The Triumph of the City

Is it time to retire Jane Jacobs’s vision of the city? In two book reviews, John Buntin explores recent releases that challenge traditional urban theory in the 21st century.
by | April 25, 2011

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser is one of the nation's most influential thinkers on urban affairs -- and rightly so. In his academic papers, his frequent posts to the New York Times's Economix blog, and in essays for such publications as The New Republic and City Journal, Glaeser addresses big questions in creative ways: "Do Mayors Matter?," "Can Cheap Credit Explain the Housing Boom?," "When Are Ghettos Bad?" His writing is vigorous; his perspective, fresh. Now comes Glaeser's eagerly anticipated book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (Penguin, $29.95).

For those new to Glaeser's work, Triumph of the City will serve as a welcome introduction. For those of us who are avid Glaeser readers, it offers something else: a chance to see Glaeser's thoughts as a coherent body of work. Doing so reveals a thinker who is hunting big game -- namely, the iconic urban thinker of the twentieth century, Jane Jacobs.

Since the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, politicians, urban planners, and academics -- virtually everyone who cares about cities, really -- have seen cities through Jacobs' eyes. Her celebration of the "ballet" of street life, her admiration for diverse, mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods and her animosity towards "monotony" all have become part of a shared vision of the "good" city.

Glaeser's offers a different set of lenses (based in urban economics) and his subject is larger than Jacobs'. His book discusses, among other places, Baghdad, Detroit, Rio de Janerio, Chicago, Bangalore, San Francisco, London, Mumbai, Paris, Singapore, Houston, Tokyo, Dubai, Atlanta, Vancouver, and Hong Kong. It is also a sweeping work of history, one that offers an account of the rise of the city over the course of human history. Yet it is to Manhattan that he most frequently returns. This is no surprise: Glaeser is a child of New York City, literally and intellectually, growin up in there in the 1970s. (His father, an architect who lived through Hitler's Third Reich in Berlin, oversaw the Mies Van Der Rohe archives at the Museum of Modern Art.)

Like Jacobs's classic, Triumph of the City sings the virtues of a certain type of city -- and warns of certain perils. But Glaeser's prescription for cities is different than Jacobs'. After three generations, is it time for city planners, politicians, and urban activists to move toward a more market-friendly set of policies?

Winners or Survivors?

Jacobs wrote at a time when the city was under attack. Glaeser writes of the city triumphant. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider just how remarkable this claim is. Globally, cities clearly are ascendant. A majority of the world's population now lives in urban areas, and demographers expect the percentage to rise by another ten percent over the next twenty years.

In the context of this country, though, the city's triumph is hardly self-evident. The past half-century has been a terrible time for big, high-density cities. Freeways and suburbanization, rising crime and race riots, busing and white flight, deindustrialization and, yes, destructive urban planning -- all combined to undermine the dense, mixed-use city and lively streets that Jacobs celebrated. The so-called urban renaissance, evident in cities such as Washington, D.C., Boston, New York, and Chicago, is not about their "triumph." It's about their recovery from a near-death experience.

Glaeser acknowledges as much. He notes that eight of the ten largest U.S. cities in 1950 have lost at least a fifth of their population over the past fifty years. Of course, new cities have risen in their place, but these are sprawling, car-centric urban areas. The dense, big cities that Glaeser celebrates as marvels of productivity? Their growth has been anemic. Recent census figures show that New York City grew by 2.1 percent between 2000 and 2010. The New York metropolitan area did slightly better, achieving a growth rate of 3.1 percent, due largely to rapid growth in its outer ring suburbs. In comparison, as Joel Kotkin has noted, over that same period Raleigh-Durham, an area with just 1,700 persons per square mile, grew by 42 percent.

The recession of 2007 has stopped the growth of most Sunbelt cities. Whether it will resume is one of the great demographic questions of our time. But if the future of the Sunbelt is uncertain, the fate of Rust Belt cities such as Detroit seems clear. They will continue to shrink.

Glaeser insists that the implosion of Rust Belt cities "doesn't reflect any weakness of cities as a whole." Rather, he writes, it reflects "the sterility of those cities that lost touch with the essential elements of urban reinvention" -- industrial diversity, entrepreneurship, and, most important of all, an educated workforce.

By this account, Detroit strangled on what initially made it successful -- the production line. The rise of the Big Three created a monoculture that discouraged education and small-scale entrepreneurship. For decades, it didn't matter. In 1970, for instance, per capita incomes were higher in industrial Cleveland and Detroit than in better-educated Boston and Minneapolis. Then, for reasons that are still hotly debated among economists, the return on education began to increase. When it did, northern cities that failed to produce educated workers were doomed.

