Book Summary: “The Triumph of the City” by Edward Glaeser

Title: The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier
Author: Edward Glaeser
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Glaeser explains why cities have played such an important role in technological innovation, economic growth, intellectual change and progress.

If you would like to learn more about the role of cities in creating progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

Cities have become such obvious generators of innovation and modernity that we often take them for granted. With the exception of agricultural innovations, virtually all innovations in history have taken place in cities. For this reason I argue in my book that trade-based cities are one of Four Keys to Progress.

Despite their critical importance, surprisingly few books have been written about the role cities have played in economic development and progress. This book is one of the best on the topic.

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Key Take-aways

  • The city is humanity’s greatest invention.
  • Urbanization has been one of the most powerful trend of the modern world. In agricultural societies about 3% of the people live in towns over 10.000 people. Now a majority of people in the world live in cities.
  • Migrating to the city is the classic means by which poor people make themselves a bit richer.
  • The close physical proximity of cities makes learning new skills and copying other ideas much easier. Then people can recombine those ideas with other ideas to make new innovations.
  • The rise of trade-based cities played a key role in explaining the rise of Western Europe.
  • Industries are typically highly concentrated in a few cities. This ensures access to a skilled workforce, capital and networks for exchanging ideas.
  • The close proximity of cities also creates problems such as:
    • Congestion
    • Crime
    • Fire
    • Disease
    • Concentrated poverty

Important Quotes from Book

Two hundred forty-three million Americans crowd together in the 3 percent of the country that is urban.

Cities, the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace. The streets of Florence gave us the Renaissance, and the streets of Birmingham gave us the Industrial Revolution. The great prosperity of contemporary London and Bangalore and Tokyo comes from their ability to produce new thinking. 

Many of the biggest innovators acquired their knowledge not through formal training but by being close to the action.

The rise and fall and rise of New York introduces us to the central paradox of the modern metropolis—proximity has become ever more valuable as the cost of connecting across long distances has fallen. 

In this book, we’ll look closely at what makes cities our species’ greatest invention. 

Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. 

In America and Europe, cities speed innovation by connecting their smart inhabitants to each other, but cities play an even more critical role in the developing world: They are gateways between markets and cultures.

Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens. Detroit was once a buzzing beehive of small-scale interconnected inventors—Henry Ford was just one among many gifted entrepreneurs. But the extravagant success of Ford’s big idea destroyed that older, more innovative city. Detroit’s twentieth-century growth brought hundreds of thousands of less-well-educated workers to vast factories, which became fortresses apart from the city and the world. While industrial diversity, entrepreneurship, and education lead to innovation, the Detroit model led to urban decline. The age of the industrial city is over, at least in the West.

The hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies. With all that supply of structure and so little demand, it makes no sense to use public money to build more supply. The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren’t structures; cities are people.

Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people. The flow of less advantaged people into cities from Rio to Rotterdam demonstrates urban strength, not weakness.

Proximity makes it easier to exchange ideas or goods but also easier to exchange bacteria or purloin a purse. All of the world’s older cities have suffered the great scourges of urban life: disease, crime, congestion.

Ideas move from person to person within dense urban spaces, and this exchange occasionally creates miracles of human creativity.

Many factors help explain the rise of the West—the development of military prowess and technology through constant warfare, the painful acquisition of immunity to infectious disease through centuries of exposure, the consolidation of powerful nation-states—but the growing commercial cities of Italy, England, and the Low Countries did more than their share. The growth of cities run by merchants was considerably greater than the growth of cities led by princes and monarchs. 

 Cities, and the face-to-face interactions that they engender, are tools for reducing the complex-communication curse. Long hours spent one-on-one enable listeners to make sure that they get it right. 

These cities create a virtuous cycle in which employers are attracted by the large pool of potential employees and workers are drawn by the abundance of potential employers. 

Cities—Bangalore, San Francisco, Singapore—are the nodes that connect our increasingly globalized world. Urban areas, like Athens and Baghdad, have always played this role, but as the world becomes ever more tightly knit, cities are becoming even more important.

The industrial town was unlike either those old commercial cities or the modern capitals of the information age. Its vast factories employed hundreds of thousands of relatively unskilled workers. Those factories were self-sufficient and isolated from the world outside, except that they were providing the planet with vast quantities of cheap, identical products. That model served the West extremely well for about a century. 

Henry Ford’s assembly lines are an example of that strange creature, the knowledge-destroying idea. While information technology seems to increase the returns from being smart, machines that reduce the need for human ingenuity work in the opposite direction… When a city creates a powerful enough knowledge-destroying-idea, it sets itself up for self-destruction.

Urban reinvention is made possible by the traditional urban virtues that were to be found in nineteenth-century Detroit: educated workers, small entrepreneurs, and a creative interplay among different industries. Late-twentieth-century Detroit was dominated by a single industry that employed hundreds of thousands of less-skilled workers in three vast vertically integrated firms. What a toxic mixture!

Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their lot in life.

What forces draw the poor to urban areas? Above all, they come for jobs. Urban density makes trade possible; it enables markets.

Tolstoy may have been right that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but among cities, failures seem similar while successes feel unique.

But all successful cities do have something in common. To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively. There is no such thing as a successful city without human capital. Today, especially in the developed world, skilled people have usually been well educated in traditional schools—although their most important knowledge is usually acquired after graduation. At other times, and in poorer places today, human capital is more likely to come in the form of intelligent, energetic entrepreneurs who, like Henry Ford or James Watt, received little formal education. The best cities have a mix of skills and provide pathways for those who start with less to end with more.

