February 23, 2011
Vol: 18 No: 08

Arts & Entertainment

The upside of downtown

By Julia Cechvala / Contributing Writer

Edward Glaeser. Photo by Louise Kennedy Converse

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BOOK REVIEW: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier
By Edward Glaeser, The Penguin Press, 2011, Hardcover, 270 pages, $29.95

Take note mossbacks. The Seattle area’s greatest strength may be what little density it has, according to Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s new book, “Triumph of the City.” And becoming more dense could solve some of our problems, like lack of affordable housing and chronic congestion. Now, before your inner preservationist starts sputtering rebuttals, hear him out. Glaeser makes some interesting points in his well-researched and well-written book. Plus, you’ll be able to question him in person when he speaks Fri., Feb. 25 at Town Hall.

Glaeser is a fan of density and of cities themselves because they bring into close proximity diverse groups of talented people. “Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human,” he writes. Cities are where the arts develop and thrive, innovations lead to new inventions and new jobs, and people from different backgrounds can interact, breaking down oppressive social conventions, like racism and homophobia. All good so far . . .

Plus cities are green. Everyone agrees sprawl is bad, right? Glaeser favors upward over outward growth, but he criticizes environmentalists as NIMBYs for fighting development—even suburban development. He looks at development in terms of simple supply and demand. Seattle is an appealing place to live because of the industry and job opportunities, the natural beauty, the culture, etc., so there’s a high demand for housing. He would argue that housing is so expensive here (and in places like New York City and San Francisco) because restrictions on development haven’t allowed supply to keep up. So, people choose to live in suburbs, or they live in other parts of the country that are more affordable.

The problem with shifting that development to other parts of the country is that other areas have less temperate climates, requiring more energy for heating and cooling and would therefore have larger carbon footprints. He figures that certain parts of the country are greener than others based on carbon footprint. Places with mild climates, like Seattle, and even more so Southern California should be developed heavily, rather than places that require more energy use like Texas.

“People who fight development don’t get to choose the amount of new construction throughout the country; they only get to make sure it doesn’t occur in their backyard. At the national level, a principle that could be called the law of conservation of construction appears to hold. When environmentalists stop development in green places, it will occur in brown places,” Glaeser writes.

He defines “green” only in terms of carbon dioxide output, disregarding other effects of sprawl such as loss of farmland and habitat. Glaeser also expresses limited tolerance for restricting new development based on the preservation of historic buildings. 

And brace yourself, self-righteous Seattleites: Glaeser himself, despite his professed love of cities, lives in a suburb. He lays out the perfectly logical reasons he made this choice, namely the better schools and more bang for his buck in terms of housing. Glaeser argues that instead of blaming suburbanites, like him, we need to change the policies—like tax deductions that support home ownership and heavily subsidized roadways—that lead people to choose suburbs over cities.

Glaeser discusses much more in his book, from the impact of growing cities in the developing world, to the role of immigration and education in our cities. He goes over examples of cities that have failed and cities that succeed. Vancouver, B.C. makes the latter list. “Vancouver’s boom has been fueled by a passionate attention to quality of life, a willingness to build up, and a flow of talented Asian immigrants.”

Whether you’re a fan of our neighbor to the north, want to see how your favorite city stacks up or would rather debate what exactly makes suburbs so evil, this book is worth your read. And you can bring your questions—and self-righteous rage—when you see Professor Glaeser in person.

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