his or her genesis, development, and potentialities, any discussion of the city is likely to become anemically institutional and formal.

– Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, 1987.

On Adaptive Ecologies

Over the weekend I finally got a chance to sit down with Theodore Spyropoulos‘s new book Adaptive Ecologies, which I’ve been looking forward to for a bit now. (Thanks, Steph!) Spyropolous is an instructor at London’s Architectural Association and director of the school’s Design Research Laboratory, and Adaptive Ecologies is his and his students’ attempt to push arguments about the computational generation of form a little further downfield.

The book’s subtitle says it all, sorta: “Correlated systems of living.” Broadly, the argument being made here is that new technologies allow us to fuse architecture’s formal qualities with its functional or performative ones. We can imagine the world populated with entirely new kinds of structures: each an active, adaptive mesh capable of responding to conditions of use, and expressing this response through its macroscopic physical manifestation, at every scale from unit (house) to cluster (building) to collective (megastructure or masterplan). What Spyropolous and his student-collaborators are trying to develop are the strategies or vocabularies one would use to devise structures like this.

Another way of putting things is to say that they’re attempting to link or join the two primary modes in which computation currently informs architecture. On one hand, we have the procedural, iterative, processor-intensive design techniques that have been in vogue for the past decade or so; on the other, we have the potential we’ve discussed so often here, that of networked informatics to endow structures and environments with the ability to sense and respond to varying conditions of occupancy, load or use. Adaptive Ecologies binds these threads together, and what results is a potent intellectual figure: smart city as architecture machine.

This is an intriguing argument, to say the least, and its evocation of urban space as a vast, active, living information system resonates profoundly with certain of my own concerns. Further, Spyropoulos admirably attempts to situate this work in its proper context, adducing a secret history in which his students’ towering blebs and polypy complexes recognizably descend from a lineage of minor heroes that includes Bucky Fuller, Archigram and the Japanese Metabolists, Gordon Pask and Cedric Price.

All of the usual tropes are present in Adaptive Ecologies: DLA and its manifestation in coral and Hele-Shaw cells; genetic algorithms, agent-based models and cellular automata; stigmergy and swarming logics; siphonophores and mangroves; even Frei Otto’s experiments with the self-organizing potential of wet thread.

But troublingly, these organic processes are used to generate designs that are not shown to be “adaptive” at all — at least not in the materials reproduced here. My primary beef with the book turns out to be the same I hold against the contemporary school of parametricists (which runs the entire gamut of seriousness, interest and credibility, from Zaha Hadid herself and her in-house ideologist Patrik Schumacher straight through to charlatans like Mitchell Joachim): that it fetishizes not merely form but the process of structuration. Or really, that it fetishizes the process of structuration to the detriment of usable form.

To make a fetish of these generative processes is to misunderstand their meaning, or to think that they are not already operating in our built environments. I promise you these algorithms of self-organization are always already there in the city — in the distribution of activities, in the dynamics of flow, in every last thing but the optical shape. The beehive’s form is epiphenomenal of its organizing logic, and so is the city’s. To reify such an organizing logic in the shape of a building strikes me as stumbling into a category error. Worse: as magical thinking, as though we’d made the rhizome an emblem of state to be carved in the façades of our buildings, where once we might have inscribed sheaves of wheat or birds of prey.

Consider the contribution of usual-suspect Makoto Sei Watanabe. Watanabe is an architect who believes that architecture must replace unreliable designerly inspiration with a Science valid in all times and places, and I’ve beaten up on him before. He’s represented here by a series of sculptures collectively called WEB FRAME, one version of which adorns the Iidabashi station of Tokyo’s Oedo subway line.

As is usual with Watanabe, he invokes “neural network[s], genetic algorithms and artificial intelligence” to explain the particular disposition of elements you can see in Iidabashi station. But WEB FRAME is best understood as an ornamental appliqué. It’s nicer to look at than a bare ceiling, arguably, but that’s all it is. Despite its creator’s rhetoric, its form at any given moment bears no relationship whatsoever to the flow of passengers through the subway system, the performative capacities of the station itself, or any potential regulation of either. It’s the outer sign of something, entirely detached from its substance. It adapts to nothing. It is, in a word, static.

Although it may be a particularly weak example, Watanabe’s work is marred by the same problems that afflict the more interesting work elsewhere in the volume:

- Not one of the projects illustrated uses parameters derived from real-time soundings to generate its form, even notionally. For some projects, the parameters used in an iterative design process appear to have been chosen specifically for the formal properties that result from their selection; for others, the seed values occupy an extremely wide range, producing a family of related design solutions rather than a single iconic form.

There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with either approach. But unless I’m missing something really basic, the whole point of this exercise is to devise structures whose properties change over relatively short spans of time (minutes to months) in response to changing conditions. In turn, that would seem to imply some way of coupling the parameters driving the structures’ form to one or another value extracted from their local environment. And while all of the student work featured in the book draws on the beguilingly stochastic processes of structuration I enumerated above, only one of them claims to have used data gathered in this way as its input or seed state.

This is Team Shampoo‘s exploration of “hair-optimi[z]ed detour networks,” and it’s both wildly problematic in its own right and emblematic of the worrisome tendencies that run throughout the volume. Shampoo’s design for a tower complex uses autonomous computational agents to simulate morning and evening pedestrian flows through a district, and in turn uses these to derive “optimal” linkages and points of attachment for circulation structures hardwired into the urban fabric itself. The results are certainly striking enough, but they are precisely optimized: that is, narrowly perfected for one use case, and one use case only.

Of course, we know that conditions of pedestrian flow change over the course of the week, over the seasons of the year, with economic cycles and the particular disposition of services and amenities reflected in the city. A conventional street grid, especially one with short blocks, is already more adaptive to changes in these circumstances than any lattice of walk-tubes in the sky, because it allows people to choose from a far wider variety of alternative paths from origin to destination. In designs like Shampoo’s, we’re still making the same blunder Jane Jacobs accused the High Modernists of making: mistaking the appearance of something for its reality.

And if the point of all this applied parametricism is to permit each building or cluster of buildings to take on the form appropriate to the exigencies of the moment, that I can tell, only a single one of the projects featured appears in states responding to multiple boundary conditions. This is Team CXN-Reaction’s Swarm effort, which proposes housing units that collapse flat when not occupied, stacked in a snaky concertina reaching to the sky. (Admittedly, it’s difficult to put a finger on any particular purpose sufficient to justify this tactic of expansion and contraction, unless they’re arguing that the long-term maintenance of an unused unit is significantly cheaper in the collapsed state, but it does at least show a system that is in principle capable of multiple configurations.) So while Adaptive Ecologies itself acknowledges three registers of iterative design — behavioral, self-organizational and morphogenetic — it appears to be only the latter that is given any serious consideration.

- More seriously, none of the structures featured appear to be provided with any actual mechanism that would permit dynamic adaptation. We can be generous, and assume that these structures are notionally equipped with the sensors, actuators and other infrastructural componentry necessary to the work of transformation — designed, perhaps, by students in other modules of the AA, or left up to hands-on experimental practices like The Living. But nowhere in these renderings is any such thing stipulated (again, that I could tell on a first reading), and that makes the whole outing little more than a formal exercise.

I suppose the feeling is that it’s far too early in the prehistory of adaptive architecture for such details, which would be bound to obsolesce rapidly in any event. But even where there is a specific mechanism identified — notably Team Architecta’s rubber joint, permitting 360-degree rotation and a variety of geometric configurations — it’s never explained how it could possibly function as a component of anything but a model. Is it supposed to work hydraulically? Pneumatically? Through shape-memory myoelectrics? And how is access for maintenance and upgrade supposed to be accomplished? (Scaling even a few panes of one of Chuck Hoberman’s expanding surfaces to room size, and keeping the installation working under conditions of daily use, required constant physical debugging.) It’s hard to imagine, say, Bucky Fuller settling for a sketch of one of his tensegrity structures, and not working questions like these out in detail.

- No attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with the way buildings are actually built. I am perfectly willing to believe that, at some point in the diiiiiistant future, self-powering, self-assembling, self-regulating structures will be “built” one molecule at a time. (At that point, the build/inhabit/maintain distinction would be meaningless, actually, as provisions for various kinds of shelter would presumably arise and subside as required.) But until and unless that point is reached, there will always be human fabricators, contractors and construction workers involved in the assembly of macroscale structures, and if what you intend to build is to be anything other than a one-off proof of concept, that means standardized processes at scale. Institutional and disciplinary conventions. Standard components. Generally-accepted practices and procedures. At no point do the structures described in Adaptive Ecologies coincide with any of these provisions of the contemporary praxis of production.

Again, yes: this is “just a design lab.” But where are these details to be worked out, if not in a design lab? Thousands of kids around the planet already know how to use Maya to crank out unbuildably biomorphic abstractions — functioning as a hinge between these “futuristic” visions and plans which might be realized is where the real discipline and the real inspiration now lie. (I won’t comment for now on the obvious irony that maintaining all of these structures as designed would require the most extraordinary specialist interventions in practice, taking them still further from the possibility that residents themselves could usefully modify or adapt them.)

- Finally, no attempt is made to reconcile these formal possibilities with any actual practice of living. In a book stuffed full of the most extravagant imagery, one illustration in particular — the work of Danilo Arsic, Yoshimasa Hagiwara and Hala Sheikh’s Team Architecta — stands out for me as an indication that the discipline is speaking only to itself. It features the by-now-familiar typology of a high-rise service-and-circulation core studded with plug-in living pods, the units of which rather resemble mutant avian skulls. Put aside for a second the certainty that this Kikutake- or Archigram-style typology, first articulated in the late 1950s, would have enveloped the globe by now if there were anything remotely appealing or useful about it. What concerns me here is the frankly malevolent appearance of Architecta’s take on the trope (which just between you and me strikes me as kind of awesome, but which I cannot imagine being built in any city this side of Deadworld).

