Wednesday, May 2, 2012

100 Books #38 - Edward L. Glaeser's TRIUMPH OF THE CITY

I have a lot of ill-contained rage against car culture, and it all came simmering to the surface as I read Chapter 7 of Edward L. Glaeser's incredibly thought-provoking Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. This is partly, of course, because I have city envy, though it's largely my own fault.*

 I like a walkable city with an interesting downtown area. My love for Toronto, for instance, is extraordinarily well-documented. A place like that has everything I look for -- dining (especially foreign food), people with whom to play games, people doing interesting things on the street, neat graffiti and other artistry, and sidewalks by which I may easily access all of this and more without burning an ounce of gasoline in either my own or anyone else's vehicle (yes, sometimes this involves a lot of walking and very sore feet, but I consider that a more than reasonable exchange, and it's exceedingly enjoyable exercise; I'm the only one in my workplace who actually loses weight on vacation), or in any way increasing my or the city I'm visiting's carbon footprint. All of these things, Glaeser argues, are products of urban density -- for density brings about proximity of one artist or inventor to another, brings about economies of scale that allow ordinary people to enjoy what only the very wealthy could before the rise of the modern city, brings about opportunity (which is why cities attract the poor; they have a better chance of not staying poor if they come to a city and try).

And yes, density can also bring about crowding, slums, crime, poor sanitation and other public health concerns, but these urban ills can be self-remedying ones because they're occurring in cities, where concentrations of economic power, talent, labor and creativity can be harnessed to solve them, as happened in, e.g. 19th Century New York, London, and Paris, three fine examples of cities that thought their way out of these problems and are now, for the most part, very pleasant -- but very expensive -- places to pass some time.**

And the expense is where my real rage comes in. Because most of North America's and Europe's historically walkable cities have artificially depressed the supply of housing in those downtown areas by legislating against height and density, only the very rich can now afford to live there at all comfortably; they are become, in a phrase I encountered again and again in this book (which, sad to say, is something of a repetitive book at times), "boutique cities."

I am a middle class person; moreover, I am a single woman of a "certain" age which means that I am likely to remain a middle class person (unless I backslide, which is entirely likely in the current economic climate, especially if I choose at this stage in life to move away from the town in which I find myself living -- to, in effect, start all over again). I am unlikely to suddenly manifest skills that are in such high demand that I can command six or seven figures a year***, nor am I at a stage in my life where I am likely to choose (or be welcomed in choosing) to cram myself into a tiny apartment with six or seven twentysomethings.So, as things stand now, I'm starting to fear that I am stuck out in the suburbs, exurbs or pretend cities that have grown up around the car.

So yeah, I have city envy.

But so, I didn't realize how much city envy I had until I read this book, because even when Glaeser talks about the crime and poverty and disease and crappy housing that make so many of the cities in the developing world hells on earth circa 2012, he also points out how New York and London and Paris were once like that, and how Kinshasa and Mumbai and Rio can do it, too, and may even do it better with the examples of those cities before them (i.e., maybe they won't make the same mistakes that turned these into boutique cities along the way).

Of course, that's where Glaeser may lose some people, because, as he points out, New York and London and Paris would still be hell-holes without the deliberate and somewhat heavy-handed use of state power. New York, for instance, tried a private water service first, and got boondoggles and very little utility from guys who were more interested in empire building than in public service. And Paris owes most of its charm to Napoleon III's indulgence of one man's dreams (that one man being Baron Georges Eugene Haussman).

I must add, lest I mislead people, that my rage is mostly self-directed and is only tangential to the reading of this book, which is, after all, an optimistic one. Perhaps, indeed, it's overly so: Glaeser's vision for a possible American future requires, among other things, the embrace of congestion charges and higher gasoline taxes to discourage car use, the reduction if not elimination for the home mortgage interest deduction (that encourages suburban sprawl by encouraging not only home ownership but the accrual of ever-greater debt to buy ever more expensive houses that, let's face it, do not increase an iota in quality commensurate with increases in price, do they? Which means this extremely popular and entrenched bit of tax law helps drive home prices higher), and, least likely of all, an end to the endemic syndrome of NIMBYism.

