Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mayor Weinberger's Book Club Selection Reviewed by Charlie Messing, with G.G.

Reading Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City for the Mayor’s Book Club
By Charlie Messing, with G.G.

The long-awaited model of the Town Center Mall-Redevelopment
            I read Triumph of the City, subtitled “How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier,” for the Mayor’s Book Club, and participated in a public discussion about the book. Glaeser is an economist who is focused on the idea that the future of mankind should be centered around cities, elevators and skyscrapers.  Glaeser feels that if people travelled less in their automobiles, we could fight our environmental crisis.  Although this is a good idea on the face of it, his book inadvertently reveals the problems with this one-note solution. Glaeser’s thesis culminates in a rousing defense of increasing urban infill and decreasing individuality, economic diversity, and human-scale communities. His position is that the suburbs are a gigantic waste of energy and resources, roads cost too much, those who live in rural locations use too much gas and tend toward poverty, and sprawl is poisoning the earth.  If everyone has a house of their own, we are doomed. Height and density, thus, are the keys to a successful city and a successful planet. Voila! The mayor’s selection for the summer book club cries for us to “unleash the developers”.
            Glaeser goes back through history, and tells of the greatness of Rome, Greece, and other early urban design successes.  Many cities, he says, have attained greatness through their location, temperature and atmosphere, lack of confining regulations, low taxes, room to build, low-cost housing, low cost of living, many successful businesses, a solid mass-transit system, good roads and infrastructure, and a willingness to reign in sprawl.  This translates to a justification for high buildings and a deregulation of public processes. As Glaeser writes, “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.”
            Glaeser has no idea why Jane Jacobs, advocate of organic, community-driven development, was set against high-rise housing projects. Unlike Glaeser, Jacobs believed that cities are very complex interwoven patterns, with shared public spaces that allow people to encounter each other in unique ways.  Jacobs argued that the creation of art happens in old buildings (because they have become cheap property, and are fully paid off) and never in new buildings.  Old buildings are essential to a healthy, vibrant city. 
But such things as historic character and economic and social diversity must go by the wayside to achieve Glaeser’s vision.   Proximity to Nature, too, is “a luxury good.”  My state is mostly rural, and sparsely inhabited.  This city on the shore of a large lake, is surrounded by suburbs on its three other sides, which are in turn surrounded by rural areas —farms, hills, mountains, and small towns. How out-moded!

According to the new vision, we must all cluster in cities that are increasingly high and dense. But these cities will not accommodate the poor, who, according to Glaeser, bring crime and blight to cities. Foster luxury developments, pave and privatize public parks, price-out those who already work and live here, and we will have an urban paradise. We can also feel morally righteous if we argue that such development is good for the environment and counters that worst of all horrors, “sprawl”. Of course there is no accounting of the costs to the environment in new construction, servicing high towers, or the general wasteful lifestyle of urban commodification. There is no explanation of where people who cannot afford the luxury high-rise lifestyle will live (the outskirts presumably, bussed in to serve the well-heeled residents who inhabit this paradise). If these people live along public transportation hubs because they can’t afford the SUVs that wealthier suburban residents would use, if they live in tiny houses or other accessory dwelling units, there might be some benefit to the environment. But the wealthier people could do this too, without wasting valuable natural resources and increasing urban traffic and pollution within the city.
            Glaeser misses the fact that people like to own their own homes, often so far away from neighbors that they appear to have none.  They build their houses as they wish, and travel great distances, in some cases.  Other people like variety, even in cities—they don’t want them to look like they were planned by a team of experts.
At the book group discussion, when I shared this quote: “As humankind grows wealthier,” an audible jolt went through the crowd.  “What page is that on?!” someone called.  I told them, and continued to read aloud: “As humankind grows wealthier, more people will choose their locations on the basis of pleasure as well as productivity.” And, presumably, this pleasure and productivity will be found in dense cities.
Glaeser’s vision is of towering cities full of highly efficient and wealthy people making the world greener, at the mere expense of individual choice, and quality of life.  Does the Mayor want to live in that world?  I prefer this one.

1 comment:

  1. Genese wrote it too - she should get more credit.
    Read the book yourself - let us know what you think!