I know, I know: tastes change over time, just as they vary from place to place. Still, who wants to live in a structure that looks like nothing so much as a ravening gyre of supremely Angry Birds? Unless you can somehow convince me that you could gather enough devotees of True Norwegian Black Metal in one place to populate a shrieking kvlt arcology, I think this one’s an index of parametric design’s weirdly airless inwardness.

I get that this is an aesthetic of the age — “gigaflop Art Nouveau,” I called it a few years back. (1998, to be precise.) But as an aesthetic, it can and should stand on its own, without being married to an entirely separate discourse about responsive urbanism. As a casebook of purely formal studies and strategies, Adaptive Ecologies is by and large reasonably convincing, and here and there very much so. It’s all the rhetoric about biomimetic or physiomimetic processes of structuration somehow leading to more, rather than less, flexible assemblages that’s its weakest point, and unfortunately that’s the very trellis that Spyropolous has used to train his vines on. I welcome and applaud what he’s up to in Adaptive Ecologies, but as far as I can tell the attempt to devise a vocabulary of dynamic form that is capable of change over relatively short time scales still awaits its fundamental pattern language.

And if nothing else, it’s surreal to look up from this book and gaze out the window onto a city where SHoP’s towers are considered architecturally daring, and in which the overwhelmingly fundamental problem isn’t the timidity of its design but the inability to provide all residents with decent, affordable housing.

Henri Lefebvre once asked, “Could it be that the space of the finest cities came into being after the fashion of plants and flowers in a garden?” I myself happen to believe that this is true not merely of the finest cities, but of all cities: that they are given form by generative processes as organic as any of those so beloved of the parametricists, operating at a scale and subtlety beyond the ability of any merely optical apparatus to detect. It is when we finally learn to take the measure of those processes that we will stand ready to author truly adaptive ecologies.

One final note: it’s only fair to point out that much of the work on view in Adaptive Ecologies is on the order of eight years old, and that a great deal can change in that kind of time. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be held to every position I advanced in 2005.

One final thought on Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

Even after 18,000 words, apparently I still felt there was a point that needed making. Previously: Parts I, II, III, IV.

In the entire book, there is not one word — not one single word — on any measure people can take to improve their own cities, anything they can do to make the places they live more responsive to their own needs. It is all and entirely about macro-scale levers administrators might apply to incentivize or disincentivize certain lifestyle choices. At no point does Glaeser even suggest that people might vote for representatives committed to a policy of deregulation, should they find his arguments in favor of such a policy convincing.

Make of this what you will.

Notes on Triumph of the City, conclusion

The final installment of my four-part deconstruction of Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City. (Parts I, II, III and a brief coda.).

8. Is There Anything Greener Than Blacktop?
– It takes some juggling to claim Thoreau for cities, but our boy Ed manages it.

- “If you love nature, stay away from it.” I know he’s just trying to be pithy and clever in advocating for the (marked and abundantly well-documented) sustainability benefits of urban living, but this happens to be a fairly destructive line to take. By contrast, I was struck by something profound and eloquent Wildman Steve Brill, of all people, said, to the effect that it’s only by immersion in the practice of responsible husbandry that city people ever get to understand what nature actually is and how it works, without illusion or sentimentality.

- “In the 1970s, Jane Jacobs argued that we could minimize our damage to the environment by clustering together in high-rises and walking to work…” The citation is to Death and Life: an eternal work, to be sure, but one in which I don’t remember Jacobs taking quite such an explicitly Glaeseresque line (and which was written in 1961, anyway).

- “As the car finally bested the elevator, the majority of Americans came to live in suburban places that combined city and nature.” The majority? Really? I’m having trouble putting my finger on any statistic indicating that a majority of Americans lived in suburbs, in any year. Per the 2010 CIA World Factbook, and despite some obscurity as to the definitions of “city” and “urban,” the current urbanization figure for the US is 82.1%. I would also not describe suburbs as “combining city and nature,” but that’s mostly a stylistic quibble.

- “The computer magnates of Silicon Valley live in a region blessed not only by an extraordinary climate, but also by a beautiful setting protected from development by some of the world’s most restrictive land-use controls.” The clear implication here, in the context of the argument that Glaeser’s been building over several chapters, is that there’s somehow something sinister and inequitable about this, and that Bay Area living could be more affordable if only, say, the San Francisco State Fish and Game Refuge were to be opened up for unrestricted development. You have to wonder how seriously he means such arguments to be taken.

- “The move to low-density living ended up being far less sensitive to nature than [Hugh!] Ferriss’s vision of a towering metropolis.” And here we rise to one of the book’s peaks of intellectual dishonesty. But for the provisions of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, America’s cities would be no friendlier to nature than India’s or China’s. Density is a good thing — a wonderful thing — but it’s only a ground condition for low ecological impact. In order to fulfill its ecological promise, high urban density needs to be accompanied by effective, enforceable and actually enforced environmental regulation.

- Every passage that raises the issue of anthropogenic global warming is marked heavily by weasel words: the costs of warming “may well be” enormous, ice caps “appear to be” melting, temperatures fluctuate “for many reasons,” and so on. For whatever reason, I get the sense that Glaeser actually believes in the AGW scenario personally, but doesn’t want to alienate a conservative readership.

- An entirely welcome barrage of statistics supporting the contention that citydwellers use less gas, less electricity and produce lower carbon emissions per capita, and that denser cities score far better on such indices than do sprawling, car-centric conurbations.

- Interestingly, though, “[t]he differences between metropolitan areas are even larger than the differences between individual cities and their suburbs. Coastal California is by far the greenest part of the country. The Deep South is by far the brownest. The five greenest metropolitan areas in the country are San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles [!], San Jose, and Sacramento [!]. The five places with the highest carbon emissions per home are Houston, Birmingham, Nashville, Memphis, and Oklahoma City. The gap between these two extremes is dramatic. A household in San Francisco emits 60 percent less carbon than its equivalent in Memphis.” This surely reflects climate, and the Southern requirement for air conditioning during the summer months; might it also, though, have something to do with the culture we associate with each region?

- Glaeser’s solution is explicit: “[I]f we wanted to reduce emissions by changing our land-development policies, more Americans should live in denser, more urban environments. More Americans should move to coastal California and fewer should live in Texas.” But where is it written that land-use policy is the best, or even among the more efficient, levers we have to reduce emissions? The unacknowledged leap here is perverse. What may be even worse is that even if land-use policies were changed, even if more of the pristine Bay ecosystem were to be opened up to development, it would take a very long time before enough people settled in the Bay Area to move the needle on density. You would destroy the local ecosystem, immediately and in actuality, to maybe buy some long-term easing of emissions. And that’s even stipulating you could (how, in a democracy?) keep people from moving to Texas and undoing all the gains you’d achieved at such terrible cost. I feel like walking Ed Glaeser through a kind of catechism: Why do we want to lower emissions? We want to lower emissions to reduce the contribution of our actions to the acceleration of global warming. Why do we want to reduce the contribution of our actions to the acceleration of global warming? Because global warming threatens the survival of the ecosystems we cherish and rely upon. So…why does it make sense to destroy an ecosystem we cherish and rely upon to lower emissions? (Crickets.)

- Red Ken! Glaeser initially tries to make him out to be a hypocrite on environmentalism because he “opposed skyscrapers, especially Richard Rogers’s plans for a ‘Berlin Wall’ of high-rise buildings on the south side of the Thames.” (Well: when you put it that way, who in their right mind could possibly resist?) In the end, though, he comes off pretty well; Glaeser contrasts him, properly and pungently, with the kind of backward-looking development espoused by Prince Charles, Léon Krier and the American New Urbanists, and concludes that “Ken Livingstone’s green vision combines sustainability and dynamic urban growth.”

- An admission that, whatever happens in the US, it’s the nature of Chinese and Indian urbanization as they unfold that will be determinative, leading into an extended discussion of the prospects for same.

- “Growth patterns in India and China offer both hopeful and disturbing signs. On the plus side, the great cities of both nations are enormously dense.” Yet a single paragraph later, “Shanghai and Beijing, with their 20 million and 17 million inhabitants respectively, are vast places about one tenth as dense as New York City and less than half as dense (about 2,600 people per square mile) as Los Angeles.” That doesn’t sound like “enormously dense” to me, and you kind of wonder which “great cities” of China Glaeser could possibly be referring to, if Beijing and Shanghai are excluded from the accounting. Given that I have no quibble with the characterization as applied to the cities of India, perhaps what we have here is an illustration of the perils that attend rolling the vastly different histories and trajectories of China and India into one tidy narrative.

- Glaeser sounds a cautionary note about the implications for emissions of the Tata Nano. It looks like he needn’t have fretted, on that count specifically at any rate.

- “My awkward suburban life is certainly no model of green living.” There’s this curious trope by way of which many people these days seem to believe that admitting hypocrisy somehow excuses them from that hypocrisy. It’s the moral equivalent of the “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” non-apology.

- “The alleged environmentalists who suffer from the Lorax fallacy and fight high-density development close to urban cores in order to preserve local green spaces are ensuring that development will move to the exurban fringe and that people will drive more.” A few sections back, though, you were arguing that exurban developments like The Woodlands were so successful that they’d actually begun to catalyze intracommunity commutes, rather than longer journeys into the core. The lesson I draw from this is that high-density mixed-use development will tend to exhibit the beneficial characteristics of high density and mixed use, no matter where it happens to be sited — so why site it on some of the most unspoiled terrain in America? And specifically with reference to the Bay Area, does Ed Glaeser not understand that its considerable natural beauty is a large part of what makes it such a desirable place to live in the first place?

9. How Do Cities Succeed?
– “To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively.” OK, no argument here. But how? Through tax incentives? Bike lanes and Gay Pride parades? Coworking spaces? Free public WiFi? A double kick drum by the river in the summer? How?

