Bookends: "The Triumph of the City"
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Every city is fashioned by some great industry or idea. Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City is built on the notion that real cities are “made of flesh, not concrete.” We live where we do because we are made more productive, even happier, by being closer together.
Cities are complex animals that have evolved from an obscure past. Beyond their anatomy lies the DNA of zoning laws, height restrictions, and essential infrastructure. They are acted upon by other inventions, such as the car, around which cities like Houston were built, or the elevator, which allowed Chicago to build with vaulting ambition. Each factor shapes the genesis of a city in subtle, yet significant ways. Glaeser sequences each of these elements as he looks at what makes cities live and breathe. In doing so, he takes the reader on a breathless journey from Bangalore to London and back to New York.
More than half of the world lives in cities. As we’ve seen in a previous look at Enrico Moretti’s book The New Geography of Jobs, an increasing number of our fellow Americans are making the similar move and are being stratified into successful and not-so-successful cities. And that’s despite a range of technologies that same readymade to draw us out of our office buildings and back into our homes.
Nearly everything about a city functions from people talking to each other and communicating their ideas. That interaction encourages more innovation, which attracts a further influx of talented people to come and share their ideas. Competition results and fosters yet more entrepreneurship. That means, in the end, a teaming marketplace filled with greater opportunity and mobility. As Glaeser concludes, “our culture, our prosperity, and our freedom are all ultimately gifts of people living, working, and thinking together.”
These are the ideals though, and then there’s reality. It’s easy to look at the slums surrounding so many of the world’s great cities and feel an overwhelming sense of despair. Yet Glaeser sees equal amounts of growth and energy. In fact, he firmly believes that opportunities are far greater even in the slums when compared to more remote areas. That’s why so many people flock to the city, after all.
This book casually spills out into pages filled with a lifetime’s worth of work by Glaeser. It’s an impressive achievement. Only someone who knows so much can make a foundational book so easy to read. With thinkers like Edward Glaeser, our cities will indeed remain triumphant.