Sunday, May 22, 2011

Do we need to hate cities to be urbanists?

It is not news in most fields when one of its proponents writes a book celebrating the core values of the discipline. There is though something almost shocking about a volume titled Triumph of the City.  That may have more than a little to do with the involuntary image of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will that the cover must invoke (not least as both contrive to drop the definite article from their respective titles). And it is not impossible that the drama is intentional, as Edward Glaeser’s recent volume is clearly designed to be both a celebration and a provocation: its subtitle reads “how our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier”, none of which are typically associated with urban life.
Is it curious that many who devote themselves to writing about cities don’t actually think much of them? Jane Jacobs wrote of their death, Lewis Mumford wrote about ‘Necropolis’, Mike Davis wrote of Dead Cities, and their pessimism is hardly unusual. It began with the Romantics and has permeated popular culture for so long that it is almost taken-for-granted. The most recent addition to the video game pantheon is L.A. Noire, which is set in the Los Angeles of the Philip Marlowe era (and Chandler was pretty hostile to ‘Bay City’ himself). From the creators of Grand Theft Auto, this dark vision simply broadens the dystopic virtual vision of urban life that is central to many dark and violent games, movies and television shows.
So to celebrate cities as “our greatest invention” is a genuine departure. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, synthesizes two decades of his own writings and those of his contemporaries, concluding with the statement that “our culture, our prosperity and our freedom are ultimately gifts of people living, working and thinking together—the ultimate triumph of the city”.  
Frankly, it should not be big news that cities have something going for them; rural populations are continually departing poverty and places with minimal services for towns and cities, even though they face inevitable hardships when they arrive there. And yet the anti-urban critique is so pervasive that it seems almost insurrectionary to write about the affordability of the suburbs, the provision of municipal services and the complexity of urban ecologies.
Not everything in this book is quite right. It follows too far in the literal footsteps of Jane Jacobs, betraying its origins in New York at the expense of all other places on the planet; if the book were filmed, Woody Allen would be the obvious choice for director. Glaeser writes with a shudder about his own suburban experiences in Massachusetts, with asides that could have come from the 1950s: “my wife and I were pretty sure we wanted to live someplace where we could eat out anonymously”. Unsurprisingly for an Ivy League academic, his comments about Houston and its counterparts lack any hint of real experience with such places. It makes little sense to suggest for example that Houston only exists because other labor markets are too restrictive and so investment goes where it can. It is interesting that it has just been deemed the most innovative city in the US by the magazine Fast Company (published in New York).
So, there’s much to disagree with in Edward Glaeser’s book, but not with his basic premise. I’ll be using it in the classroom as it displays what any course about cities—or any urban journal, for that matter—must, namely that urbanization is a powerful force about which we must be passionate.     

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