Sunday, August 11, 2013

Glittering edifices

I have been reading the book Triumph of the City on Hobo's recommendation.  It talks about human history and makes some predictions about the future based on understanding what exactly cities do for humans from a wide variety of perspectives.  The main thing cities accomplish is to promote innovation though ease of contact with other people.  Although smart people can do a lot of things their accomplishments are always orders of magnitude greater when they have access to other smart people to help nurture their ideas and push them in unusual directions.  Many a time in the recent past people have talked about how telecommuting and other improved communication tools will allow workers to get back to the country while still being very productive but we have not seen that occur; the face to face contact that living in a city facilitates is just too powerful.

Cities are particularly interesting to me because of the way in which they are portrayed in environmentalist texts and thought.  Often the incredible amount of waste cities produce is vilified and cities are regularly seen as the symbol of excessive human consumption and overpopulation.  While humans do consume too much and are too populous cities aren't the source of that but rather they are part of the cure.  Spreading everyone in the world out into the country would increase our resource consumption and environmental impact drastically because those who do live in the country use far more power / water / oil / etc. and have a massively higher carbon footprint.  If we want to make the world a cleaner and more sustainable place a great way to start would be to cram everyone into gigantic shining towers in huge metropolises, not to encourage us to all get back to nature.

The author, Edward Glaeser, has some views on taxation, unions, and law enforcement that I don't agree with.  He swings too far to the right politically for my taste, which isn't to say he is a tea partier or anything but it isn't as if I can give everything in the book a resounding thumbs up.  That said I do very much like his ideas on promoting education and creativity rather than infrastructure and stagnation.  He thinks that people define cities, not buildings, and that cities are best seen as a group of individuals rather than a place.  Looking at them this way gives us lots of insight into how to make cities better places to be for everyone.  He wants cities to be places where the incredible numbers of connections between people lead to amazing and wonderful innovations.  I can't argue with that.


  1. 1. I think that telecommunications will mimic the impacts of cities but that it will take generations of humans to catch up our culture with the technology.

    2. I very much disagree that cities are collections of people, "not" buildings. That, to me, is like considering a sitting person without their chair. Those connections that people make are made of the architecture.

  2. 1. It may well be that we change so that physical presence isn't required, but as you say the timeframe is very substantial. This is especially true given that we have no idea what technology will look like in a few generations anyway. I think it is safe to say that our current technology will not end the power of physical presence but that future technology certainly could.

    2. I think the idea is more that when we consider what makes a city prosperous or great we should consider the citizenry rather than the buildings. If a city is declining you can't fix that by engaging in massive infrastructure programs. You need to get the people innovating and doing new things. Obviously infrastructure is necessary for a city to function but it should not be mistaken for being the entire city. Cities are more than a collection of concrete and steel.

    1. Oh, I don't disagree that the people are important, but if a city is declining you probably should be looking at the infrastructure too. Cities have saved themselves from decline by building new transit routes and by revitalizing waterfronts among other things. Areas of cities have significantly improved their lot by cleaning up, putting up signs and planting trees.

      Physical space has a huge impact on the people. If you have a large hall you can essentially choose whether people will sit in it or not by choosing whether or not you put in benches.

      Basically, if you regard a city as people and you want to change something about the city, how are you going to change it? You could ask nicely, but urban planning has a much larger impact. If the point is only to shift the idea of what is in service of what (to remind ourselves that infrastructure is for the people) then that's fine, but I don't know that that's a revolutionary idea.