- “The best cities have a mix of skills and provide pathways for those who start with less to end with more.” Great. Again, though: how? What are these pathways? How might we support their emergence and sustain their capability? Glaeser is, up to this point in the book, silent on the subject.

- OK, here he starts to namecheck different cities he perceives as successful, and offers a one- or two-line characterization of the strategy each (as if consciously!) embraced on its way to success. Tokyo (Edo, actually) was a mandated success — though one naturally wonders why, if one could simply launch a city to brilliance by fiat, Brasilia remains what it is. Hong Kong and Singapore succeeded by “establishing themselves as bastions of economic freedom and the rule of law in an often disorderly part of the world.” (Of course, it doesn’t hurt to sit astride Imperial trade routes, and enjoy the protection of the Royal Navy.) Boston invested in higher education; Paris, quality of life, and Chicago lowered barriers to development. The balance of the chapter will be devoted to a consideration of these templates.

- At least Glaeser acknowledges that each of these strategies is not necessary going to prove relevant to all places: “Certainly Detroit could do very well if it — like Tokyo — became capital of a highly centralized country with an abundance of nationally funded universities, but how exactly can that unsurprising piece of information help Mayor Bing?”

- The account of post-1868 Tokyo here as the “Imperial City” — uppermost stratum of a nation-scale hierarchy and the most central of all central places — reminds me that Manuel de Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History is much better on cities as nodes of meshworks and hierarchies. (Of course, to really make use of that material, you have to accept a profound decentering of human intention…but it has been for me a much more resonant and fruitful take on things than the kind of description we encounter here.)

- Singapore represents Glaeser’s paradigm of “Well-Managed” cities. We’re a long, long way beyond minimalist “policing the streets and improving public schools” here, of course. He argues that “Singapore attracts expatriates with a quality of life that is remarkably high,” which again causes me to scratch my head a little — but for the food, which is astounding, Singapore is notorious among the expats I know for the boredom and lassitude it swiftly induces in all but the most oblivious. I think what he means is luxurious: it’s certainly relatively easy for a skilled expat to come to Singapore, make six figures, live in a swank, serviced apartment, drive a fancy car, and have all the fretful needs of daily life taken care of by smiling servants. But I’d personally never confuse that with “quality of life.”

- To comply with Singapore’s congestion-charging scheme, “[e]very car must have a transponder connected to a source of funds.” The transition from vehicle as object to physical instantiation of a mobility service.

- “Americans visiting Singapore can be forgiven for wistfully wondering why our own cities don’t seem so well managed.” Glaeser knows full well that Singapore is able to achieve what it does because Singaporeans tolerate a sprawling array of profoundly paternalistic interventions in personal choice, not a single one of which most Americans would put up with for a heartbeat.

- Gaborone as an African Singapore. I confess to never having heard of Gaborone, but I’ll say this for it: at least its Wikipedia page doesn’t feature a P.F. Chang’s.

- Boston, Minneapolis and Milan represent the “Smart City” strategy. For reasons obvious to anybody who knows me, I prefer Glaeser’s use to the more usual context in which the term is encountered. (Here, at least, it actually means something.)

- Describing Boston in the mid-1970s: “Ethnic strife, epitomized by an epic battle over school busing, tore the city apart.” Not “ethnic”: racial strife. This isn’t the first time Glaeser has confounded and collapsed these two ideas, and the same goes for race and class. I can’t tell if he’s trying to be politically correct, or genuinely doesn’t understand (or care about?) the important distinctions involved.

- Regarding the relative underperformance of the once-vaunted Route 128 technology corridor: “Even before Wang and DEC went out of business, economist AnnaLee Saxenian at Berkeley foretold the decline of Boston’s computer industry, arguing that its firms in their isolated office parks had lost the edge that comes from urban diversity.” We have to reach all the way back to Chapter 1 to do it, but compare Glaeser’s endorsement of Saxenian’s insight here with his praise for Bangalore entrepreneur Subroto Bagchi’s Mindtree, which certainly struck me as being very deliberately “isolated…from urban diversity” in its “compound” “inside the wall” of an office park.

- We’re onto Milan as a city whose fortune is built on education; Glaeser draws an opposition of Miuccia Prada and her empire to Gianni Versace and his. It’s, charitably, rather a stretch to root the benisons the great fashion houses have bestowed upon Milan in formal higher education, of all things, but the Prada/Versace binary is probably worth a whole book in itself. I’d read that book, anyway…or would as long as Prada was the side facing up.

- Vancouver is the “Consumer City.” The section opens with an appreciation of Arthur Erickson, “‘the greatest architect [Canada] ever produced.’” I’ve never heard of Erickson. Glaeser goes on to praise Erickson’s student James Cheng, who I have heard of, and who is responsible for some mildly interesting mixed-use-in-a-single-building developments. A contextually bizarre note, however, is struck when Glaeser lauds Vancouver for the “good planning [which] places these buildings far enough apart to let in light and views and provide plenty of open spaces,” as though he hadn’t spent the bulk of Chapter 6 decrying just such regulation.

- Chicago and Atlanta furnish us with our examples of the “Growing City.” Chicago apparently attracts professionals because it “maintain[s] a strong quality of life and a family-friendly, wholesome Midwestern feel, as compared to Manhattan.” Why don’t you say what you mean, Ed, so I’m not forced to decode this gobbledegook?

- Heh: Dubai. “Dubai never had the chance to be an imperial city, but it seems to have tried almost every other strategy we’ve discussed here.” Maybe not literally imperial, no, but if there’s any contemporary city I’d think of as having been brought into being by fiat alone, it’s this one. Glaeser does offer a skeptical note on the prognosis for the city’s fortunes, but in the end, he’s gracious. By contrast, I’d offer you even money that there won’t be anything left of Dubai in thirty years but some empty, grit-scoured spires whistling eerily in the desert wind.

Conclusion: Flat World, Tall City
– I cringe at any invocation of The Mustache, however oblique.

- “…just as Monet and Cézanne found each other in nineteenth-century Paris, or Belushi and Aykroyd found each other in twentieth-century Chicago.” Beautiful.

- I find it interesting that throughout the book, Glaeser has repeatedly singled out Bangalore as an Indian city that “works.” I’ll reiterate for the third time that I’ve (still) never been to India, and feel like I’m not on the firmest possible ground here. But I have a whole bunch of friends from India, and another cohort of non-Indian friends who have spent considerable amounts of time there (months to years), and the one thing they near-universally describe to me is a city sharply lacking in any conception of public space — a place where privileged Indians and expats alike are shuttled between one privatized, security-guarded, climate-controlled place and another in the comfort of chauffered cars.

- “We can make sure that everybody, not just the privileged few, can enjoy the pleasures of Manhattan or Paris or Hong Kong.” Lookit: I agree with the general sentiment you’re trying to express. But there’s a fatal flaw in your premise, and it’s something you yourself convinced me of, Ed. It’s this: not everyone wants to “enjoy the pleasures of Manhattan or Paris or Hong Kong.” Some will always prefer the golf courses of exurban developments, the “family-friendly, wholesome Midwestern feel” they apparently can’t avail themselves of in the places you list. I get that you think that superhigh-density cities are humanity’s liferaft, and we’re of like mind on this. But how are you going to coax a mobile people into living densely when it’s density itself so many of them are fleeing from?

- OK, in fairness, he acknowledges just this point in the next paragraph, though even then he puts rather a privileged and self-undermining spin on it: “Nobody who can afford [!] such a bucolic life should be forced to live in a city.” You’ve spent an entire book basically arguing that the lack of affordable housing in dense urban places is some kind of moral scandal, you emphasize the fundamental, democratic validity of other lifestyle choices…but you’re OK with preserving a life “surrounded by open space and green trees” for those “who can afford” it? Ed Glaeser, you drive me crazy!

- “The central theme of this book is that cities magnify humanity’s strengths.” Would that it were. By weight, most of the book seems dedicated to a recurring plea to densify urban areas (and presumably, indirectly lower the cost of housing in those areas) by relaxing controls on development.

- “[T]he heart of economics is the belief that businesses work best by competing furiously in a market that the government oversees as impartial umpire.” And here I’ve always thought that the heart of economics is the study of the production, exchange and consumption of goods and services.

- “Cities can compete on a level playing field, but over the past sixty years, America’s policies have slanted the field deeply against them. In the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation, the environment, and even income taxes, American policies have worked against urban areas.” Here is where I (and people who share my take on the world, however few they may be) can most sensibly make common cause with Ed Glaeser (and the people who share his), despite our profound differences of perception and interpretation. We agree that cities are ultimately no more than the people who enact them — who literally give life to them — that contemporary American policy fails those people more often than not, and that we can and should be doing better by them.

- A rather jarring excursus into defense of globalization. “The free flow of goods and services among nations is good for cities and good for the world [citation needed]. Restrictions on free trade will make it more expensive for Americans to buy everyday goods and will harm our major trading partners [citation needed]. We’re far better off allowing our consumers to take advantage of inexpensive foreign products and forcing our producers to adapt than we would be hiding behind tariff walls [citation needed].” I suppose this all goes to how you define “more expensive,” and, as I pointed in out in my comments on the notion of externality, I don’t believe the low price of a plastic chair from Walmart or a Foxconn-built iPhone comes close to accurately valuing the harms that inhere in these modes of production and distribution. It’s not at all clear to me at this point that you couldn’t, for example, onshore virtually everything that was offshored during the 1980s and 1990s, and certainly contend with somewhat higher consumer prices, but enjoy vastly lower net ecological impact from shortened supply chains, a reskilling of the middle tier of the domestic economy, higher-quality and more innovative goods, reduced moral culpability for the exploitation and oppression of foreign workers and despoilation of foreign biomes and (perhaps most importantly of all) a restoration of the country’s sense of its own capability. As a matter of fact, that sounds like a bargain I’d be happy to strike. Nay, delighted. But what do I know? I’m not a University of Chicago-trained Harvard economics professor.

- This pivots into a full-throated warning of the dangers of nativism, and an endorsement of open immigration policy. Here we agree.

