Notes on Triumph of the City, part II


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.

4 responses to “Notes on Triumph of the City, part II”

  1. Alex Steffen says :

    Adam, you say

    “‘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.”

    And I think you and I and many others would agree that there are intangible (or at least hard to easily quantify) qualities of urbanism and place-ness that are vital to good neighborhoods. I, for one, value long-running community traditions, odd local landmarks, quirk, historic buildings, organically-developed commercial places, some dirty edges.

    But I think a major, major (so important it deserves two majors) problem with so much contemporary urban politics in North America (though also elsewhere) is the assumption that our choice set is essentially binary: change or don’t change, while the reality is that in today’s cities big changes are inevitable, and choosing “no change” almost always just means less change guided by the public realm, and more pushed by cohort replacement, gentrification and the logic of urban real estate investment companies.

    I know you’re not saying that the answer here is for the community/city to do nothing. That said, you echo a common argument these days, which is that the alternative to doing nothing is development run amok (e.g. “Toronto-style high-rise condos” or an arcology in Central Park). That juxtaposition gains us little understanding, I think.

    What is a lot tougher, and more needed, and yet-to-be-created is a set of approaches that allow us to add the density and new infrastructure that affordability, better-functioning systems, social justice and sustainability demand, while — at the same time — figuring out how to preserve the qualities of places we most value, how to change most that which works least well (I don’t think many people weep for the loss of empty big box stores, brownfields or surface parking lots in their neighborhoods) and how to allow for innovation and experimentation and pursuits not completely dominated by market rationales (the arts and public service, obviously, but also the random family that runs a bodega not because it makes them much money, but because they like to feel they’re part of the neighborhood and helping meet their neighbors needs).

    We might think in terms of strategic urbanism (as opposed to the NIMBY-fueled gentrification Glaser’s mentioning above, or tactical urbanism, or laissez faire development), instead. But that’s a longer discussion…

  2. AG says :

    You’re entirely correct, of course. I believe in high density, infill, adaptive reuse, some degree of sensitive new building, and above all systems that knit all of these things together in the service of radically enhanced human outcomes. I’d never, ever want it thought that what I was advocating was some kind of ossification for all time of the status quo.

    That said, my favorite kinds of environment on Earth (NB: I’m quite clear that these are my preferences) are like those you find in the older streets of Barcelona, for example, or parts of Venice, where a highly functional, well-serviced, beautifully designed, state-of-the-art interior has been sensitively inserted into a medieval building envelope. Or the Norman Foster-designed Hearst Tower, here in NYC, which manages to preserve the street frontage and rhythm of a classically-proportioned base with an structurally-advanced high-rise tower injected through it. In other words, a streetscape that manages to have its own cake and eat it too. And I’m all too aware how much talent that takes, how delicate the negotiations are, how capital-intensive such a strategy is likely to be…and why, therefore, it’s not particularly likely to find a home in the willy-nilly process of densification Glaeser advocates.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. » A Note on Strategic Urbanism Alex Steffen - 24 September 2012
  2. A Note on Strategic Urbanism | citytank - 27 September 2012

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