But different cities have found different ways to attract talent. In some cases, either raw political power or sensible pro-business policies attract skilled people. Tokyo became one of the largest cities in the world in the seventeenth century when the Tokugawa shogunate made it Japan’s de facto capital. Three hundred years later, it continues to attract that country’s best and brightest. Hong Kong and Singapore have thrived by establishing themselves as bastions of economic freedom and the rule of law in an often disorderly part of the world.

In other cities, like Boston, a long tradition of higher education continues to bear rewards. In Minneapolis and Atlanta, local universities also serve as anchors for their urban economies. In other areas, skilled people come for the quality of life—the pleasures that define Paris and that a sheikh hopes will boost Dubai. Finally, a city with enough other attractions can, as Chicago has, gain an advantage by lowering barriers to new construction so that it becomes a cheaper place to live than its competition.

Precisely because Singapore had so few natural resources, Lee had to adopt sensible policies that would attract international capital. A large literature now documents the perverse tendency of natural resource windfalls to harm countries by allowing corrupt, inept, or destructive politicians and policies to endure. Much of the Third World has long been mired in corruption. Lee understood that First World investors wanted rule of law, not backroom bribery, and he lifted Singapore out of the Third World by giving them just that. Lee protected judicial independence. To keep his bureaucrats honest, he gave them high salaries and even higher penalties for malfeasance.

There is little that you own or use or know that wasn’t created by someone else. Humans are an intensely social species that excels, like ants or gibbons, in producing things together. Just as ant colonies do things that are far beyond the abilities of isolated insects, cities achieve much more than isolated humans. Cities enable collaboration, especially the joint production of knowledge that is mankind’s most important creation. Ideas flow readily from person to person in the dense corridors of Bangalore and London, and people are willing to put up with high urban prices just to be around talented people, some of whose knowledge will rub off.   

Rousseau famously wrote, “Cities are the abyss of the human species,” but he had things completely backward. Cities enable the collaboration that makes humanity shine most brightly. Because humans learn so much from other humans, we learn more when there are more people around us. Urban density creates a constant flow of new information that comes from observing others’ successes and failures. In a big city, people can choose peers who share their interests, just as Monet and Cézanne found each other in nineteenth-century Paris, or Belushi and Aykroyd found each other in twentieth-century Chicago. Cities make it easier to watch and listen and learn. Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.

No matter how mundane a city’s origins, urban concentrations can have magical consequences.

No matter how mundane a city’s origins, urban concentrations can have magical consequences.

Connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal or a smile or a kiss. Our species learns primarily from the aural, visual, and olfactory clues given off by our fellow humans. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it works best when combined with knowledge gained face-to-face, as the concentrations of Internet entrepreneurs in Bangalore and Silicon Valley would attest. Every one of Harvard’s economics students uses technology constantly, but they also get plenty out of face-to-face meetings with their peers and professors. The most important communications still take place in person, and electronic access is no substitute for being at the geographic center of an intellectual movement.

The declining cost of connecting over long distances has only increased the returns to clustering close together. Fifty years ago, most innovators played on a local stage. High transport costs limited one’s ability to make money quickly from selling a good idea worldwide. Today, traders in London or New York or Tokyo can instantly exploit a mispriced asset halfway around the world. The death of distance may have been hell on the goods producers in Detroit, who lost out to Japanese competitors, but it has been heaven for the idea producers of New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles, who have made billions on innovations in technology and entertainment and finance. Even when the financial world flails in one of its recurring downturns, we should be confident that its collective intelligence will eventually produce another boom.

Much of the world is still poor, while many in richer countries are less happy than they could be, and everyone’s environment is at risk. To face these challenges, humanity needs all the strength it can muster, and that strength resides in the connecting corridors of dense urban areas. The fact that we need our cities so much makes me optimistic about their future. The world recognizes the value of new ideas. People still flock to cities to get the skills they need to succeed. As those skills are acquired, new ideas multiply, and innovations emerge.

The central theme of this book is that cities magnify humanity’s strengths. Our social species’ greatest talent is the ability to learn from each other, and we learn more deeply and thoroughly when we’re face-to-face. I have also tried to show that the achievements of cities—whether in Brunelleschi’s Florence or Ford’s Detroit—benefit the entire world. Democracy and printing and mass production are only a few of the gifts of the city. The ideas that emerge in cities eventually spread beyond their borders and enrich the rest of the world.

Too many countries have stacked the deck against urban areas, despite the fact that those areas are a—if not the—source of national strength. Cities don’t need handouts, but they need a level playing field.

Cities can compete on a level playing field, but over the past sixty years, America’s policies have slanted the field steeply against them. In the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation, the environment, and even income taxes, American policies have worked against urban areas.

During the millennia since Athens attracted the finest minds of the Mediterranean world, cities have grown by attracting people from diverse cultures. The most successful cities today—London, Bangalore, Singapore, New York—still connect continents. Such cities attract multinational enterprises and international expatriates. Immigrants are often a vital part of their economic model, both at the top and the bottom ends of the pay scale, and the success of global cities depends on national policies toward trade and immigration. An open city can’t exist in a closed nation.

If you would like to learn more about the role of cities in creating progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.


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