Saturday 7 April 2012

The Triumph of the City

My review of Ed Glaeser's excellent Triumph of the City is in today's Christchurch Press, but not online. Here it is.

Fixing the City

Anybody wanting to throw the book at Christchurch Council should consider the hardback edition of Professor Edward Glaeser's "Triumph of the City". It has two distinct advantages. First, at a bit over 300 pages, it'll be hefty enough to make for a satisfying throwing experience - neither too heavy to lob, nor so light as to be brushed off. Second, Christchurch's city planners really ought to read it; throwing this particular book at them might improve outcomes.

For the last fifteen years, Professor Glaeser has been figuring out what makes cities work. The Triumph of the City is more than just the culmination of that work; it's a passionate defence of the city as the best mechanism for human flourishing. When we live together in well-functioning cities, we are more productive, healthier, and, perhaps surprisingly, more environmentally friendly.

Cities are our engines of creativity and innovation. Chance interactions among smart, productive people in complementary lines of work that can happen in dense urban environments occasionally create "miracles of human creativity." And, as cities get larger, the process accelerates.

Bigger cities make it easier for entrepreneurs to strike it out on their own; failing in a bigger city gives you more opportunities to transition back to the salaried workforce, so innovators can be more comfortable in taking risks. Bigger cities also make it easier to find new niches in the intersections of different industries. Businesses are willing to locate in big cities, where costs are higher, precisely because cities facilitate productivity.

Glaeser also forces us to take a broader perspective when thinking about local "green city" regulations. Cities are already very green - and especially so where Councils have placed fewer constraints on building up. He points to smart growth regulations in California that have done a great job of preserving local green spaces and increasing property prices, but have helped push people away from California and towards Las Vegas, where the sweltering environment means more electricity use and where more people live in automobile-intensive suburbs. As Glaeser puts it, "we must recognize that if we try to make one neighbourhood greener by stopping new building, we can easily make the world browner, by pushing new development to someplace far less environmentally friendly."

Where cities have myriad paths to success, city failure usually involves bad planning. Sometimes, bad policy comes when Councils grasp at straws in the face of events outside of their control, like Detroit's push for grand infrastructure projects as response to auto industry deline; their white elephant monorail only drained city resources as it rolled above empty streets. But failure can come too for growing cities when regulatory measures slowly strangle entrepreneurial activity and make it too expensive for families to choose to live there. When something bad happens, these cities are not well placed to adjust.

We can take a few lessons for Christchurch, and for New Zealand, from Glaeser's work. If Council continues making it too hard for developers either to build up or to build out, section prices will remain too high and we will continue giving our graduates strong reason to seek higher salaries abroad. For all of Council's protestations against urban sprawl, it has released surprisingly little land for dense development within the city. We were more than a little surprised when we moved here eight years ago that we could not rent an apartment by the beach at New Brighton; zoning had made it illegal to build them. Council's having strangled land supply before the earthquake made it impossible for developers to respond after the earthquake. Building fancy stadiums or light rail systems will be far less important for recovery than fixing infrastructure and getting land use policy right. Other cities would do well to fix their policies before their earthquakes come to visit.

More broadly, while early pundits reckoned that the internet would bring the death of distance, the evidence now suggests that information technology is increasing distance's relative cost: it's making New York better faster than it's helping Auckland. Cities have long exhibited what economists call "agglomeration effects" - the city is greater than the sum of its separate parts were those parts scattered across the country; fast broadband seems to be accentuating these agglomeration effects. We are more likely to phone and email people who live and work near us; US patent data shows innovators are more likely to draw on other patented work that happened to be created near them. While we can all email potential colleagues in New York, we're not likely to find serendipitous meetings with them on FourSquare. If we want our cities to be more than support centres for the dairy industry in the longer term, we need to let them grow.


  1. It gets worser and worser Eric.
    Latest plans are:
    lets get a super world city with a $150 million dollar civic centre, and of course we all need and want the covered oblong new Lancaster park 180 million , to add to the Civic chambers $150 million.
    But hey who's counting who do you think you are bloody NAT Government to stand in our [ City Council] way.
    This cost of nearly half a billion for three structures; before we get around to drainage and boring roads.

    $500 million to you rate payer, and thats for for a start, there is 150,000 of you, that's only a little over three thousand dollars each; but don't worry we can hand over that cost to your children Eric.
    And although none of us can add or think we will try to insure the stuff this time.

    The sooner NZ Govt removes this insane mayor and CEO the better.

  2. You are both right on. NZ local gov't councils are killing the place with enviro restrictions that have the opposite effect as Eric pointed out. And these huge stupid superstructure projects that eat up $$ instead of investing in roads, drainage, electrical generation and distribution etc. There's some overarching environmental permitting act (forgot its name) that was notorious for giving local authorities the power to inhibit just about any development that would have been useful and profitable. But what I also observed was something I've noticed everywhere in the world. For anything less than large obvious developments, Kiwis have no problem with the black market. I mean, their national sports heroes are called the All Blacks. Now you know why.

    1. It's the Resource Management Act, Shenandoah. And it does need a bit of fixing.

  3. The CCC gave its citizens a vote on its urban plan and the compact plan was the one that won. I'm not sure what year that was but the population increased 21% between 1990 and 2004 (as a result of changes to immigration policy). Perhaps if it was explained: "oh, by the way..." people may have chosen a different plan.

    Gloucester Towers (Christ College end of Gloucester Street) is a good example of what happens when developers are allowed to let rip. It was built using a loop-hole in the CCC plan at the end of the 80's share market/ property market crash and looks like an elephant in a corn field of two story villas. Unfettered development is more like the warfare we see in sea squirts than "spontaneous organisation".