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Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

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  • Posted February 1, 2012

    Good arguments; surprising irritations

    The book both enlightened and irritated. The enlightenment concerned new insights for me, especially from the developing world’s urban perspective. ‘Five million more people every month live in the cities of the developing world...’ (p.1). ‘...cities are expanding enormously because urban density provides the clearest path from poverty to prosperity’ (p.1). ‘There is a near-perfect correlation between urbanisation and prosperity across nations’ (p.7). ‘Cities are... the places where their nation’s genius is most fully expressed’ (p.8). ‘Cities... thrive as places of pleasure as well as productivity’ (p.10). The book is eclectic in coverage, weaves lessons from history and offers indicators for the rapidly urbanising developing world. It is written by an American Harvard economist. It therefore reads from an economist’s perspective (no problem here) and anchors central conclusions on American cities (slight quibbles there). However, New York City comes out really well (others do too but for different reasons). The frequent tribute to Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris, while admiring its resulting urban splendour, acknowledges the danger of the ossification of the physical fabric (a sound economic argument against excessive conservation). He also acknowledges that Haussmann destroyed almost half of Paris in order to achieve this new classical urban form. Patrick Geddes, the founding father of the scientific town planning movement (Cities in Evolution), a biologist by original training (who did a great deal of his pioneering work in the developing world), recognised the ‘living organism’ of the city. He lamented the destruction of the human and physical capital of Paris, on its path to reconstruction. How else could it be done one might ask? Scotland offers one answer. The city fathers’ recognised that Edinburgh’s medieval core could no longer accommodate its burgeoning population. This was at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment. So, between 1780 and roughly 1820, the majority of Edinburgh’s New Town was designed and built, on open land! For those with no experience of this Georgian masterpiece, you can fit Georgian Bath into the New Town as least three times. The author did not cite Geddes in his polemic (though Howard’s Garden City Movement was). Yet, what Glaeser and Geddes have in common is a recognition of the central virtue of the city. The author refers to it as ‘our greatest invention’. Geddes viewed cities as ‘cathedrals to the people’. There is a brilliant vignette, comparing the Green credentials and practical results of their respective advocacy, between Prince Charles and Ken Livingstone (former elected mayor of Greater London) (pp. 213-217). The book is almost worth it just for that! His strategic conclusions attempt to draw lessons from urbanising America to that of India and China. It is a compelling way to view the urban future. The irritations all concern style and punctuation; quoting written text in double inverted commas and starting sentences with conjunctions to name just two.

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