The Triumph of the City by Edward L Glaeser and Aerotropolis by John D Kasarda & Greg Lindsay: review
According to The Triumph of the City by Edward L Glaeser and Aerotropolis by John D Kasarda & Greg Lindsay, cities have driven human development and prosperity, says Leo Hollis, and they still have surprises in store
One of the biggest ideas around at the moment that many thinkers, economists, architects and environmentalists are contemplating is also one of the oldest: the city. Shaking off its Coketown sooty image, and straining against the concrete straitjacket of post-war urban planning, many are beginning to believe that the new city of the 21st century might actually be the best place to live and, moreover, that the city itself offers us the best possible future for our planet.
As both of these fascinating books show, when we talk about the future we are more often talking about what is actually happening today. Edward L Glaeser, still in his forties, is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard and is established as one of the leading economic thinkers about the city. Although his book does not quite live up to the ambitions of its bold subtitle, it is none the less a vigorous charting out of the counter-intuitive territory that will turn many people’s idea of hell into an urban paradise.
Taking examples from across the world, Glaeser proves that cities are “actually the healthiest, greenest and richest places to live”. This is exciting stuff that could easily spiral into utopian speculation, but Glaeser’s argument is grounded in the essential truth that cities are made of people rather than policies, buildings or plans. Thus, through the examples of places such as Silicon Valley or Bangalore, he shows that moving to the city can make you smarter and more creative. He explores why London can charge such high rents compared with other big cities and why we should look at slums anew, especially as in the next 50 years they will become the place where most of the world’s population will live.
In one of the more entertaining sections, he contrasts unfavourably the green credentials of Prince Charles against those of Ken Livingstone, and clinches his argument with the fact that the ex-mayor’s passion for high-density buildings – such as the Shard or the Heron Tower, which are currently rising above the London skyline – is far better for the environment than faux-rural communities such as Poundbury in Dorset, that only add to the suburban sprawl that strangles our cities. Glaeser’s ideal city would be untouched by planners yet filled with densely designed communities and his book gives Nimbys, urban planners, and out-of-town developers plenty to think about.
While The Triumph of the City offers many good ideas, Aerotropolis offers one big one. John Kasarda has been promoting the idea of a new kind of city for the past 20 years, observing that as the world enters the information age, we travel more, not less, to do business – we now jump on aeroplanes to travel around the world the same way that our forebears took the train. This is having a huge impact on how our cities work. Like some J G Ballard fantasy, Kasarda’s cities of the future will be built around airports, connecting the local to the global market. Thus a whole new city has been planned in Songdo, outside Incheon airport, Korea, that is intended to become the business gateway to East Asia. At the same time, cities like Memphis are being transformed into business centres, in this instance serving as the hub of the FedEx empire. The former no-man’s-land between Dallas and Fort Worth has also been converted into the aerotropolis DFW, which is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States.
Clearly the model works, but I wonder if that is enough to define what a city is and why it is so important. In this airport world, George Clooney’s character from Up in the Air is considered a first-class citizen, but as the film shows, this paragon of modernity tragically lacks a sense of citizenship. In another example, the authors seem baffled about the campaign against Heathrow’s third runway, mothballed in 2010. The economic argument for a new runway is undoubtedly valid but not at the cost of the quality of life of the protesters.
What both these books highlight is that the city is very much alive and central to the globe’s future prosperity. By promoting the economic value of the city above all else, however, both works underplay what most people see as the true nature of the urban existence – the complex delights of street life, the sense of community among the chaos, the bustle, and the grit that makes the pearl from our urban adventure. We should try to remember that living in the city is one of the greatest social experiments, as well as enterprises, in human history.
The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier
By Edward L Glaeser
MACMILLAN, £25, 456pp
Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next
By John D Kasarda & Greg Lindsay
ALLEN LANE, £14.99, 480pp
Available from Telegraph Books 0855 871 1516