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Cities are often denigrated for the poverty and pollution they seem to breed. But Edward Glaeser’s book, Triumph of the City, has a different take on it.

How do you go about picking a book to read? Would you pick up an unknown title written by an untested author? I find some awards are good indicators of the quality of the book. I try to read most of the Booker-awarded or the Booker-shortlisted fiction since they are almost always engaging. In nonfiction, I try to go by the FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book Award (now the FT/McKinsey Award) shortlist.

A book I chanced upon in my University library was Harvard economist Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City: How Urban Spaces Make Us Human (2011) which was, the cover declared, shortlisted for the FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year 2011. I knew nothing about the book or the author other than this fact. But yet I found the book eminently readable.

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Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser
Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

This book is an ode to the city - which the author considers one of our greatest inventions. Cities are often denigrated for the poverty and pollution they seem to breed. Glaeser has a different take on it: urban poverty should not be contrasted against urban wealth but against rural poverty. Then the picture becomes clear. Urban living is actually a good thing since it often offers a way out for the enterprising poor.

Glaeser writes: "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. The poverty rate among recent arrivals to big cities is higher than the poverty rate of long-term residents, which suggests that, over time, city dwellers' fortunes can improve considerably. The poorer people who come to cities from other places aren't mad or mistaken. They flock to urban areas because cities offer advantages they couldn't find in their previous homes....The great masses of the urban poor do create challenges that must be faced...but it is far better to hope for a world where cities can accommodate millions more of the rural poor than to wish that those potential migrants would end their days in agricultural isolation."

Consider one of the challenges - overcrowdedness in cities. This happens because as the city officials offer better amenities like clean drinking water and steady power supply to the cities (as compared to the rural areas) more and more of the rural poor are attracted to the cities. The overcrowdedness should then be seen in a positive light.

Glaeser also makes the counterintuitive claim that glass-and-brick cities are more environmental-friendly than the lush green suburbs. As he writes: "To understand our cities and what to do about them, we must ...dispatch harmful myths. We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city's physical past. We must stop idolising home ownership, which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticising rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete."

So how are they more environment-friendly? Glaeser describes in detail some interesting research he had carried out with collaborators and concludes that global warming contribution of cities is less than that of suburbs. The research is best read in full in the book.

Glaeser covers a handful of cities in detail, such as Mumbai and Bengaluru in India, New York, Silicon Valley and Detroit in the US, Rio de Janeiro in Barzil, and Paris and London. I wish he had focussed more on Chinese cities, many of which have been artificially created in the past two decades.

The strong point of Glaeser's narrative is that he is very knowledgeable about world history and uses it in interesting ways to describe the evolution of various cities. To cite an instance, Glaser shows how Silicon Valley started with the establishment of Nobel Prize winner William Shockley's lab in that area (near Stanford University). Shockley was very good at finding talent but very poor at managing them. Many bright scientists hired by Shockley left his firm and started their own competitive setups. Thus were Fairchild and Intel born. They served as a nucleus for more bright entrepreneurs to come to Silicon Valley. Thus was a city born.

Glaeser also makes an interesting case of the decline of Detroit as an automotive manufacturing hub.

All in all, a wonderful read that gave me a lot of insight into how cities evolve and function and how they, sometimes, die.