The correlation between education and earnings is striking: according to Glaeser, a 10 percent increase in the share of the population with college degrees is associated with an increase in per capita gross metropolitan product of 22 percent. An educated workforce has become the sine qua non of a successful city, or at least a successful northern city. (The percentage of employees with college degrees is actually only the second best predictor of urban growth. The best predictor is temperate winters.)

Yet instead of focusing on improving their education systems, many local officials remain in the thrall of what Glaeser describes as "the folly of building-centric urban renewal," such as GM's Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. "[P]ublic policy," he writes, "should help poor people, not poor places."

Jane Jacobs Corrected

For Glaeser, the cardinal sin of struggling cities is their failure to educate their workforces. The cardinal sin of successful cities is using zoning and historical district regulations to artificially limit supply. And it is here, Glaeser believes, that Jane Jacobs went seriously wrong.

One of Jacobs's four prescriptions for successful cities was "the need for aged buildings." (The others were mixed-use neighborhoods, short blocks and increased density). Maintaining a mix of older housing and commercial stock, Jacobs believed, allowed neighborhoods to retain the diversity that she valued above all else. "New ideas," as she put it so memorably, "must use old buildings."

Jacobs also believed in community organizing. During the 1950s, she took part in the successful fight to block Robert Moses' plans to run a four-lane extension of Park Avenue through Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In the early 1960s, she fought efforts to "renew" the West Village as the co-chair of the head of the Committee to Save the West Village.

Glaeser doesn't much like planners or urban redevelopment schemes either. (He's a fan of Rio's favelas and Mumbai's shantytowns, which he sees as the evidence of cities' vitality, the first rung on the ladder to a better life.) But he rejects Jacobs's belief that preserving old buildings would maintain neighborhood affordability. That, he pointedly says, "is not how supply and demand work."

New York City's subsequent history demonstrates conclusively that on this point Glaeser is correct. He argues that New York City's Landmarks Preservation Committee, originally established after the destruction of old Penn Station in 1963, has become excessively powerful, with authority over 25,000 buildings and one hundred historic districts, amounting to about 15 percent of Manhattan's non-park land. By following Chicago's lead and encouraging new residential construction, Glaeser estimates that New York City could cut the cost of an average 1,200-square foot apartment in a high-rise building from about $1 million today to roughly half of that, making Manhattan much more appealing to (upper) middle-class families.

Jacobs's beloved West Village, which was a working-class neighborhood when she lived there, has long since succumbed to gentrification. But even in 1961, the "ballet of Hudson Street" she described so alluringly was atypical. So too is the kind of city that Glaeser extolls, at least in the United States. Glaeser devotes a chapter of his book to the merits of skyscrapers, urging broader use of them to even include housing. In a city such as San Francisco, which recently began work on a new master plan for housing, Glaeser's prescription may well be a sound one. But for most American cities, it is impractical. Only 0.3 percent of Americans live downtown, and only five cities have downtowns with more than 50,000 residents. Glaeser's praise of skyscrapers is, in the context of this country at least, every bit as romantic as Jacobs's paeans to Hudson Street.

In fact, despite Glaeser's rather pointed criticism of Jacobs for her supposed failure to understand the laws of supply and demand, the similarities between the Princeton- and Harvard-educated economist and the Scranton Central High School graduate are more striking than their differences. Glaeser has described himself as a "progressive libertarian." According to sociologist Nathan Glazer, Jacobs too had pronounced libertarian tendencies. Both are suspicious of central planning. Both celebrate the role small businesses play in thriving cities.

Indeed, even the issues where Glaeser finds faults with Jacobs often rest on a misunderstanding. For instance, Glaeser faults Jacobs for criticizing density levels higher than two hundred homes per acre. This criticism is unfair. In fact, Jacobs pointedly defends Boston's North End, with its 275 units per acre level of concentration. It's true that Jacobs was wary of the monotony of tall buildings (which she associated largely with New York's disastrous foray into building housing projects) while Glaeser is more willing to welcome big developments that expand supply. But even his defense of skyscrapers acknowledges Jacobs's influence: skyscrapers too, he insists, can, if properly designed, support vigorous, mixed-use street life.

Ultimately, Jacobs and Glaeser are complementary thinkers. "Cities," Jacobs wrote, "are thoroughly physical places." Her ability to influence how we see cities remains unrivalled. Glaeser has staked a strong claim to how we think about them. His forceful case for increased density and his critique of place-centric rather than people-centric redevelopment efforts are should provoke serious discussions among state and local officials for years to come. That is an impressive accomplishment.