- “Education is, after January temperature, the most reliable predictor of urban growth, especially among older cities.” Again, armed with such information, I am hugely curious as to why Glaeser chose not to write his book about that. Sadly, had he, it would probably have been a defense of voucher programs, which “even socialist Sweden” has embraced. Funny, last time I looked, Sweden was a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary-style democratic system currently governed by a center-right coalition, with full provision for private ownership of the means of production.

- “Help Poor People, Not Poor Places.” I’m going to have to think about this in more depth. I think I largely agree with this policy, but can’t help but think that Glaeser is missing or badly discounting the profundity of feeling people have for places. We draw so much of our identity from where we live. So while it may be easy to say in the abstract that any further investment in, say, New Orleans is merely throwing good money after bad, I dare you to look a lifelong New Orleanian in the eye and argue that.

- A passage, a few brief pages long, on “The Challenge of Urban Poverty.” It’s true that though Glaeser has handled questions of affordability directly and explicitly throughout, it kind of astounds me that this is the depth of treatment poverty gets in a book on the topic of cities. While I certainly agree that “[a] nation’s poor are every citizen’s responsibility, not just the people who happen to live in the same political jurisdiction,” they’re also people, and this is something you never quite take away from Triumph of the City. What’s worse is that even this dedicated section soon enough veers off into a discussion of vouchers, as if even a paltry few pages was more consideration than Glaeser felt like devoting to the poor.

- This is followed by a section on the “Rise of the Consumer City,” which contrasts two perspectives on how to attract mobile talent: Richard Florida’s, which “emphasizes the arts, toleration [!] for alternative lifestyles [he means, of course, Teh Gays], and a fun, happening downtown” with one that emphasizes provision of “core public services that have always been the province of cities: safe streets, fast commutes, good schools.” Glaeser further identifies these divergent perspectives with representative characters: “a twenty-eight-year-old wearing a black turtleneck and reading Proust,” and a “forty-two-year-old biotech researcher concerned about whether her family will be as comfortable in Boston as it is in Charlotte.” These are what we used to call, in the context of user-centered design, “personae,” and they’re splendid examples of why that way of doing user-centered design is now discredited: they’re utterly — and in the case of the turtleneck boho, ludicrously — fictitious. The black-turtleneck-wearing Intellectual is a stereotype that dates to 1964, 1965 at the very latest; Dan DeCarlo, at least, wouldn’t have dared pen one into the background of an Archie panel after that date. (For that matter, the only people I know who read Proust anymore turn to him in their late thirties, early forties.) OK, so Ed Glaeser fumbles a one-line characterization. Why does this matter? It matters because it suggests to me that he doesn’t actually know anybody in his or her late twenties in 2012, and therefore is not particularly likely to have any understanding of what such a person wants or does not want from a city. Indeed, it’s so awfully off that it makes me wonder how far wrong the depiction of the biotech researcher is. I’m perfectly happy to see someone rain on Richard Florida’s parade, because fuck Richard Florida, but I would really have preferred that the person making the attempt had done so from firmer footing.

- Late in the game, a final paean to China, whose “leaders…seem to get the fact that tall towers enhance productivity and reduce environmental costs.” Unfortunately, those towers are being built significantly in advance of any real demand for them, a situation for which Glaeser has earlier harshly derided administrative bodies, notably Detroit’s. “Enhance productivity” is also a novel, and unsupported, claim.

- “I suspect that in the long run, the twentieth-century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend.” Well. As my grandmother used to say: “From your lips to God’s ears.”

And that’s where we end. Glaeser somehow manages to finish the entire book without explicitly mentioning the role of the informal economy, either as it concerns housing or transport or services, or the places where and dynamics by way of which the informal sector gets folded into the formal economy.

This is shocking enough. Worse is that it’s just too easy to poke holes in his central assertions. The book spends a tremendous amount of time, space and energy making the case for the benefits of high-density urbanization, which is perhaps its most central and consistent theme. But time and again, like some door-to-door huckster, he oversells his case. I’m generally, as is well known, a fan of density myself. But if density itself leads directly to innovation, how ought we account (for example) the diverging fortunes of consumption-oriented Manhattan and creation-oriented, lower-density Brooklyn? In the 21st century, Brooklyn only started condensing after having acquired its rep for creativity. Even with bad internal transit connectivity, middling-to-wretched neighborhood porosity, and what are still comparatively low sidewalk LOS averages, Brooklyn has managed to pull off the neat trick of giving rise to a flowering of culture and creativity whose full impact has yet to be felt, while having already passed into a degree of easily-mockable mannerism. And yet there’s no account of this remarkable process — or anything like it anywhere — in Glaeser’s account of urban “triumph.”

At times, I wasn’t even sure what the book I was reading was supposed to be about. Was it a history of how the city came to be humanity’s dominant form of habitation? A primer on urban stewardship for the aspiring policymaker? A field guide to the diverse varieties of contemporary urban form? This is a structural and editorial failing more than anything else, but it leads directly to the book’s major weakness: all of those books have been written before, by more specifically knowledgeable authors, in a far greater wealth of detail. (I liked half of this book better when it was called The City In History by Lewis Mumford, and the other half better when it was called City: Rediscovering the Center by Holly Whyte.)

Here, as so often when I engage the work of economists, it feels like Glaeser ultimately only has one tool in his toolkit: incentives. It’s kind of unsatisfying. What about a thundering call to moral rectitude, of the sort we associate with Gandhi or King? What about the aspiration to greatness, we-do-these-things-not-because-they-are-easy-but-because-they-are-hard style? (I suppose the more intransigent sort of economist would argue that that too ultimately reduces to a manipulation of the weighting of various kinds of incentives to action.) And for all the emphasis on competitive factors, where is any suggestion at all of coordination and cooperation between cities?

Let’s talk policy. Policywise, Triumph is like a Mitt Romney speech: Glaeser gets the part about the necessity of a clearly-articulable high-level strategy — OK, we’re going to simultaneously densify cities and lower barriers to entry by building lots and lots of high-rise apartment towers, everywhere — but is infuriatingly thin on specifics. Subsidize the construction of supertall residences everywhere? OK. What about places where the anchoring properties of the Earth’s crust or the geodynamic conditions or, god forbid, local architectural traditions aren’t well-suited to skyscrapers? Should we resign ourselves to those cities being jewelboxes sprayed with fixative forever after, sacrifice zones to privilege?

More confoundingly still, his high-level recommendations tend to shift from chapter to chapter, to align with whatever anecdote he’s telling. This would actually be much less of a problem than it is, had he simply embraced the perfectly sensible general principle that most problems are bounded by local detail, and there are few if any workable one-size-fits-all global solutions. Instead, though, he likes to formulate his prescriptions fairly strongly and sweepingly, even if they contradict things he’s said a mere chapter (or paragraph!) previously.

And at best, the only urban futures his recommendations are particularly suited to are straight-line extrapolations of current tendencies and conditions. But if there’s anything the sensitive student gleans from a consideration of history, it’s how often the progress of the species has been marked by unanticipated reversals, doublings, crashes, knight’s-moves or entirely lateral evolutions. Triumph of the City nowhere accounts for such contingencies, and it’s specifically and profoundly weak on the topic of emergent urban technologies.

I don’t want to neglect the positive aspects of having a powerful pro-urban voice enter the field. Ed Glaeser and I both want to see more people living in better cities with more opportunity. We have some pretty important differences, though, over how best to realize that opportunity. I believe people ought to have more control over the circumstances of their lives, and he apparently believes that developers ought to have more control over what people are offered, and unimpeded access to the environment in which we all of us together must live. For me, its weirdly denatured account of the factors we weigh when making life decisions, its weirdly retrograde depiction of Homo urbanus as Homo economicus, and its weirdly stubborn refusal to acknowledge the real and persistent limits on mobility and choice all too many of us do face are all disqualifying factors for Triumph of the City, and I’m afraid anyone looking for a thoughtful, conscious, truly contemporary guide to the creation of better, more humane urban environments is best advised to keep searching.

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.

Notes on Triumph of the City, part II

Updated.

In which my long-form dissection of Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City continues. You can find Part I here; Parts III, IV and a coda follow.

3. What’s Good About Slums?
– “But look carefully, and you’ll spy a blot on this urban arcadia. The hills surrounding Rio are filled with shantytowns, favelas, that often lack electricity or sewers.” (a) “Blot.” (b) The story of how many of those favelas do not lack electricity or sewerage is fascinating and important and I do hope you’ll tell it. (Later on: Nope, no such luck. Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities is infinitely better on favelas and slums in general; see also Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums.)

- The favelas as “disheveled huts, where rule of law is as rare as decent infrastructure.” Apologies to Cariocas among the beloved, but I wasn’t aware that the rest of Rio was exactly known for its sterling adherence to the rule of law.

- “The presence of poverty in cities from Rio to Rotterdam reflects urban strength, not weakness. Megacities are not too big. Limiting their growth would cause significantly more hardship than gain, and urgban growth is a great way to reduce rural poverty.” I’m not necessarily in disagreement about the potential of urban density to improve the opportunity structure available to poor people. But is growth the only way to urbanize? How about a process of budding or hiving? Unimpeded growth only means that the most recent arrivals are perforce compelled to live in the outermost ring of settlement, far from the urban core and (due to the hub-and-spoke nature of most urban transit networks) almost unachievably distant from other destinations on the periphery.

- I am glad that he takes an anti-suburban line, though. The seventeen year old inside me still snarls at the deprivations and underminings of suburban life. Whoever thought suburbs were a great place for kids?

- He does wind up making the argument I’d anticipated earlier: “Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their lot in life.”

- “The poverty rate among recent arrivals to big cities is higher than the poverty rate of long-term residents, which suggests that, over time, city dwellers’ fortunes can improve considerably.” Does this follow at all? I sense a hole in the logic, but can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the way he treats “new arrivals” and “long-term residents” as cohorts moving smoothly and coherently through time, in enactment of the same, longitudinally-unfolding process.

