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Book: Triumph of the City

By Edward Glaeser. Subtitled How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.

As you might guess it's a paean to cities, and a celebration of the benefits their density provides. It's also a tour of how some cities have succeeded or failed, and of anti-urban policies that undermine them. Very aligned with Jane Jacobs, but friendlier to high-rises, and with more environmental points. Flawed in a couple places, like confusing megawatts with Joules.

Some points:

Old cities aren't just expensive because they're popular and often geographically constrained; many of them have locked out new construction in the interest of preserving one quality or another, which increasingly means only rich people can enjoy them. Central Paris is frozen into the five story buildings of the 19th century. Much of the Boston area has minimum lot sizes for houses. San Francisco loves its Victorians, and the Sunset's expanse of 1.5 story houses has got to be artificial. Even NYC, seeming home of the high-rise, was hostile for a long time to new high construction. Glaeser's all for limiting the ability to preserve buildings -- maybe with a fixed # of buildings, so protecting a new one means releasing a new one -- and accepting change and growth upward.

Even partial densification can have payoffs; if people still drive to work, but live in neighborhoods where walking works for errands and going out, they'll drive less.

Local environmentalism can be globally disastrous. The Pacific coast of the US is a great climate, with little need for heating or cool; it's also heavily protected, especially in California. Marin requires 60 acre lots. Much of the Peninsula is off-limits. San Francisco is dense but capped. But people have to live somewhere; if not on the coast, then in the interior, or even further afield in places like Houston -- both places which require a lot more cooling (and as they are, more driving.) Skyscrapers near much of the west coast could easily be a lot greener than Houston sprawl. Water? California uses 4x as much on agriculture as it does on urban water, and Singapore shows that a thriving city with no special resources can make its own water.

(He doesn't even bring up the old example of Cape Cod liberals fighting off windmills.)

Anti-urbanism: old news like the home mortgage deduction and subsidies for freeways. But an interesting twist: apparently the Supreme Court ruled that imposed busing couldn't cross districts, thereby making it easy for racist whites to move to a suburb to escape integration. Either of no busing or of being able to send kids to any school they could reach would have removed one city-gutting trend. ("Our schools need more socialism or less.") Likewise, locally provided and funded services makes it easy for the rich to wash their hands of the poor. (I don't remember if Jacobs said anything about politically distinct suburbs, though I think she was all for metropolitan areas as a natural unit of government, which would imply limiting suburban independence.)

Mumbai restricts itself to an average of 1.3 stories per building, apart from a rash of new high-rises. This is bad when you've got 14 million people. Beijing and Shanghai are apparently half as dense as LA, bad news given that high-density urbanization is the one hope for China and India not dwarfing American carbon emissions.

One odd note: he refers to Jacobs supporting a density of 100-200 households per acre; he prefers more. 250 acres per square kilometer (625 per square mile), so that's 25,000 households per km2. *Manhattan* isn't that dense -- it's about 25,000 *people* per km2. Granted, specific residential neighborhoods must be higher.

Old surprising fact: you could fit the world into Texas. Say 1000 square feet per person, or 100 m2. 10,000/km2, and 700,000 km2 for 7 billion people -- almost exactly the area of Texas. Need room for streets, so make it 50 m2/person, or two-story buildings. Three-story allows space for businesses and some more open space. Relatedly, you obviously don't need much height to get a fair amount of density, just close-packing.

California is 420,000 km2. Playing on Google Earth, I estimate there's upward of 20,000 km2 available between the coast and first mountains north of San Francisco. 2000 km2 at Manhattan density would be 50 million people.

He's not for artificially supporting declining cities. Help poor people, not poor places. Providing clean water and safety and good schools, always good. Megaprojects in hopes of starting revival, bad. Rebuilding New Orleans, in decline from the early 1800s, not good, especially if it costs $400,000 per resident. Could just buy them all a home in a good area for that.

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Damien Sullivan

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