The Planned City

Witold Rybczynski's new book, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas about Cities (Scribner, $24), opens with a quote from Lewis Mumford: "The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel, or an ant heap. But it is also a conscious work of art…" This definition seems to me to capture something missing from Glaeser's understanding of the city -- and Jacobs too. Greenwich Village may have arisen semi-spontaneously, but the 1811 map that created the grid that guided a city up the island of Manhattan was the conscious creation of three men, Gouverneur Morris, John Rutherfurd, and Simeon De Witt. By eschewing discussions of aesthetics (and, I will argue later, ethics), Glaeser ignores the aspects of the city that interest us most.

In contrast, Makeshift Metropolis is a book about the art of making cities. Interestingly, it too takes up the legacy of Jane Jacobs. For the practitioners it seeks to rescue are precisely the figures that Jacobs damned -- people like Ebenezer Howard, the originator of the "garden city," of whom Jacobs wrote, "he hated the city and thought it an outright evil," as well as City Beautiful booster Charles Mulford Robinson, and the architectural critic and historian Lewis Mumford. Rybczynski's sketches of these fascinating figures are wonderfully done -- sympathetic, full of delightful detail, and illuminating. Even the monumentally misguided Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret -- better known as Le Corbusier -- whose idea of "radiant city" Rybczynski connects to disastrous public housing projects like the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago is treated respectfully.

Unlike Jacobs and, to a lesser extent, Glaeser, Rybczynski is not a polemicist. But it seems clear that he shares some of Mumford's mixed feelings about Jacobs' accomplishment. By pooh-poohing the suburbs and attacking virtually every planner, Jacobs failed to understand what Americans wanted and still want. Frank Lloyd Wright , Rybczynski suggests, understood it better. In a 1930 lecture series at Princeton, Wright argued that new technologies such as automobiles, the telephones, and movies would encourage people to spread out. In the place of the traditional city, he predicted the rise of what he called, Broadacre City, a Los Angeles-style intermingling of single-family homes, businesses, apartment towers and farms. To be sure, Wright's hyperbolic prediction that the city "as we know it today, is to die" has not come to pass. But, as Rybczynski notes, Wright's vision prefigures Sunbelt cities like Houston and Phoenix. Connecting the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright to today's exurbs is typical of the pleasures Rybczynski's book offers.

Cities continue to be important, Rybczynski argues, even in the suburb-loving United States. Twenty-seven percent of U.S. residents now live in a city with a population of more than 100,000 residents, up from 14 percent in 1900. Moreover, over the past 25 years, cities with populations of more than 100,000 residents grew at more than twice the rate of the nation as a whole.

Needs and Wants

Yet if Americans are still open to an urban experience, they seem to want a different type of urban experience -- a warmer experience, with natural amenities such as lakes and mountains. Americans also seem to be seeking out small cities. In 1970, slightly more Americans lived in small cities (with 50,000 to 250,000 residents) than in big cities (with populations larger than 250,000). Today, nearly one-and-a-half times as many Americans live in smaller cities as in larger cities.

As for the much-ballyhooed urban renaissance, Rybczynski notes that only New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco currently have downtowns with more than 50,000 residents. Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles are close, but places like Seattle, Portland, Pittsburgh, and Denver are not. At its current growth rate, Denver won't attain that critical mass until around 2100. In short, the return to the city should be understood as a real but small development.

This is a problem. In a chapter titled, "Is There Anything Greener Than Blacktop?," Glaeser follows David Owen, author of Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (Riverhead), in arguing that "anyone who believes that global warming is a real danger should see dense urban living as part of the solution." Like Jacobs, he criticizes Ebenezer Howard's "garden city" on environmental grounds, and he notes that the stakes are even higher overseas.

"The most important battles over urban developments in the coming years will be waged in India and China," writes Glaeser. If Asia follows our path and embraces American suburbs -- and India seems worrisomely predisposed to do so -- the consequences for global energy usage would be calamitous. It's clear that Glaeser hopes that the connections he finds between greater density and greater productivity will persuade policymakers in cities such as Mumbai to discard ill-advised limitations on growth (notably Mumbai's Washington, D.C.-style height limits) and embrace something more like Hong Kong urbanism.

While Glaeser is quick to castigate coastal liberals for protecting old buildings and hindering new construction, he avoids arguing that global warming makes denser urban development an ethical imperative, stating instead that there is still much uncertainty about global warming and that he has "little to add to these contentious discussions." Perhaps the greatest fault of his wide-ranging, wonderfully erudite book is that he does not sound the warning more forcefully.

John Buntin
John Buntin  |  staff writer  | 

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