- “Indeed, we should worry about places with too little poverty. Why do they fail to attract the less fortunate?” You know, Ed, that’s a great point. I’ll be sure and ask around the next time I’m in Palm Beach. Maybe The Breakers can designate part of its beach frontage as development parcels for new arrivals from the hinterlands.

- “In a free society, people choose where to live, either explicitly by moving or implicitly by staying in the place of their birth.” Show me this “free society” of which you speak, with its effortless mobility. And I do believe I’ve seen statistics demonstrating that in the United States, at least, household mobility is sharply down from the 1990s.

- “A city’s population tells you about what the city offers. Salt Lake City is full of Mormons because it’s a good place to be a Mormon. London has many bankers because it’s a good place to manage money.” No, it has nothing to do with regulatory capture, or with so dominating the local culture (via pervasive social norms, and again, regulations on the sale of alcohol, etc.) that make others feel uncomfortable about settling there.

- “The absence of poor people in an area is a signal that it lacks something important, like affordable housing or public transportation or jobs for the least skilled.” Again: not incorrect, exactly, but so radically beside the point as to come across as autistic. Most places that display an “absence of poor people,” in my experience, do so as a consequence of concerted effort at every level of public and private life, using measures up to and including the criminalization of being in public and the aggressive use of police resources to maintain the physical exclusion of the nonwealthy.

- “When American cities have built new rapid-transit stops over the past thirty years, poverty rates have generally increased near those stops. This doesn’t mean that mass transit was making people poor, but rather that poor people value being able to get around without a car.” I don’t know if “value” is quite the right way to put it. Also, I suspect that within the past thirty years, the greater part of new American mass-transit stops have been added near the edges of their respective transit networks, those networks having colonized their respective cores fairly decisively at an earlier epoch in history. The pattern for new stops added inside a core would be very different, would it not? For example, I cannot imagine that when the T-line station at 2nd Avenue and 34th Street opens in 2109, or whenever, that it will do anything but increase already skyhigh real-estate values.

- “The world’s most important market is the labor market, in which one person rents his human capital to people with financial capital.” He makes it sound like labor is as unimpeded and precisely as mobile as capital. Would that it were so.

- “Foreign visitors tend to compare the poor in Rio with other people they’ve seen, perhaps poor residents of America’s ghettoes, who are almost invariably better off.” Really? Not, ever, to fetishize favela life, but I’d bet many favelistas enjoy quite a few prerogatives they’d be loath to give up, when compared to folks living in e.g. the Lower Ninth Ward. (And yes, I know “favelistas” is not the preferred nomenclature. Someone remind me of the more widely acceptable term?)

- Credit where due: Glaeser does a good job of contrasting urban poverty rates and indices of deprivation (access to safe water, reliable nutrition) with what sure seem like the directly comparable hinterlands (Lagos to rural Nigeria, Kolkata to West Bengal). In the cases he cites — and I have no particular reason to think they’re nonrepresentative — living in a city is clearly seen to generate better conditions and outcomes.

- “Leila Velez”: We are now about a third of the way through his book, and I think this is as close as Glaeser has come to acknowledging the existence of an informal economy. (Yes, I’m inferring this from his specification that Leila Velez “sold her Volkswagen Beetle for $3,000 [that must have been some Beetle!] to get the capital to open a salon,” rather than borrowing it from a bank or having it invested by a venture capitalist.) Still: I sure do hope he treats the subject more explicitly in the pages to come.

- “The occasional success story doesn’t mean that urban poverty isn’t awful. it is. Few readers of this book would want to spend a week, let alone a lifetime, in a favela.” You know, people can read, Ed. The assumption you’re making may on balance be justified, but that readership distribution wasn’t inescapable or mandatory. What measures did you take to ensure that people living in favelas could read your book if they wanted to?

- We agree that it is “unlikely that better farming will deliver widespread prosperity” in the sense he means, i.e. as a reliable source of well-paying employment. You won’t find me, at least, ever advancing a back-to-the-land line.

- “[W]hile an influx of new migrants worsens the quality of roads and water for a city’s longtime residents, the new arrivals go from having virtually no infrastructure to enjoying all of the advantages that come from access to decent transport and utilities. It is wrong [emphasis added] to keep the quality of urban infrastructure high by preventing people from enjoying that infrastructure.” What’s this? An ethical claim?

- “Policing has been a trickier problem…some resources get targeted at improving the lives of the urban poor…” Yes, and as we know, some policing resources get targeted at the urban poor directly.

- “Any attempt to fix the poverty level in a single city may well backfire and increase the level of poverty in a city by attracting more poor people.” I will be generous and assume that he is arguing that all such attempts should be coordinated at the national level, rather than simply not made at all.

- “…as New York [owes] to immigrants ranging from Andrew Carnegie to Al Jolson to Zubin Mehta.” Zubin Mehta is his sole example of immigrant achievement in the last eight decades? Way to strike a populist chord, there, Ed. I think Mittens may have some vacancies on his speechwriting team — you should look into it. Also, Mehta’s more of a mercenary than an “immigrant,” wouldn’t you say? Finally: like any rational human being, I like “bagels and pizza and Kung Pao chicken” just fine, but while I appreciate the sentiment I don’t particularly associate Kung Pao chicken with New York.

- Will it strike anyone else as odd that this chapter, ostensibly about the benefits of slums, has come instead to focus so intensely on immigration? In the United States, anyway (and quite by design), I don’t believe the majority of immigrants could be considered impoverished, or plausible candidates for slum residence.

- On the early career of Richard Wright: “The [Chicago central post office, i.e. federal] job was a good one that allowed him to do some writing. Even more important, it connected him with a left-wing literary salon.” It almost makes me cry to think that — within living memory, if just barely — the shift workers of the world’s busiest post office once constituted a community in which a “left-wing literary salon” could arise.

- “He moved to New York in 1937, working on the WPA publication New York Panorama, which remains a wonderful description of big-city living.” NB. Also: WPA. Sigh.

- “This history [of the Harlem Renaissance] suggests that areas should be judged not by their poverty but by their track record in helping people move up.” Maybe so. But at the time of the justly-celebrated Harlem Renaissance, Harlem was not a slum but a ghetto, i.e. it was not then primarily home to poor people, but to black people of all classes.

- “If a city is attracting continuing waves of the less fortunate, helping them succeed, watching them leave, and then attracting new disadvantaged migrants, then it is succeeding at one of society’s most important functions.” Up until the recent (and final?) gentrification, in New York this process was more characteristic of the Lower East Side than it was Harlem.

- Drawing a contrast between the situation obtaining before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the present, Glaeser actually argues “Today, segregation is more likely to reflect the workings of a free housing market, in which whites are often simply more willing than many blacks to pay a premium to live in mostly white neighborhoods.” Yes, I’m sure it’s all about willingness. This, again, simplemindedness-verging-on-willful-blindness is disqualifying.

- His explanation of transit economics is kind of a mess, trying to assert too general a template over all cities, and sawing to fit when it doesn’t: “New York, Boston, and Philadelphia have four transit and income zones: an inner zone (like central Manhattan or Beacon Hill) where the rich commute by foot or public transit, a second zone (like the edges of New York’s outer boroughs, or Roxbury in Boston) where the poor commute by public transit, a third zone (Westchester County or Wellesley) where the rich drive, and an outer zone comprising distant areas where less wealthy people live and drive.” I’ll speak to the New York case, because that’s the one I’m most familiar with: but perhaps for the outermost, all of these putative “zones” are much less clearly distinguished from one another than Glaeser would have us believe. The edges of the outer boroughs have been pretty well picked over by the privileged by now, and this has been the case for at least a decade; parts of central Brooklyn and Queens are far wealthier than their distance from the core would imply; and even that core is more heterogeneous than its depiction here. This last may be due to the persistence of rent control, rent stabilization and sub-market-rate public housing, but it’s nontrivial. Within a three-block radius, my own neighborhood includes, in addition to my upper-middle-class/professional building, a number of putatively “luxury” rental buildings still further upmarket, the solidly middle-income Kips Bay Court complex and the Nathan Straus Houses, a NYCHA public-housing project. The lesson I draw from this is that the weighting of different transportation alternatives available in a given area may certainly condition its life and texture, but is not nearly in and of itself determinative.

- “Central areas are often historic, and as a result they usually have older homes that have depreciated in quality and in price.” But a few chapters ago, you were arguing that overregulation had turned urban cores into theme parks affordable only by the very wealthy! Which is it? You can’t have it both ways.

- Now this made me mad: “When a place offers amenities like mass transit or cheaper, older housing that poor people particularly value, then the place will likely remain poor.” Maybe poor people “particularly value” cheaper housing, you dick, because they can’t afford anything better, or are denied access to the financing that might help them do so. Beyond its dickishness, the assertion is prima facie absurd. In my experience, those neighborhoods that offer both good transit connectivity and cheap housing are the very swiftest to gentrify.

- “But there is far more reason to worry when differences in school quality lead to the isolation of the poor.” What must run through a man’s mind as he writes a sentence like this, knowing full well his choices contribute to that isolation?

- A moment of intellectual honesty here, however partial and hedged and fudged: “The odd fact is that America’s school system could decrease segregation if it moved either to the socialist [sic] left or to the free-market right. If America imitated the best aspect of European socialism [i.e., what is ordinarily referred to as “social democracy”] and invested enough in public schools so that they were all good, then there would be little reason for the rich to leave cities to get better schooling.” I don’t disagree that public schools ought to receive the maximum level of funding possible. But as with the other odd justifications he comes up with, here again, I don’t know where to start. Can it be true that banlieue schools are the academic equal of lycées in wealthy neighborhoods? And “socialism”? Really?

