– reviewed by Edward Harkins, Knowledge and Research Associate, SURF

This author’s argument is for barely constrained pro-growth policies in cities, with considerable relaxation of all planning and regulation of construction of new buildings.

The author covers important, if familiar, aspects of cities, such as cluster benefits. He is incisive on how the ‘true environmentalists’ live in densely populated cities; whilst those in semi-rural commuter-land are not fully charged for the environmental consequences of their lifestyle. There is uncomfortable reading for some UK civic leaders about the folly of iconic buildings and events when he argues, “Investing in buildings instead of people where prices are already low may have been the biggest mistake of urban policy over the past sixty years.”

Problems with the book arise with the title, ‘Triumph of the City’. The author, in fact, spends much time accounting for the failures of cities. The relevance of the book is restricted to those metro-type cities large enough to justify and sustain dense, skyscraper, development.

Another problem is the incompleteness in some of the author’s arguments. For example, he cites how a forty storey building in Manhattan, NYC, would use only 30 square feet of prime Manhattan space. Therefore, ‘land costs become pretty small’. This fails to take full account of the enhanced prices that existing owners would place on the targeted 30 square foot plot, in anticipation of postdevelopment values.

On housing desegregation laws in the USA, the author asserts that, ‘No one wants a return to where blacks who moved into a white suburb faced death threats…’ He, nevertheless, observes that ‘ghettos are now worse places for the children of those left behind.’ It would have been better if this latter observation had been more immediately and carefully placed in context. As it is, it leaves open an interpretation that enabling upwardly mobile ‘blacks’ to move out of a ghetto is, in itself, a bad policy.

A seemingly loose use of language, history and culture is occasionally apparent. Perhaps, it’s because this was an early edition that is yet to be re-edited for the UK market, but there is a recurrent use of ‘England’ where it is patently the UK (or even ‘Scottish’) that is the subject. For example, he cites how post-80s London, ‘trained a new generation of celebrity English chefs, such as the ubiquitous Gordon Ramsay…’. This is more than Celtic semantics, because, more seriously, the language elsewhere slips uncertainly between, for example, city, neighbourhood, and area.

Having proposed dismantling much of the existing controls and regulation, the author’s ‘Three Simple Rules’ for successful cities are, arguably, simplistic rather than simple. For example, individual neighbourhoods are to be given ‘some delineated power’ to restrict development – but not much because ‘local communities often fail to consider the adverse consequences of banning buildings’ (whilst he remains silent on the adverse impacts of inappropriate construction or commercial activity by short-term, profit-maximising, developers or proprietors).

This book might have benefited from less ambition in the scope of ground covered, and with more detailed and cogent reasoning and evidencing. It remains, however, a useful, if polemic, read through much of the history of metro-city development across the world.
Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser.
Published by Pan MacMillan: www.panmacmillan.com
ISBN 978 02307 09386