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

By Oro, Ángel Martín | Freeman, November 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Oro, Ángel Martín, Freeman


The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward L. Glaeser Penguin * 2011/2012 * 352 pages * $29.95 hardcover; $16.00 paperback; $9.99 e-book

Reviewed by Angel Martin Oro

In 2007, for the first time in history, the share of urban world population surpassed its rural counterpart. According to estimations by the United Nations Population Fund, in 2030 the urban population will represent about 60 percent of the total world population. This process is being driven largely by the remarkable economic performance of the developing world.

Many argue that this trend is not only environmentally unsustainable but also socially harmful. Cities are viewed as places of huge social inequalities, unhealthy modes of living, and unfriendly environmental practices. Although this view is mainly present among the critics of capitalism, it is widely entrenched in public opinion. Thus it strongly influences the regulations and policies regarding urban spaces.

One of the strongest opponents of this view is Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser, whose The Triumph of the City makes a persuasive defense of cities. As its subtitle suggests, he claims that cities are "our greatest invention" and presents the case that they make us not only richer, but also greener and healthier.

The book combines economic logic with sound research through the study of history, data, quantitative relationships (using econometrics), and direct observation from several case studies of cities. Glaeser provides a comprehensive and generally convincing treatment of his subject.

Cities thrive, Glaeser argues, because human beings are essentially social agents who need to be close to each other. This important and subtle idea is vividly present throughout the book. Unfortunately it is largely neglected, especially among policymakers devoted to the belief that they can centrally plan complex and emergent orders like cities.

Glaeser critically analyzes the most pressing urban problems and the government responses to them. The common denominator of bad and pernicious public policies is the lack of understanding of what cities really are: "cities aren't structures; cities are people," he writes. He proceeds to illustrate the law of unintended consequences of government interventions with many different examples involving welfare policy, environmental issues, and landuse planning.

The conventional view is that cities create pockets of extreme poverty. Glaeser suggests that cities, instead of making people poor, attract very poor people from the rural world with the prospect of improving their material conditions by giving them superior opportunities. …

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