4. How Were The Tenements Tamed?
– Commenting on a visit to Dharavi, “it is common to see people defecating in the streets.” Of course I wasn’t there and cannot verify for myself what Glaeser did or did not see, but I imagine that what is actually common is seeing men defecating in the streets. As I understand the situation, women feel compelled to walk great distances to seek whatever modesty and safety is afforded them by the enclosure of (filthy) public toilets. (See this, for example.)

- An exceedingly odd segue from a discussion of public health in Dharavi to John Calhoun’s 1962 study of the effects of overcrowding on rats — the same study John Brunner drew on in writing Stand on Zanzibar, if memory serves. At the very least, this is impolitic, and at worst it says something distastefully revealing about what Glaeser is thinking and feeling as he walks the slums of Mumbai.

- “The same density that spreads ideas can spread disease.” This is the second time he’s used this very line, and not the second time I’ve wished the book had been more tightly edited.

- “[T]here’s no free-market solution for the great urban problems facing slums like Dharavi. Cities desperately need forceful, capable governments to provide clean water, safe neighborhoods, and fast-moving streets.” Why is it that even when I agree with the spirit of what he’s saying, he manages to irritate me? What factors, if any, distinguish the problems faced by slums from those faced by cities generally, in such a way as to invalidate the free-market solutions he’s been advocating for in every sentence of the book up until this point? Ought I to infer from this kind of construction that Glaeser believes the wealthy and privileged are capable of managing their own affairs, but slumdwellers require heavy-handed interventionist government?

- “It’s easy to idolize democracy, but effective city governments usually need leaders who govern with a firm hand, unencumbered by checks and balances and free from the need to heed the wishes of every disgruntled citizen.” This is odious.

- “One of the worst aspects of Indian democracy is that power is often lodged at the state rather than the city level, and states are often dominated by rural voters who…have far more representation per capita.” Yes, you could say the same thing about the MTA Board, or the damage Robs Fords has been able to wreak on the urban core of Toronto. The problem isn’t specific to Indian democracy, and it certainly isn’t with democracy per se. It’s in the design of democratic systems of representation in detail.

- With regard to Kinshasa: “Who, other than the most dedicated humanitarians, would want to come to a place that offers so much risk for so little reward?” Well, if we go by the logic you’ve built the entire preceding section around, virtually anybody in the rural DR Congo.

- “[T]he capital cities in dictatorships are on average more than 30 percent larger than capital cities in stable democracies.” Relative to the size of their total population, I’m assuming he means?

- The Snow map cited as an example of “self-protecting urban innovation [emphasis in original], cities’ ability to generate the information needed to solve their own problems.” Here we are, some 40% into the main text of the book, and this is the only italicized phrase we’ve come across so far. I expect, therefore, some further unpacking and exploration of such innovations, their history since Snow and the prognosis for their further development. No, wait, I’m not. It’s a clumsy phrase and a stupid idea. After all, London didn’t generate the information necessary to solve the Soho cholera epidemic, and neither did Londoners, except by dying: John Snow did. (Still more precisely stated, in a construction that will find its fullest expression in The City Is Here For You To Use: yes, Londoners did in a sense “generate” that information, and some measure of value does inhere in their contribution. But that value could never have been unlocked in the absence of the act of interpretive analysis necessary to correlate the pattern of deaths with the water-distribution system, and that analysis was performed by Snow.)

- He contrasts the story of Aaron Burr and the Manhattan Company with Philadelphia and Latrobe to argue that privatized water provision was unsuccessful in the early United States. This, at least, tallies with the line he was advancing in the section on Dharavi.

- Ah, the book’s second italicized expression, “externality,” here defined as “an impact that one person’s actions have on someone else that doesn’t work through a voluntary transaction.” A side note: I’ve always understood an externality as a cost or benefit not quantified in the reckonings made by parties to a transaction, a cost borne (or benefit enjoyed) by someone else. This very common term of art goes to the very core of why I always get so frustrated in discussions with economists, and they with me, because in densely-interlinked systems I do not believe that there can be any such thing as an “externality.” The healthy functioning of the system as a whole, or absence thereof, will always come back to vest in the outcomes enjoyed by parties to a transaction; there is ultimately no escape from such a reckoning, however indirect or attenuated.

NOTE: Alex Steffen writes, re: “externalities”:

“I’m not sure you understand them as well as you usually do the concepts you work with; they’re a pretty obvious description of a major working of the economy. The clearest externality I know of is climate emissions: almost no one who uses fossil fuels pays an amount for those fuels that’s anything like the climate change costs that are accruing because of their use: they get the benefit of burning fossils, the oil/coal/gas companies get the profits from selling them, but others, external to these transactions, bear the cost of their use.

In other words, externalities are very real, perhaps even a central fact of the more developed economies. I think understanding them will strengthen your arguments.”

To which I reply that I understand perfectly well that this is what constitutes an externality as defined in economics, but that I take a more Buddhist approach to things: I really do believe that actors ultimately cannot escape the effects of the actions they take. In the end, we all have to live in the world our deeds help create. Maybe that makes me a hippie, but I suppose I can live with that.

- “Clean water came to cities only because of massive public investments in infrastructure. It will take similar efforts, either by government or by suitably subsidized and regulated private companies, to make the slums of Dharavi as free from waterborne disease as the streets of Paris.” Nitpick: I believe he means “the slums of Mumbai.” In the main, though: huzzah, we agree. I’m curious what distinguishes the provision of clean water, though, from transit or housing, in Glaeser’s mind? Why can the market be trusted to furnish these things, but not water?

- “New York got clean streets thanks to a police scandal that temporarily pushed the notorious Tammany Hall machine out of power.” But what was Tammany Hall if not the epitome of the kind of administration that “govern[s] with a firm hand, unencumbered by checks and balances” he was lauding a section or two back?

- “But machine politics wouldn’t abate in most American cities until the New Deal brought better bookkeeping, which again showed that multiple layers of government can have positive effects.” Again showed? I mean, it’s not like I disagree with the point, but you’ve been arguing explicitly that checks and balances are an “encumbrance” on the efficient management of cities. (Also see Sennett, 1970, for an interesting and valuable perspective on what might have been lost when the transparency/good government movement did away with big-city machines.)

- An odd, sharp turn toward road use and transportation economics. Contrasting with the provision of clean water, which is apparently something that requires “just technical know-how,” “[o]ur streets only become usable when people don’t overuse them, and that calls for the tools of the economist.” Maybe this opposition, stated this way, goes to why Glaeser feels clean water is a matter for government intervention, but transportation and housing may be left safely to the self-correcting mercy of the free market?

- Duranton and Turner cited on the “Fundamental Law of Road Congestion.”

- He cites William Vickrey: “‘users of private cars and taxis, and perhaps also of buses, do not, by and large, bear costs commensurate with the increment of costs that their use imposes,’” including particularly the cost in time imposed on other road users by the congestion they generate. Apparently Vickrey was among the first to propose electronically-mediated adaptive congestion charging.

- “So why is congestion pricing so rare in the United States? Because politics trumps economics.” Oh, I agree.

- “[F]ighting congestion is not about convenience; it is a fight to ensure that the city can fulfill its most basic function of bringing people together.” I would argue that significant though it may be, road congestion is not even among the top five things that prevent cities from doing that.

- We’re onto crime now. “Cities are crime-prone mostly because the poor people who come to cities bring the social problems of poverty, like crime, with them.” Just…wow. If nothing else, in the paragraph immediately before this you’ve argued that crime is not by and large a notable factor in rural life, and now you’re blaming poor, rural people for bringing crime to the city with them? (I’ll barely even pause to note that “crime,” for Glaeser, inevitably only encompasses those acts that tend to be committed on the street. For that matter, I remain unaware that there exists a documented correlation between poverty and rape.)

- As I’ve come to expect from Glaeser, this is an entirely gender-blind analysis. In his hands, the problems faced by cities can be reduced to those problems exclusively confronted by men. We’re, again, about halfway through the book and he hasn’t yet mentioned any challenge salient primarily or exclusively to women, despite (what I understand to be) the fact that women are responsible for (by far) the greater part of productivity in the developing world. Let me see if I can dig up a citation on that.

- “[D]ifferences in crime rates among cities and over time often have little to do with law enforcement, income, or anything else that can be measured. Rio’s slums are famous for their trigger-happy gangs, but Mumbai’s slums are usually quite safe…Mumbai’s slums lack the dangerous feeling I have felt in Rio’s favelas or New York’s poorer areas in the 1970s. This discrepancy isn’t because Mumbai’s police are doing a great job, and Mumbai is poorer than Rio. The best explanation for the safety of Mumbai’s slums is that, while these places may be poor, they’re also well-functioning social spaces.” I know this is a hard thing for an economist to understand, but there is this thing called culture. (Yes, it is notoriously hard to measure.) Also: guns.

- He cites Gary Becker approvingly, which always makes me (perhaps irrationally) uncomfortable.

- Despite a hat-tip to Levitt on the value to society generated by large-scale incapacitation of would-be criminals via imprisonment, Glaeser here sounds what strikes me as a sincerely ambivalent note when describing the draconian imprisonment policies that accompany the so-called War on Drugs. He never comes right out and calls for decriminalization, but such a stance would certainly chime with the libertarian, free-market beliefs so abundantly on display elsewhere in the book. I always take libertarians more seriously when they’re as full-throated in their defense of rights to bodily autonomy as they are of the market’s right to extract such value as it will.

- The origins of COMPSTAT (described as “an innovative data-driven system [that] helped target police resources toward troubled areas”) in transit cop Jack Maple’s markup of an MTA subway map. This is a good story, and Glaeser rightly situates it in the tradition of John Snow. Interestingly, COMPSTAT is, I believe, the first roughly contemporary technology mentioned in the book; while Glaeser includes a token account of the effects of earlier waves of technological development on urban form, up to this point in his telling discrete technologies barely appear as actors.

- A rather pro-forma discussion of community policing.

