Modern, streamlined and ambitious: Edward Glaeser's vision of the city

In The Triumph of the City, the Harvard economist's thesis that cities fuel entrepreneurial and academic dynamism is infectious, even when his lift doesn't reach the top floor.

December 19, 2010/ Abu Dhabi /  A view of Abu Dhabi from Sowwah Square in Abu Dhabi December 19, 2010. (Sammy Dallal / The National)
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Lord Byron once declared "the hum of human cities torture". Many still share his view, though Edward Glaeser is not among them. In Triumph of the City the Harvard economist makes the case that crowded streets and skyscraper-studded panoramas mark the very pinnacle of human endeavour and that an increasingly urbanised existence raises living standards for all, propagates knowledge and innovation, and makes the world a cleaner place.

In approachable prose ("if the environmental footprint of the average suburban home is a size 15 hiking boot, the environmental footprint of a New York apartment is a stiletto-heel size 6 Jimmy Choo"), Glaeser breezes from ancient history to the present, leapfrogging from continent to continent in service of his argument. His central idea is that, from Baghdad's House of Wisdom to Bangalore's information technology boom, physical proximity fuels both entrepreneurial and academic dynamism. The closer people are to one another, the faster ideas spread, the easier it is to trade and the fewer resources we use. Inevitably, smooth-running, affluent lives make us more emotionally fulfilled, too.

Drawing on examples including New York, London, Tokyo and Dubai, Glaeser paints the city as a vibrant community of thought. An analysis of Silicon Valley finds the root of its success to be the excellence of the nearby Stanford University. Bangalore's rise can be attributed to well-established intellectual traditions. Both locations are then used to prove that the internet will never replace face-to-face interaction. While the computer industry has more access to electronic communications than any other, it has apparently become "the world's most famous example of geographic concentration". Whether this stacks up or not, it's just one of many interesting and amusing ideas.

On the other hand, the failure of cities such as Detroit is ascribed to over-reliance on stagnantly institutionalised, low-skill single industries (car manufacturing, for instance). Glaeser's vision of the perfect city is resolutely modern, streamlined and thrustingly ambitious, both intellectually and physically. "Governments should encourage people to live in modestly sized urban aeries instead of bribing home buyers into big suburban McMansions," he writes. "If ideas are the currency of our age, then building the right homes for those ideas will determine our collective fate."

Glaeser is an unapologetic free marketeer. Accordingly, his advocacy of this philosophy also extends to less salubrious sides of urban life. Rather than viewing the poverty of Rio de Janeiro's favelas as a stark reminder of capitalism's inequities, he sees these crime-ridden shanty towns as hubs of opportunity, potential springboards to prosperity, testaments to the magnetic pull of the city. Quoting a variety of statistics, he argues that even though residents of Brazil's ghettos are far more likely to die of a gunshot wound than the nation's country folk, the standard of living offered by even the poorest urban areas is still much higher than of rural communities. Would people still flock to cities, he asks, if those centres didn't have anything to offer?

Still, the fact that city dwellers are less poor than their rural counterparts hardly justifies the existence of deprivation. A number of Glaeser's remarks border on glibness. Certainly, his claim that one doesn't have to be a millionaire to enjoy a sunset on Rio's Ipanema beach is fatuous: the world's urban poor rarely get time for such pleasures. Their energies are focused on scraping together a living (and presumably, in this particular case, on not getting shot).

Strangely, Glaeser is less complacent when it comes to the Mumbai district of Dharavi. Providing homes for anywhere between 650,000 and one million people, Dharavi is one of the world's largest and most densely populated informal housing settlements. It is also, thanks to a starring role in the 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire, the most famous. Confronted with the sight of people defecating in the street and armed with the knowledge that each flushing toilet is shared by more than 1,000 residents, Glaeser breaks from his laissez-faire world view and calls for government intervention. Dharavi, he says, "simultaneously represents all that is great in the Indian people and all that is rotten in the state of Maharashtra". Its problems are blamed on greater Mumbai's public policies. Oppressive development restrictions and extravagant corruption, Glaeser says, limit the number of construction projects and place unreasonable limits on building height. Both stunt the central city's growth, creating a paucity of affordable accommodation, which pushes the poor out to disorganised and poorly served illegal settlements on the city's fringes.

