Incubators for ideas and innovation: The modern city

Incubators for ideas and innovation: The modern city

Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

$37.50, Penguin Press, 2011, 352 pages

Reviewed by Steve Lafleur

Many conservatives view cities as black boxes, into which money periodically disappears, and from which cosmopolitan elites dictate the fate of the nation. There may be some truth to these claims: Cities have immense political sway, and are often the beneficiaries of massive public infrastructure programs funded by higher levels of government. This observation often leads to the conclusion that major cities are uneconomic groupings, held together by political fiat. It is rare that anyone who could plausibly be identified as a conservative expresses the opposite opinion.

Enter Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Glaeser has spent years researching urban economics and his latest book, Triumph of the City, stitches together his litany of insight into urban life. He makes the case that cities are not only economically sensible but are mankind’s greatest invention.

Building on the insights of Jane Jacobs, Glaeser argues that by connecting people closely together, cities allow for the rapid exchange of ideas and thus fuel innovation. While it is conventional to attribute innovations to brilliant flashes of insight from exceptionally gifted minds, they generally evolve from the tacit collaboration of many people learning from each other’s mistakes and successes.

Glaeser illustrates this point by recounting the history of the skyscraper. William Le Baron Jenney’s 138 foot Home Insurance Building in Chicago, built in 1885 is often referred to as the first true skyscraper. But did Jenney invent the skyscraper? Hardly.

The skyscraper evolved gradually through a number of innovations, most notably the invention of elevators. Jenney’s apprentice Louis Sullivan, and Sullivan’s apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright went on to further develop the modern skyscraper. But they didn’t do so in isolation. They both influenced other people, and in turn were influenced by others. They benefited from living in Chicago, which was one of the centres of architectural innovation. Had these architects been spread throughout the world, rather than clustered in Chicago, the skyscraper would not have evolved so rapidly. The same can be said of cars in Detroit or fashion in New York. Innovation occurs when smart people are clustered together.

Glaeser’s most poignant observation is that urban poverty is actually a sign of progress. Poverty in cities was considered a major problem in most American metropolises between the 1960s and 1980s, and played a large role in suburban flight. Now, urban poverty is most prominent in the slums of the developing world. Glaeser argues that as unseemly as is urban poverty, it’s a sign of social mobility. Urban poverty exists not because cities do not provide opportunities for the poor, but because they do. Poor people move to cities because there are greater economic opportunities than exist in rural areas. Cities are not the cause of poverty, but the solution.

One might wonder if cities are so economically sensible, why urban sprawl is so prominent. Glaeser argues that three factors exacerbate sprawl. First, free roads. Since there is no charge for driving, with the exception of a few toll roads, suburban drivers get a bargain on commuting costs (though they generally pay with time lost in traffic congestion).

Second, home mortgage deductions (in the United States) allow mortgage holders to write off interest on their mortgages. That makes home ownership cheaper relative to renting compared to the free market outcome.

Third, zoning regulations affect the cost of urban housing in many ways. The most important is the use of zoning laws to minimize housing density, or to preserve “heritage housing.” Since there is a fixed amount of relatively expensive land in most cities, restricting the ability to build up or knock down low density structures makes it hard for developers to build economical housing units. Since land costs are lower in the suburbs, the only way to make multi-unit residents cheaper in city cores is to build more units.

While many of Glaeser’s observations may seem unoriginal, it’s partially because other urbanists have been citing his work for years. Popular authors such as Richard Florida routinely muster Glaeser’s insights in order to strengthen their arguments.

However, Glaeser departs from orthodox urbanists in their focus on mega-projects, and the importance of intangibles, such as Florida’s insistence that cities need to attract the “creative class” by subsidizing the arts, and so forth.

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Instead, Triumph of the City demonstrates an appreciation of urban life, while maintaining a healthy scepticism towards many urbanist trends. It is a welcome addition to contemporary urbanist thought, and is an especially important read for conservatives. Cities have historically been engines for growth, but reckless policies have hamstrung many of our biggest cities. Market-oriented solutions to urban problems have been outside of the mainstream for quite some time. Glaeser has opened the door for a discussion of the role of markets in solving urban problems. Conservatives would be wise to follow his lead.

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