“Triumph of the City” – Why cities are our greatest invention

By Vishnu Prasad, IFMR Finance Foundation

This post is a continuation of our blog series on “Cities in Books“. In this seres we put across posts that reflect on how cities are portrayed in books and relate them from an urbanisation perspective.

Edward Glaeser’s compelling book “Triumph of the city” is part-history of cities and why they thrive or decline and part-travelogue that takes us through urban streetscapes around the world; but above all, it’s a personal ode to the city.

The book’s central point is that humans are an urban species who do wonders when they collaborate. Cities facilitate this collaboration and enable the joint production of knowledge through free flow of ideas. Throughout history, cities have been engines of innovation and progress. Ancient Athens, a prosperous trading town attracted the best minds from war torn Asia Minor. This first generation of migrants and the influence of their ideas on friends and students led to a remarkable time in history that witnessed the birth of Western philosophy, drama and history. Great ideas flourished when artists and scholars lived in close proximity, exchanging ideas freely.

In a world where rapid growth is leading to dire environmental impacts, the book also suggests that high density living in cities is the path to a greener future.

There is no such thing as a successful city without human capital

If there is one common thread that links successful cities across the world even today, it is their ability (like Ancient Greece’s) to attract smart people and to enable them to work collaboratively. Successful cities around the world follow this process. When Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, it faced enormous challenges- the diminutive state was surrounded by two antagonistic neighbours: Malaysia and Indonesia, it had no natural resources and no natural sources of food or water. As Glaeser puts it, “In the 1960s, Singapore was a poor shantytown where indoor toilets were a rarity. (Yet) Today, Singapore is a glistening First World City with one of the highest per capita GDPs on earth.” What produced this remarkable transformation? Glaeser attributes this success to a host of factors including rule of law, low levels of corruption and excellent infrastructure. But most importantly, Singapore invested in education- in the 1960s the average adult in Singapore had less years of schooling than her counterparts in Lesotho or Paraguay. By 1995, school kids from Singapore were outperforming other countries in the Test of International Math and Science. The creation of high quality home-grown human capital pushed Singapore to the forefront of electronics, biomedical production and finance.

Similarly, Bangalore owes much of its economic success to investment in education. In the early 1900s, Sir Mokshagudam Visvesvaraya’s efforts led to the establishment of University of Mysore and Bangalore’s engineering college, which bears his name. High human capital and a pro-business government brought industries like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Bharat Heavy Electricals to Bangalore. It is the same virtuous cycle, in which firms are attracted by high human capital and workers are drawn by these firms, which had led to Bangalore’s domination in the IT sector.

Cities are green

Glaeser finds that in the US, households living in areas with more than ten thousand people per sq. mile use half the gas used by a household in an area with density of fewer than one thousand people per sq. mile. Increased density of neighbourhoods reduces the average distance to shopping markets, groceries and schools. Increased density also permits the growth of public transportation, which are much more energy efficient. For example, public transport in New York emits 0.9 pounds of carbon dioxide per trip, a tenth of the emissions produced from an average car trip. Interestingly, there are also intra-city differences in emissions. Suburban households consume 300 gallons more of gas and 27% more electricity than an urban household.

A household in America’s greenest city, San Diego emits 60% less carbon than its counterpart in Memphis, America’s brownest city. So why aren’t more people living in San Diego? The answer is that housing restrictions in Coastal California have led to an under-supply of houses, pushing prices up. Legislation protecting the environment requires any large construction in the state to undertake an environment impact review. In 2008, California generated more reviews that the rest of the US. These impact reviews add costs and delays to new construction, making them more expensive. Glaeser argues that these reviews take a narrow view of impact on the environment. Prohibiting construction in California shifts it to browner areas that are less energy efficient, magnifying the impact on the environment.

The book cautions against India and China following similar misguided environmental policies that create an anti-urban bias. As millions shift from hinterlands to cities, “their decisions about land use will have a huge impact on energy consumption and carbon emissions. If they live at high densities and use public transit, then the whole world will benefit. If they sprawl, then we will all suffer from higher energy costs and higher carbon emissions. One important reason the West must shrink its own carbon footprint is to reduce the hypocrisy of telling India and China to be greener while driving our SUVs to the mall.

Flat World, Tall City

Glaeser finds abundant examples of misguided anti-urban policies in rapidly urbanizing countries. Following tenets of British urban planning, in 1991 Mumbai capped Floor Area Ratio (FAR) for most of the city at 1.33. This meant that in one of the most densely populated cities on earth, buildings could have an average height of one and a third stories. A city as populous as Mumbai should build taller. “An abundance of close and connected vertical real estate would decrease the pressure on roads, ease the connections that are the lifeblood of a 21st century city, and reduce Mumbai’s extraordinarily high cost of space.” Thus, the book argues that building taller to ensure higher densities is the way forward for cities in India and China.

The inexorable march of the city

In recent years, some critics have argued that improvements in information technology will obliterate advantages of urban living. However, as the book says, “a few decades of high technology can’t trump millions of years of evolution. Connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal or a smile or a kiss…whether in London’s ornate orchards or Rio’s fractious favelas or the dusty workspaces of Dharavi, our culture, our prosperity and our freedom are all ultimately gifts of people living, working, and thinking together – the ultimate triumph of the city.