Book Review: Triumph of the City – Edward Glaeser

Triumph of the City
About Triumph of the City (2011)
Triumph of the CityIn 2009, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lived in cities. In a time when family, friends and co-workers are a call, text, or email away, 3.3 billion people on this planet still choose to crowd together in skyscrapers, high-rises, subways and buses. Not too long ago, it looked like our cities were dying, but in fact they boldly threw themselves into the information age, adapting and evolving to become the gateways to a globalized and interconnected world. Now more than ever, the well-being of human society depends upon our knowledge of how the city lives and breathes. Understanding the modern city and the powerful forces within it is the life’s work of Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser, who at forty is hailed as one of the world’s most exciting urban thinkers. Travelling from city to city, speaking to planners and politicians across the world, he uncovers questions large and small whose answers are both counterintuitive and deeply significant. Should New Orleans be rebuilt? Why can’t my nephew afford an apartment in New York? Is London the new financial capital of the world? Is my job headed to Bangalore? In TRIUMPH OF THE CITY, Glaeser takes us around the world and into the mind of the modern city – from Mumbai to Paris to Rio to Detroit to Shanghai, and to any number of points in between – to reveal how cities think, why they behave in the manners that they do, and what wisdom they share with the people who inhabit them.

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Review: Triumph of the City

I live in a large town in the UK but am fortunate in that there is greenery on the doorstep in the form of a canal, while surrounding trees make it relatively lucrative for our household of cats, though only one will venture outside. I’ve always hoped that later in life I’ll leave all things urban behind and make for the countryside, a rural idyll away from the heavy traffic and crowds. Edward Glaeser’s book, Triumph of the City, takes the opposite view, offering an insight into what makes cities great and why they are the place we should be.

Triumph of the City offers a worldwide view of a selection of famous cities and deals with the history of the rise and fall of some major places. It explores why so many people live in cities, how they impact on industry and growth, why some decline, while others prosper and makes a case for their being integral to our future, if only we can follow the good examples of one another first.

I’ll be honest. I do enjoy non-fiction but I was concerned a book just about cities wouldn’t be particularly interesting but I’m pleased to say Glaeser’s book is very absorbing. It wasn’t the easiest of reads for me at times as I negotiated the early chapters but once I gave it a go I found I soon settled into a rhythm and there was a lot of insight here. Due to the large amount of cities, it’s impossible for Glaeser to cover them all but he does focus on some pretty important ones such as New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and Mumbai.

What I learned from this book is that cities are constantly evolving and that not all of them survive. The account of Detroit was sad to read, a once thriving city in the midst of the car industries but now something of a ghost town, left behind and unable to keep up. A major surprise was New York which was near extinction in the 1970s but recovered and is now prosperous once more. London and Paris, while lucrative cities, are held back by being protective about historical buildings and flatly refuse to tear down monuments or build skyscrapers near them. Mumbai has height restrictions for buildings so while the city is thriving, it is fiercely overcrowded. Glaeser also argues about sprawl, families living far out of cities in suburbs, which he admits he is guilty of. While this is something of an idyll getting away from the city it is also argued as unnecessary additional pollution, especially if there is a long commute. Some cities such as Singapore are setting benchmarks for others to follow with quite roads and a thriving economy. On a personal note I have been to Singapore which a tour guide described as extremely safe and she was right.

Triumph of the City covers a lot of history and characteristics of cities in its 300 or so pages. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of Glaeser’s arguments here but I can’t deny they were certainly thought-provoking points. This won’t be the easiest of books for every reader but if you want to learn about cities, especially in countries you might not have travelled to then there are some fascinating points made here. Of the named cities I have only seen London and Singapore, but I would like to see more. Glaeser argues in favour of cities and believes they are the lifeblood of the human race. On this point I won’t disagree with him.

Triumph of the City is a fascinating analysis of some important cities throughout the world. Though American, Glaeser is often critical of cities in the US and how they could learn from the likes of Singapore and Tokyo, just as Mumbai, London and Paris could learn from cities in the rest of the world. Only time will tell who is right or wrong but Glaeser leaves us in no doubt that cities are very important whether it was in ancient Athens or in modern day Chicago.

Verdict: 4/5

(Book source: reviewer received a copy of the book in exchange for a fair and honest review)

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Dave Brown

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have always been a bookworm and enjoyed creative writing at school. In 1999 I created the Elencheran Chronicles and have been writing ever since. My first novel, Fezariu's Epiphany, was published in May 2011. When not writing I'm a lover of films, games, books and blogging. I live in Barnsley, with my wife, Donna, and our six cats - Kain, Razz, Buggles, Charlie, Bilbo and Frodo.
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  1. I haven't read that book yet, yet I find it a very interesting study. The way I see it, the book tries to explain how the interrelationship between architecture, culture and other factors influence the growth or decline of a city.

    1. Thanks for commenting Sandy.

      Yes, Glaesar explores various ideas about why some cities such as Detroit have declined while others like New York and Singapore are thriving today. It's sad to read that each city has some advantages and disadvantages but no one is willing to gather all the good stuff throughout the world and combine it into a template for a truly great city. Different countries like to do things their own way.

  2. Very interesting. The facts that was written in this book is realistic and informative. I am glad there are still writers who wrote about the real status of our modern age. Great review.

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