- “The suicide rate for younger New Yorkers is about 56 percent of the national average.” I’m surprised he doesn’t make more of this, because the factors underlying that differential (aside from the far lower rate of gun ownership and availability in cities) seem like they’d strongly bolster his thesis about the less obvious benefits of city living. At a guess (and I’m admittedly going out on a limb here) some of that differential has to do with the relative ease city kids enjoy in finding new bases of social support if they experience ostracism, how much less total any ostracism must seem in a place where there are a million other freaks to make common cause with.

5. Is London A Luxury Resort?
– “Nowhere are London’s extravagances more evident than on Bond Street, whose shops are elegant echoes of London’s past, filled with pricey baubles: oversize Graff diamonds, Patek Philippe watches, Chanel suits, Louboutin shoes, and whatever Sotheby’s is auctioning right now.” Now that’s a curious list of London pleasures: diamonds from Lesotho, Swiss watches, French suits and shoes.

- “Some of those billionaires may come to England for the country’s tax benefits, but within England they choose London because it is a good place to enjoy being rich.” Tax benefits? Surely Glaeser is aware that the United Kingdom enjoys a notorious reputation among the superrich for its ostensibly extractive and redistributionist tendencies?

- On New York City as “a playground for the prosperous”: “Until the bust started in 2006, real estate prices shot up far more quickly than income, which reflects the fact that people are willing to pay a lot just to live in New York.” Much more to the point: it reflects the fact that a decent chunk of the world’s wealthiest people are willing to pay extraordinary premiums for Park Avenue or Central Park South addresses — and these generally, as Glaeser has previously admitted, pieds-à-terre — sending ripples through the local economy that rendered home ownership in Manhattan out of the question for many locals.

- On the concentration of urban amenity: “Large urban areas have large audiences that can jointly share the costs of a sophisticated drama. Today Broadway is sustained by thousands [sic] of tourists, but fifty years ago, the Great White Way catered to the vast numbers of New Yorkers who attended the theater regularly.” This is a curious lapse in his argument: Broadway as an institution would shrivel to a tenth its size or less if forced to rely upon the sole sustaining patronage of New Yorkers. Not even the total aggregate demand of North America’s wealthiest and second-largest city is nearly sufficient to maintain a theater sector of this scale.

- The little frisson I enjoy on encountering the name “Upright Citizens Brigade” in this rather dry book is as nothing next to what I experience upon the invocation, a mere paragraph later, of the immortal names Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel. But Glaeser’s explanation that it was “larger cities’ larger audiences” that catalyzed the creation of hip-hop in the Bronx strikes me as rather beside the point: we are, after all, talking about something that started in the rec room of a single working-class apartment building. PS Where’s Bam?

- “The fact that I occasionally inflict my awful cooking on my family is in and of itself a searing indictment of suburbia.” No pun intended. Also, the book’s first, oblique admission that Glaeser does not himself live in a city. The broader point — that big cities permit an unparalleled fineness in the division of labor, and therefore provision of the greatest diversity of skill-intensive specialist services, including cuisine — I of course happily agree with and rely upon.

- Side note: Brillat-Savarin’s four elements were “‘an elegant room, smart waiters, a choice cellar, and superior cooking’”; Afrika Bambaataa’s were, of course, MCing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti.

- “Eating or drinking out is a way to share common space so that the urbanite isn’t confined by a compact flat. In a sense, then, cities pull people out of private space into public areas, which helps make them centers for socialization and conspicuous consumption.” The first part of this thesis strikes me as curiously backward; I don’t know if it’s cities that pull people from their private residences so much as tiny apartments that push them into public space. Admittedly, this may be a distinction without a difference.

- Other things being equal, “[c]ity residents are…more likely to go to a rock or pop concert…visit a museum…go to a movie theater, and…have a drink at a bar than their country cousins. These higher-end entertainments, which feature live interactions instead of passive TV watching, also have a particular appeal to wealthier and more educated people.” Again the curiously passive and tone-deaf construction: of course more expensive pursuits will “appeal” more to wealthier people.

- “Yet cities remain places where people disproportionately wear and buy expensive clothes.” Obviously Ed Glaeser has never set so much as a single foot in Seattle. BURN.

- It’s refreshing and rather sweet that Glaeser’s description of the enhanced romantic options accruing to big-city residents centers on Carrie Meeber, not Carrie Bradshaw. Before anybody gets too dewy-eyed, though, remember that Dreiser’s heroine got her start as a kept woman.

- “If places have unusually high real wages, then something is wrong with those places.” The argument is that the ratio of income to local prices is disproportionately high in places where, effectively, you have to be bribed to live, and conversely, that employers can offer far less compensation and still succeed in attracting people to places that are considered desirable. This rings somewhat true to me, having myself extracted significant salary and benefit concessions before agreeing to relocate to frigid Helsinki. But it seems to me to fail in at least two situations: one, in markets for highly-specialized talent (like thoracic surgeons, leveraged-buyout specialists or software developers), where employers must still pay a premium to entice the most capable, no matter where they happen to be located. And more importantly, at the lower end of the wage spectrum, where people are both likely to be less mobile to begin with, and under a fair amount of pressure to accept such employment as they’re offered. Why can’t economists wrap their heads around this?

- Here’s the precise point at which Glaeser goes all Richard Florida on us: “People are increasingly choosing areas on the basis of quality of life, and the skilled people who come to attractive areas then provide the new ideas that fuel the local economy. Smart, entrepreneurial people are the ultimate source of a city’s economic power, and as those people become more prosperous, they care more about quality of life…What publicly provided amenities matter most for attracting the skilled? People, especially those with more education, will pay plenty for safe streets and good schools for their children. The growing importance of the consumer city should serve mainly to keep civic leaders focused on doing the basic jobs of local government: policing the streets and improving public schools.” That, to me anyway, is a depressively constrained remit.

- “If the most attractive metropolises don’t build more homes, they risk becoming boutique cities, depriving all but the wealthiest of their pleasures and their practical advantages.” Within reason, I agree. But what would happen to the texture and the character of London or Manhattan or Paris if the existing housing stock was replaced in toto with Toronto-style high-rise condos, as I anticipate Glaeser is about to argue in the next chapter? Would they still retain their citymagic? You could probably drop an arcology into Central Park and send the residential density of the island skyrocketing, too, for that matter.

Thus endeth Part the Second. Stand by for Part III.

(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.

“Real artists ship”

It’s been a big week hereabouts. In particular, two pieces of Do projects news to share with you:

- As you probably know, Nurri and I have been running Systems/Layers “walkshops” under the Do aegis for the last year or so, in cities from 65°N to 41°S.

As we define it, anyway, a walkshop is an activity in which anywhere up to about twenty people take a slow and considered walk through the city together, carefully examining the urban fabric and the things embedded in it, and then sharing their insights with one another and the wider world. (Obviously, you could do a walkshop on any particular urbanist topic that interested you, but we’ve focused ours on looking at the ways in which networked information-processing systems increasingly condition the mretropolitan experience.)

We’ve gotten a huge kick out of doing the Systems/Layers walks, but the simple truth is that there are so many competing claims on our time and energy that we can’t dedicate ourselves to running them full-time. We’ve also been encouraged by the result of our first experiment in open-sourcing the idea, the Systems/Layers event Mayo Nissen held in Copenhagen last June.

So when Giles Lane at Proboscis asked us if we’d consider contributing to his Transformations series, we knew right away just what we’d do. We decided to put together a quick guide to DIY walkshops, something to cover the basics of organizing, promoting and executing an event.

Last Monday, with Giles’s patient support, this idea came to fruition in the launch of Do 1101, Systems/Layers: How to run a walkshop on networked urbanism as a Diffusion eBook pamphlet. As with most things we offer, the pamphlet is released to you under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license, so we expect that some of you will want to get in there and repurpose the content in other contexts.

We’ll most likely be rereleasing the Systems/Layers material our ownselves in the near future, in an extended dance mix that includes more detail, more structure, and more of Nurri’s pictures. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the pamphlet, and let us know about the uses to which you put it.

- This week also saw the release of Do 1102, Nurri’s Safety Maps, a project which would have been unimaginable without the expert guidance and hard work of Tom Carden and Mike Migurski.

Safety Maps is a free online tool that helps you plan for emergency situations. You can use it to choose a safe meeting place, print a customized map that specifies where it is, and share this map with your loved ones. (As it says on the site, the best way to understand how it works is simply to get started making a Safety Map of your own.)

It’s been a delicate thing to build. Given the entire framing of the site, it and the maps it produces absolutely have to work in their stated role: coordinating the action of couples, households and other small groups under the most trying of circumstances, when communications and other infrastructures may simply be unavailable. They have to do so without implying that a particular location is in fact safer than any other under a given set of conditions, or would remain accessible in the event of disaster. And they have to do so legibly, clearly, and straightforwardly.

These are utilitarian preparedness/resilience considerations, and they’re eminently appropriate. But in the end, the site springs from a different set of concerns: in Nurri’s original conception, the primary purpose of these artifacts is to prompt us to think about the people we love and the utter and harrowing contingency of the circumstances that allow us to be together. We obviously hope people find Safety Maps useful in challenging moments, but we imagine that we’d hear about this either way — whereas it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to ever know if the site works in the way she intended it to.

Even though it was an accident of timing, Nurri also had some questions about releasing Safety Maps so soon on the heels of the Sendai earthquake/tsunami; she didn’t want us to appear to be opportunists reaping ghoulish benefit from the suffering of others. I think it was the right decision, though: sadly, there are in truth precious few windows between natural or manmade catastrophes of one sort or another. And there may be no more productive time for a tool like this than a moment in which disaster is in the news and fresh on a lot of people’s minds.

From my perspective, there’s been one other notable feature of the journey Safety Maps has taken from conception to release: but for an inversion of name, emphasis and colorway (from “Emergency Maps” in red to what you see at present), the site looks, feels and works almost identically to the vision Nurri described to me in Helsinki in October of 2009. In my experience, this almost never happens in the development of a website, and it’s a tribute both to the clarity and comprehensiveness of her original idea, and to Tom and Mike’s resourcefulness and craftsmanship.