Even more controversially, Glaeser calls out a lot of environmental and historic preservation legislation as bad policy that gets bad results. In Glaeser's world, the popular slogan of "think globally, act locally" gets it all wrong: focusing on saving one wetlands (or, for that matter, one block full of mediocre but old buildings) doesn't really help the planet or the locality, because it just sends the builders and their money somewhere else. And often, in the case of those opposing newer, taller buildings in old established cities as of those opposing new development in attractive areas like coastal California, where it gets sent is to place like Houston, or more specifically, to exurban Houston, where sprawl is keenly encouraged by a lack of restrictions on development and the people who wind up living there have to drive to work, to school, to shop, to eat out -- and have to use amazing amounts of electricity to keep their homes livable because Houston in the summer is a sweltering  nightmare without air conditioning. So whether you believe in climate change or not, whether you believe in peak oil or not, whether you believe in suburb as bland conformist hell or not... there is probably something regrettable in the greater scheme of things that offsets, if not worsens, the impact of your saving a pond or three-story apartment building.

As he ponders all this, though, his glasses get a little too rosy. One of his arguments about America, for instance, involves coastal California, climatically ideal for 21st century human habitation, becoming a lot more densely populated than it is -- compact and tall rather than more sprawl, naturally -- which raised my eyebrows because he seemed to be glossing over the problem of how thirsty such cities can't help but be: lots of people need lots of water. Oh, he says at one point, but they could have enough water if all of that irrigated agriculture going on in California were put to a stop and that water diverted to urban/municipal use. This only sounds reasonable, I suspect, to people who haven't paid attention to the realities of western water; the rivers that currently supply all that agricultural and municipal water in California and the rest of the arid southwestern half of the sun belt are grossly over-allocated and no longer even reach the ocean; there might not be enough even if all that agriculture were suddenly to stop. And by the way, how likely is that, anyway?

Still, it's nice to read a book like this and dream, just as it's nice to wonder what the American west would be like if those who drew its state and county  boundaries had listened to John Wesley Powell instead of to the Union Pacific Railroad and the cattle barons. Or to imagine what Rust Belt cities like Detroit might have been right now if their leaders had focused on developing human capital (a favorite argument of Glaeser's: cities are made of people, not buildings) instead of adding more infrastructure to an area that already had too much.****

At bottom, this book, more than anything I've read this year and probably last year, too, made me think, about my own choices, about public policy, about consequences, intended and un-, about, overall, if it's time  to move. Because even though I commute by bike as much as possible and walk to the grocery store (which, mercifully, is just across the street but how much does it suck that it's a five-lane street so poorly patrolled that cars routinely roar by at 50-60 mph) and never eat out or go downtown, sitting around alone in my little house, however attractive and roomy it may be, is no way to spend the rest of my life. I need people.

Preferably, people who have an idea of a good time that does not begin and end with a bar fight.

 *I spent about ten years living on the U.S.'s east coast, most of it in lushly green rural areas that weren't much more densely populated than I was used to, but a few in Boston (with lots of vacations to New York). I finally got homesick at 27, though, and wanted to see what living in Wyoming was like as an adult, so moved back, and then never managed to plan my way back out of here. Eventually I had to leave the tiny town where I grew up and later served as a member of the city council and the water and sewer boards but had no gainful employment and move to Cheyenne, which is Wyoming's state capital but is basically a big suburb with no urban area of which to be sub. Which means I own a car and have to drive pretty much everywhere and I'm  as many hours' driving from the idyllic mountain/river scenes of my rural childhood as I am from the amenities of the nearest real city (Denver).YUCK.

**They are also the three cities focused on in a most entertaining (unless one is very squeamish) documentary series produced last year by the BBC called Filthy Cities. And hurrah for the BBC, for you can watch them on YouTube for free. Here's London, Paris and New York. Enjoy!

***And  yes, a lot of this is because I am unwilling to go back to college and get yet another bachelor's degree. I already have one, in the liberal arts, which is supposed to make me ready for anything but really makes me employable only in diminishing fields which do not allow me to make an actual living, which is why I currently hold a job for which only a high school diploma is required (although a lot of other specific and mostly innate talents are also required). And no, my unwillingness to get another degree is not because of the work or time involved (I acquire and hone new skills all the time, though free resources like MIT Open Courseware, but I have not yet heard of an employer who will treat that as a credential. When one does, I'm stylin'), but because of the expense. College cost enough the first time, even with scholarships, back in the late 80s/early 90s. Now? I'd be paying back student loans for the rest of my life, all on a gamble that whatever "employment ready" field I chose would still be one with a decent job market that would let me earn income to pay back those loans. Stank!

****I wonder what Glaeser would think of the crazy optimistic art/development/whatever project that is Detroit's Loveland.

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