Glaeser believes that, like everywhere else, Mumbai must build upwards if it is to move onwards. In his vision, areas such as Dharavi would be replaced with clean, energy- efficient neighbourhoods in the sky. The problem is, these exact steps have already been proposed - and quickly found impractical. When I first visited Dharavi, almost three years ago, the streets were abuzz with talk of municipal plans to bulldoze the area's ramshackle housing, sell its 530 acres of real estate to private developers and re-house the displaced in new tower blocks. Far from being grateful, most of the slum's residents were horrified. Of course, the majority liked the idea of moving to better housing with running water and reliable electricity. Many of the same people, however, stated in a series of well-attended public meetings that such moves would destroy their livelihoods.

Despite its location, Dharavi is in many ways not really an urban settlement at all. Instead, it is largely a conglomeration of displaced rural communities, many functioning much as they did in their original settings. There is little separation between work and leisure: few people commute and the majority live next door to (or even in) their place of employment. The area's potteries - run by migrant families from Gujarat - offer a prime example. Multiple homes and small businesses are clustered around a central area of co-operatively owned kilns, where each concern fires its products and stacks them for sale around the world. Centralising production and distribution in this manner helps businesses to share resources, compete and set fair prices. It also allows many migrant workers to maintain a sense of community and shared heritage.

Despite being small, tightly packed and in clear contravention of most globally recognised rules of health and safety, these spaces enable Dharavi to function. The relocation plans would have doubled the amount of living space granted to each resident, but they failed to take into account these communal working areas. The likely result is that they would have turned thousands of previously proud and self-reliant people into the opposite. Considering Dharavi's estimated US$1 billion (Dh3.67b) annual turnover and the vital services it performs (most notably, recycling Mumbai's waste), it would appear that, contrary to Glaeser's position, government-mandated vertical expansion is the last thing it needs. Yes, its sprawl should be better planned and infinitely better served with sanitation and public amenities, but sprawl it must.

Indeed, Glaeser is so wedded to his idea of the ideal urban spaces as ethereal, self-perpetuating communities of human capital and knowledge that he frequently fails to take into account the needs and desires of real communities in real cities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his comments on contemporary New Orleans. The city's greatness "always came from its people, not from its buildings", he writes in an argument against rebuilding what he sees as a doomed metropolitan area. "Wouldn't it have made more sense to ask how federal spending could have done the most for the lives of Katrina's victims, even if they moved somewhere else?" In terms of cold, hard cash, perhaps it would. But that would ignore the fact that a major contributing factor to the greatness of New Orleans' people is the collective sense of culture and identity that they draw from New Orleans.

This is to be expected, though. Glaeser's model has little room for woolly notions of identity and belonging: progress is all. Financial "innovations" such as junk bonds and high-risk loan portfolios are lauded (forget the havoc they caused), while declining cities built on decades of traditional industry are consigned to the breaker's yard. Both positions are so detached from ordinary human sympathy that it is hard to imagine anyone but an economist seriously agreeing with them.

And yet the author's zeal is infectious. More than half the world's population resides in urban areas. While it is tempting to view mass urban migration as a destructive force, tearing up older and more romantic ways of life, perhaps Glaeser's optimism is a more appropriate response. As he concludes: "Building cities is difficult and density creates costs as well as benefits. But those costs are well worth bearing because whether in London's ornate arcades, Rio's fractious favelas, whether in the high-rises of Hong Kong or the dusty workplaces of Dharavi, our culture, our prosperity and our freedom are all ultimately gifts of people living, working and thinking together - the ultimate triumph of the city."

Dave Stelfox is a journalist in London. His work has been published by The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and The Village Voice.