Edward Glaeser was an author I followed closely whilst doing my PhD. When other academics would ask about my thesis topic, their reply would also include have you read the latest Glaeser…..So I new book by Glaeser was always going to get my attention – but I will understand that this is probably not a book that will appeal to everyone. In Triumph of The City Glaeser investigates the modern city, and reveals how the rise of the city has delivered many positives that far outweigh any negatives, to modern human development. His starting point is that now, for the first time in human history, more than half of the worlds population lives in cities. This is despite the rise of communications and electronic devices that allow us for both work and play to no longer live close together.
Glaeser goes on to argue that we need to continue to urbanise, particularly in developing economies if we are going to see everyone with an increasing quality of life that will not cost the earth…literally. In the developed world the current trend is towards urbanisation but on a less dense scale than true city development – suburbanisation or as it also known sprawl. When arguing against suburbanisation, Glaeser himself admits he has fallen under its spell. As he muses ” I am sufficiently unusual that I’m always cautious about using my own life to infer anything about anyone else’s but my decision to suburbanise was a conventional one, driven for the most part by common factors…the forces that brought me to a suburb: living space, soft grass for spill-prone toddlers, a desire to diversify my life with greater distance from my employer, a fast commute, and good schools. Of these five factors, only two – the grass and distance form Harvard – are independent of public policies” But he posits “it is going to be a lot better for the planet if (India and China) urbanised population lives in dense cities built around the elevator, rather than in sprawling areas built around the car”. If that is to be the case, then the developed world needs to provide a good example rather than expecting the developing world to do something that we are not prepared to do.
In this argument, Glaeser’s book makes a strong argument – he does however dance around some of the down sides of the urbanisation debate – such as are their limits to the amount of density and population that can be supported by individual cities? Where is that limit? How do we work out what parts of our cities to preserve? And how do we stop that decision being made that is suitable for our current generation and our tastes, but maybe regretted by future generations? Glaeser does not seem to actively engage in these discussios and questions, not thatI expect answers, these are hard questions, and I don’t think solutions are going to come from one book but there does not seem to be an acknowledgement of the complexity of these arguments.
His suggestion for addressing height and density concerns within existing cities is to establish a 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 neighbours, then we should estimate the social costs and charge builders for them, just as we should charge drivers for the costs of her congestion. Those taxes could then be given to the people who are suffering, such as neighbours who lose light from a new construction project”.
Even if we could start estimating a reasonable cost for amenities such as natural light into your apartment, and then could design a taxation system that could redistribute these costs in a way we could have confidence would be fair – this doesn’t resolve the issue that some people have lost out on basic amenity to others – i think a system of more stringent building standards that ensured good quality design, planning and building for a range of cities, not just in major cities would allow a more geographically equitable and dispersed urbanisation to occur.