[Review] Triumph of the City

One of those books that I read mostly in order to recommend it to others. I’m already part of the urbanist converted, and Glaeser is preaching to the choir. For those of you who are comfortably content in the suburbs, or wary of the chaotic hustle and bustle of dense, tall cities, this is the book for you. It is part urban history, part policy argument. Or, perhaps better put, it’s a convincing policy argument grounded on the past few centuries of urban and economic history.

The argument is this: It’s crucial to our social, economic, and environmental well being that we reverse legislation and tax incentives that encourage urban residents to move from city centers to the suburbs. Policies like the disastrous mortgage interest tax deduction, which encourages urban residents who rent apartments in productive city centers to move to cheap suburban communities to buy cookie-cutter McMansions that dramatically increase the economic and environmental cost of delivering public services and transportation. Or the ridiculously low gasoline tax, which encourages more people to drive in cars rather than take public transportation. (It’s even worse here in Mexico, where gasoline is subsidized by the government; money that could be spent on relieving poverty.) “In the mid-1990s,” Glaeser reminds us, “when the average price for a gallon of gas in the U.S. was close to $1, the average price per gallon in Italy or France was close to $5.” And worst of all, zoning policies (like those in the Silicon Valley, Mumbai, Washington DC, and Mexico City) keep most buildings no taller than three or four stories, limiting the supply of downtown housing and raising the cost of living so high that the middle and working class are forced to live in the suburbs and exurbs.

Sears (Willis) Tower, Chicago, USA: Tourist Attraction #1

Here in Mexico City, zoning policies that limit height are the principal reason why we have the world’s longest commutes. The average commuter spends more than two hours traveling from home to work and back. No wonder the country’s productivity is so low. Over the past two decades in the US, “transportation funding for the ten most densely populated states has been half as much, on a per capita basis, as funding for the ten least dense states.” Not only that, but “per capita stimulus spending from March to December 2009 was twice as high in America’s five least densely populated states as in the rest of the country.” Taken to the extreme, even income tax can be seen as dis-incentivizing urbanization since city dwellers tend to have higher incomes than suburban and rural residents. (No, I’m not advocating for an end to income tax, but I do think that wealth should be taxed much more than income.)

In other words, the cards are stacked against cities; most governments incentivize suburbanization. Why is that a problem? First, because cities are far more productive. “Today, the five zip codes that occupy the mile of Manhattan between Forty-first and Fifty-ninth streets employ six hundred thousand workers (more than New Hampshire or Maine), who earn on average more than $100,000 each, giving that tiny piece of real estate a larger annual payroll than Oregon or Nevada.” According to Glaeser’s math, “Americans who live in metropolitan areas with more than a million residents are, on average, more than 50 percent more productive than Americans who live in smaller metropolitan areas.” Yet some of the country’s most productive cities, like San Francisco and Boston, push residents out to less productive suburbs (or worse, to Houston and Phoenix) because zoning policies prevent tall buildings which raise home prices, ultimately pushing out the middle and working class.

Urban residents are, on average, also healthier than suburban residents (they spend more time walking and much less time stuck in traffic). They also report to be happier (probably because they have much more access to cultural activities and are closer to their friends).

Chicago Water Tower - HDR at night

Glaeser’s argument is so convincing that it’s frustrating. Some of the most interesting sections of the book are its thorough, complex histories of three technologies that would come to define the 20th century: the skyscraper, the car, and the affordable suburban house. At the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the invention of the Otis safety elevator, it seemed that the skyscraper would usher in a century of dense, urban living. “But twentieth-century urban America didn’t belong to the skyscraper; it belonged to the car.” Eisenhower subsidized the Interstate Highway System. Then William Levitt’s perfection of mass-produced suburbia combined with the GI Bill led to a perfect recipe that ensured that the 20th century would belong to cars, suburban cookie-cutter homes, smog, traffic, and parking lots everywhere you look. It’s frustrating to read this history and think what if … what if, the skyscraper had won and the car and suburb had lost? What would the world look like today?

Even more frustrating is the likelihood that either America’s mortgage interest tax deduction or Mexico’s gas subsidy will be repealed. In the short term, there is no likelihood.

Certainly mistaken policies are responsible for harmful suburbanization at the expense of productivity and environmental conservation, but even if those policies are reversed, will we see more urbanization and less suburbanization?

Sunset from the John Hancock Observatory in Chicago, Illinois, USA  - 2010

I have a feeling that was the exact question that Andres Lajous was asking himself this weekend when he penned an imaginary dialogue with a civil servant. The text, which is in Spanish, pokes fun at the new young urbanist movement, of which Andrés was one of the early militants. “What’s going to happen when you have kids?” the civil servant asks him. “Are you going to take them to the emergency room on the metro? Are you going to take them to their private schools on the back of your bicycle? No, you’re going to move to the suburbs and you’re going to wait in traffic, and you’re going to complain just like all the others.”

Already several of my friends here in Mexico City are contemplating heading for the suburbs. All the typical reasons … soft grass for their kids to play on, better schools, less noise.

Some are even looking for a greater sense of community. As Angela Giglia has argued in her fascinating ethnography of gated communities in Mexico City, while such communities frequently isolate residents from wider democratic involvement, new forms of community decision-making come about within the gated perimeter.

How can cities retain their young talent? They need to offer more. More green parks, more playgrounds for kids. Public transportation that is as inviting as a luxury automobile (like many European cities). Frequent cultural events. Well financed public schools with clear incentives and paths toward upward mobility. The Project for Public Spaces has a handy list and a great blog that profiles successful developments and interventions. It’s not rocket science. But it is incredible how wrong we got it in the US throughout the 20th century. If China and India follow our car-centered, suburban path, there’s no way the planet will hold up.

Not everyone should have to live in dense cities. But for those of us who do, we shouldn’t be punished by policies that favor the suburbs.


  1. book added to my wish list.
    my gut feeling is to never trust anyone who WANTS to move to the suburbs including those with kids…especially those with children.


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