Skyscrapers and Sweatshops

A shorter version of this review  was published in Mint Lounge on 28 May 2011.

Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).

The past two decades have seen large cities in North America and Europe decisively rebound from a painful postwar history of technological change and spatial restructuring. Since the 1980s, urban centres throughout the developed world have been built new business districts and gentrified into consumer zones, as educated workers and families returned to cities hollowed out by decades of de-industrialisation, suburban flight, and social upheaval. Urban manufacturing hubs and ports whose fabric was shaped by the production and shipment of goods and commodities were left behind by finance, information and business services in a new global economy centered in cities such as New York, Chicago, London and Paris.

This post-industrial city has since become the archetype for mega-cities across the world, and Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City is a tribute to the endurance of the age-old metropolis and the capacities of its citizens to rebuild spaces and reinvent economies. Weaving historical comparisons with policy discussions and the passion of a committed urbanist, the book is a foray by a respected academic economist into mass market non-fiction. Like Thomas Friedman’s writings on globalisation or Samuel Huntington’s on the clash between the West and Islam, Glaeser’s styles his theories into simple universals. Globalisation works hand-in-hand with urbanisation, therefore the world is “paved, not flat”. Civilisations don’t simply clash, but also exchange goods and transfer ideas through via cities which are “gateways between markets and cultures”.

The first chapter, “What Do They Make in Bangalore?”, essays themes explored throughout The Triumph of the City – of how cities grow, decline and reinvent themselves, and the human and policy dimensions of the fast pace of urbanisation. Bangalore and Silicon Valley are the “success stories” which show that despite the “death of distance” prompted by new information and communication networks, physical proximity of people remains central to productivity and innovation. This paradox – that enhanced telecommunications has increased, not decreased, the value of face-to-face contacts – means cities both command flows of people, ideas and capital around the world, and are the most central hubs in this new economy. As with the lift elevator – which made possible vertical growth in skyscrapers – and the automobile – which encouraged horizontal expansion into the countryside – new technologies have contradictory effects on urban life, even as cities continue to grow.

An ardent modernist and proponent of free markets, Glaeser has no love lost for heritage conservationists who seek to limit building in historic neighbourhoods – since this drives up the prices of scarce land and housing – or for the pastoralism of suburbanites who own large homes and commute by car to the city – since living in the city and using public transport are less energy-intensive and support “proximity, denseness and closeness”. Glaeser’s hope is that high-rise urban density will prevail over low-rise suburban sprawl – as the ecological costs and externalities of U.S.-style suburban living, if adopted in India and China, spell global ecological disaster. Glaeser’s critique of the car suburb and single-family home is belied by his apology for his own lifestyle – as a Harvard professor living in a Boston suburb from which he drives everyday. While his personal choices and policy preferences seem to diverge, Glaeser is genuinely eager for India and China to “leapfrog” this unsustainable model to limit global emissions and safeguard the planet.

Glaeser reaches for a global readership in The Triumph of the City, and ranges freely across time and space to draw comparisons between cities – from classical Athens to colonial Singapore to Reformation-era France to industrial Milan. However his core arguments and research are almost entirely drawn from policy debates in the U.S., and his anecdotes and facts on other cities are often ahistorical or superficial. Glaeser connects his chapters through the key concept of “human capital” – the accumulated skills, education and experience of city dwellers. He uses the term flexibly, to mean everything from sail-making in Boston before the coming of steamships, to homebrew hackers in Silicon Valley who pioneered the personal computer, to state subsidies for education and industry in Lee’s Singapore. “Successful” cities are those whose policies aim at nurturing talent, attracting expertise from around the world, and exploiting this capital for maximum competitive advantage.

Public policy in India has only begun to treat urbanisation with the attention it deserves. Glaeser’s prescriptions are useful to a post-liberalisation generation which has outgrown the Gandhian dictum that India lives in its villages, but who are doing more to “catch up” than “leapfrog” when it comes to urban policy and planning. The Triumph of the City makes many forceful pleas: that “cities are people, not structures” – urban renewal is driven by investing in human capital and not showcase constructions; that overcrowded slums are a sign of urban vitality – a calculated bet by the poor to improve their lives; or that road-building can never decongest a city – only congestion pricing and carbon taxes can limit traffic. While Glaeser’s advocacy of high-density, low-carbon, mega-urban growth is eloquent and instructive, urban policy in India (or other developing cities) cannot be solely based on the virtual economy of “skills” and “ideas”. His celebration of “human capital” has a decidedly white collar bias, claiming that “less-skilled manufacturing cities have faltered while more-skilled idea-producing cities have thrived” throughout history.

In spite of ambitious urban projects to go global – some, like the Delhi Metro, truly qualify as leapfrogging – Indian cities thrive both on the casual labour of the poor in slums, as well as the “skilled” work of human capitalists living in skyscrapers. Glaeser’s description of Bangalore as boom town or Mumbai as the next Manhattan may appeal to American readers anxious about outsourcing – or who have seen Slumdog Millionaire – but their relevance in India is questionable. Since half of Mumbai’s population is priced out of the formal property market, his advice to uncap limits on vertical construction has not made housing more affordable for the poor or middle-class. Though he considers Bangalore a “success story”, its IT sector has arguably done more to routinise and re-export innovations than to create new breakthrough technologies. Our slums support higher densities than our skyscrapers, and our IT parks often resemble sweatshops as much as university campuses. Globalisation has certainly created winners in India, and they mostly live in cities, but The Triumph of the City in India is still far from assured.