I’m also quite fond of the thoughtful little details they’ve built into every layer of the experience, right down to the animated GIFs on the mail you get when you send someone a map. It’s just a lovely thing, and I’m terribly proud to have had even a tiny role in helping Nurri, Tom and Mike build it. Our thanks, also, to Cloudmade and the entire community of Open Street Map contributors, without whom Safety Maps would have remained nothing more than a notion.

Flowers for cyberpunk

A few years ago, when I was speaking at my first gig in France, a friend introduced me as “a genuine cyberpunk.” I don’t mind telling you I was a little taken aback: (a), Chairman Bruce deserves the tag more than I ever will, or could, and (b) I’ve always thought of that word as a descriptor of literary genre, not of people. Maybe it’s different in Europe.

What I will not deny, though, is that the genre which appropriately does bear that name was probably the major formative influence of my adolescence, and my discovery of it while it yet hovered more or less on the margins of popular culture one of only two junctures in my life that I truly felt myself to be close to the epicenter of a Moment. Finding stories like “New Rose Hotel” in my sister’s copies of Omni — devouring them with by flashlight, under my bed, as if they were some species of pornography — then stumbling onto that first Ace Special Edition of Neuromancer at sixteen: these were inflections I experienced physically.

I mean it. Reading these stories consistently and reliably generated in me a precise somatic sensation. It felt like this: like someone had clamped strong hands on my shoulders, forcefully pivoted me forty-five degrees to the left, then planted a solid kick in my ass. My heart would start to hammer. I’d have to get up, go out and do something, anything, just to burn off energy and ease my way down from maximum jouissance. Every new, outré detail — the assassin with a monomolecular whip secreted in a false thumbtip, the smackhead dolphin abandoned by the government that had recruited him, the death-by-pheromoned-cloud-of-smothering-butterflies — set off a fresh detonation of glee.

There were more intellectual pleasures, too. One of the things cyberpunk was relatively good at was suggesting the political economy of the future, the institutional structure that would characterize the way we lived there. Genre authors delighted in attending to details like “Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority” and the “Mare Tranquillitatis People’s Circumlunar Zaibatsu,” and I as a reader delighted in their cleverness and perspicacity. My imagination could churn all day on everything so densely implied by a line like: “His right bicep was tattooed with a geodesic balloon above crossed lightning bolts and bore the legend SUNSPARK 15, UTAH.”

It worked (and I’m only something like the eighteen millionth person to have pointed this out) because it was still recognizably an exaggeration for effect, the Reagan/Thatcher/Nakasone Eighties in a funhouse mirror. No wonder contemporary sf, by contrast, tends to leave me so cold: it’s hard to top the details of a world that’s seen all of this come to pass.

I thought of this the other day when I passed an artifact that seemed to sum up most of cyberpunk’s formal concerns. It was nothing more than a graffiti’d shipping container piled in a maintenance yard, but it:

- represented the fruit of a deeply digitized military-logistic material culture;
– still bore the marks of its native China;
– and, layered atop them, bore the blazons of street identity.

It struck me as occupying an amazing position in material-semantic possibility space, the polemical-made-real. Running past it was something like listening to a digital file of Brazilian speedmetal, or having a woman you meet at a party nonchalantly introducing you to her wife, in that everyday life seemed to have more or less effortlessly remolded itself around tropes which once, and not so very long ago, dripped with futurity.

And a world filled with such objects is in some way almost beyond commentary, or critique. Maybe this is why William Gibson’s own last few books, delightful as they remain — the brand-new Zero History being the most recent case in point — read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know, capering through places, scenes and contexts we know all too well. It’s competently constructed entertainment, resonant enough of our moment, and is amusing as something to play the roman-à-clef game with. But it’s not (and cannot be?) revelatory. I’m having a hard time imagining anyone having their ass kicked by Zero History the way mine was by Neuromancer.

As for the earlier work, I can’t for the life of me imagine what a contemporary reader confronting it for the first time would make of it. Any possibility of getting a frisson or lift off of that material would seem to be undermined by the fact that so much of it was first rendered into genre cliché, in the hands of much less capable writers, and then had the bad manners to come true. (Believe me, there was not a single hip thing about the Giger-themed bar in Shirokanedai, even before it went out of business.)

More broadly, I’m having trouble even coming up with any cultural artifact capable of generating that kind of shock’n’awe rewrite of the world. For me, for anyone. And that’s too bad.

The new infranormal

…So that exhaustive list is apropos of a curious sensation I’ve had, in riding, walking and busing the hills of San Francisco these last few weeks: more than once and more than twice, during this immersive reintroduction to the contemporary American cityscape, I’ve gotten the impression that the lion’s share of ordinary daily activity here consists of things I’d more usually think of as support functions. The traces of urban life which meet my eye seem overwhelmingly to be a matter of infra-, with very little remaining structure.

Maybe this is just what happens when place is captured by the “creative” (or spectacular) wing of a service economy, with all the fierce interiority that implies; you’d kind of expect a city of people beetling over Pro Tools, Final Cut, SketchUp and Ableton to manifest itself differently than one consecrated to the drill press and the bench lathe. But it really is startling — to me, anyway —the degree to which the things around me all seem intended to underwrite some other ultimate purpose, and give away so little clue as to what that purpose might actually be.

At mid-day, the traffic around me is largely buses, UPS and FedEx trucks, Comcast’s cable-installation vans, or, out in the neighborhoods, the handcarts of USPS postal carriers as they set off on their routes; the few walk-in businesses that seem to be thriving amid the largely moribund downtown retail storefrontage, AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile, are all dedicated to another kind of infrastructure. The rest is drugstores, dry cleaners, Starbucks: places to support, places that enable, platforms, platforms everywhere, but all of it seemingly ancillary to the proper business of a city or a life.

I don’t, honestly, know what I expected to find when I came back to the States. I can’t yet quite put my finger on what’s missing, on what, if anything, makes this quotidian parade any different from its equivalents in the London or Singapore or Barcelona of the moment, and I’m cautious of wanting to ascribe too much significance to what I’m perceiving. But I am trying to pay particularly close attention to this place at this time, and this is what I’m seeing. The Kwinter/Fabricius quote dovetailed nicely with my sense of a place so intensely animated by ghostly procedures, agreements, schedules and manifests that there’s very little else left to the public eye.

On exhausting a place

This latest bout of wanting and trying to be fully present to the city around me has a definite inspiration: the recent (and beautifully bound and packaged) translation of Georges Perec‘s 1974 An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris I stumbled across at Green Apple the other night. The book is nothing more, or less, than Perec’s somewhat telegraphic documentation of every single thing he saw during three days in October 1974, from a succession of observation posts taken up in the café windows of the Place Saint-Sulpice.

This kind of project, as you can probably imagine, appeals to me on a great many levels. First, there’s the seductive blend of the frankly sedentary with the insanely ambitious. There’s the concern for characterization and specificity nurtured in those same corners of my heart where long-banked embers of misplaced enthusiasm for the semantically correct self-description of everything yet find shelter & glow. There is the respect paid to the depth and richness of the everyday, the treasure the profoundly unremarkable unfolds into when one takes the time and trouble to be present with it. And there’s the reckoning, finally, with the impossibility of the tasks one has set out or chosen for oneself — with the inevitability of failure.

As at least one canny reader has pointed out, this exploration of urban “infranormality” might at first blush seem to retain little interest in our age of status-update overload; if you were uncharitably inclined, you might even compare the material here to a transcription of tweets posted by a particularly Aspergerian trainspotter. Viewed in this light, one could certainly read the Attempt as an simple inventory of the shopping bags, types of hats, apple-green 2CVs and Paul Virilios that pass through Perec’s field of vision. But I don’t, in the end, think that’s fair comment, and if you let that perspective sway you you’ll miss what’s really going on here.

I read the book, instead, as an anticipation of Henri Lefebvre‘s project of “rhythmanalysis,” an effort to perceive the order that reveals itself only in time. What the trained mind apprehends in the daily cycling of neighborhood noise and activity, Lefebvre claims, is nothing less than “social organization manifesting itself.” Pushing back against the modernist notion that to see something is to know it — a notion which inheres in the very idea of surveillance — he argues that the truth of the city is bound up in patterns of regular activity that unfold only along the t axis. Rhythms, in other words. “No camera, no image or sequence of images can show these rhythms,” he insists. “One needs equally attentive eyes and ears, a head, a memory, a heart.”

It’s easy enough to quibble with certain aspects of this conclusion — this passage apparently postdates Koyaanisqatsi, for one thing, a film which is nothing if not a “sequence of images” in which the rhythm of urban place reveals itself with extraordinary vividity — but there’s a deeper sense in which I take the observation to be true. And these are precisely the tools that Perec brought to his task. You still need to connect the dots yourself, but the patterns of “social organization” couldn’t possibly be clearer than the picture that emerges from his enunciation of small things and smaller events. It’s a melancholic little gem, autumnal in more than one register.

Next up is Werner Herzog‘s Of Walking in Ice, given to me by my buddy Frank, a detailed observational account of Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris over three weeks during November and December of 1974. (What was it about western Europe that fall? When Herzog, tramping through the outskirts of Munich, remarks that “It is nearing two o’clock” on the afternoon of Saturday 23 November 1974, it’s impossible for me not to hear the final, almost unbearably sad words of Perec’s Attempt — “It is two o’clock” — set to paper in the same time zone, a mere thirty-four days before.)

And all that pretty much outlines my project here in San Francisco during the two weeks remaining to me before I take off for Points (Far) East: ride, walk. Use the available infrastructure, particularly the bus. (“They said it was a good way to pick up information without drawing a lot of attention. That was OK, I needed the air and the time.”) Notice. Think. If you’re in the Bay Area and you want to hook up for coffee &c., now would be a very good time to do so.

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