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