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You Can’t Keep Them Down On The Farm – Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

Triumph of the CityEdward Glaeser, Harvard economist and prolific blogger, is enraptured with cities. His 2011 book, Triumph of the City, is a paean to all things urban, with a special place for the twenty-first century mega-city. The work is a breezy airport read. Informative and lightly pedantic, it is a departure for Glaeser, who is a well-respected economic researcher. It is a work well suited for what we used to call the middlebrow market.

Triumph jets around the globe, zooming in on this city or that from 35,000 feet . There is little to no original scholarship here. Instead, Glaeser has skillfully assembled a host of anecdotes and a panoply of data points to argue that cities are good for people and the planet. His narrative rests on his observations and insights. He is smart, well-informed, and confident in his prose. The argument driving the book is summarized neatly in the subtitle: “How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.”

Cities, Glaeser claims, are magnets for smart human talent. As they create opportunities, they and their inhabitants flourish. Density promotes competition and competition forces innovation. Glaeser promotes ever greater density here. He criticizes mindless historic preservation as an impediment to urban success with a nod to Jane Jacobs. The narrative presents pros and cons of various urban policies, but is distant from the human politics that create the cities and decide those policies.

For all of Glaeser’s urban enthusiasm, the book has an oddly antiseptic feel to it. Some is due to the author’s relative lack of interest in people as individuals. He is, after all, a social scientist. The deeper reason is that Glaeser’s argument is fundamentally about the relative benefit of cities to society; it is not about the joy of living in a city or in a particular city. This is not an issue of class, integrity, or design. I share Glaeser’s affirmation of high-density mixed use, though I am less keen on the high-rise. Nor is it about crime or grit. Missing is a sense of the flavors that go with city life.

A certain kind of urban aesthetics about how one leads one’s life necessarily must inform writing about cities. For all of Glaeser’s intellectual enthusiasm, his book does not carry much personal passion for city life. The tensions, interactions, and felicity that accompany the forced socialization that accompanies being squeezed together in a city do not complicate this work. Glaeser does not strike this reader as in love with cities, though he certainly does wax warmly for New York. But I see him in a high-rise condo, perhaps on the upper East Side. It is difficult to picture him in a walk-up in Brooklyn or Queens. It came as no surprise to learn that he now lives in the suburbs with his family and children.

I guess my aesthetic is just different – another good reason cities are a great place to live.

David Potash

Aerotropoli – A Glorious Future, Now Please Remove Your Shoes

Air travel in the 1960s was different from today. I remember going with my mother and grandmother to pick up my grandfather, an executive for the Continental Can Corporation, from LaGuardia and Newark airports. Terminals had polished floors, dramatic lighting, and viewing pavilions to see the planes taxiing, taking off, and landing. One dressed up to travel by air. I thought that air travel was very exotic and I remember my first flight. The food was good and the cutlery was metal. Over the decades Newark’s airport has expanded dramatically, as has the nearby container shipping and the highways.The piers of New York City, which I also visited as a child, are no longer part of the picture. What remains is a massive transportation hub, the economic engine that keeps much of the greater metropolitan area working. Three overtaxed airports serve New York City and none of them make a positive impression. Air travel lost its glamour years ago, but it remains a sure way of distinguishing the haves from the have-nots.

Watching planes at LaGuardia Airport John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, authors of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, argue that airports play an outsize role in economic growth, particularly urban economic growth, and that their importance will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. It is a sprawling, messy book, filled with gems and a meandering structure that makes finding those nuggets something of a challenge. Their overarching claim that the future of cities is the airport is not convincing. Nonetheless, if you are interested in urban growth and economic development, it is a book worth considering. Airports, they persuasively claim, are central to our 21st century global economy.

The authors emphasize that airports serve markets, not cities or people. Markets are what make for successful airports. In serving those markets well, airports profit their surrounding areas and enable all manner of innovation and opportunity. What makes this happen – and happen so quickly – is that in our global economy distance is measured not by miles, but by time and cost. It is a different way of conceptualizing connectivity. Time most definitely can equal money. Kasarda and Lindsay offer multiple examples of regular commutes of hundreds of miles. Air travel not only makes them possible but efficient. Further, the growing digital connectivity of people has a constant consequence: people who communicate with each other electronically have a heightened desire to see each other face to face. We all want to see our video-conferenced partners and Facebook friends for real. It makes sense, too, for our networks, no matter how technological, are still about people communicating with people.

AerotropolisThe book chronicles urban and airport development around the world in short chapters and vignettes, highlighting the growing relevance of aerotropoli to our thinking. The writing is long-form journalism in need of editing. Some sections tend to the historical; others are first person accounts. All are short on data and long on adjectives. Individually, no one story is compelling. However, accounts of Dulles, Heathrow, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas Fort Worth, Memphis, Louisville, Stapleton-Denver, Bangkok, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai read collectively give Kasarta and Lindsay’s book and ideas critical viability.

Aerotropolis is strongest when it dives deeper into an economic system and its relationship with air travel. The “cool chain” that makes it possible to grow flowers in Africa and sell them profitably throughout Europe through Amsterdam’s flower market is fascinating and a clear example of how global systems operate. And as amazing as that system might be, experts in logistics and technology are always seeking a faster and less expensive way to move goods. Logistical chains driven by market needs are always subject to change.

Sustainability and ecological issues pose questions that Kasarda and Lindsay struggle to answer. Yes, airplanes and airlines are damaging to the environment. While pollution from air travel is not as damaging as coal, it still is a major problem. Worse, almost all in the industry are reluctant to change models to improve outcomes. The authors highlight an initiative by Virgin’s Richard Branson as a potential solution but have no real answers.

Lastly, what Kasarda and Lindsay miss amid the flurry of anecdotes about urban development, office relocation, and runway expansions is that air travel as currently practiced around the world is inherently unpleasant. We endure airports and airlines. We tolerate expensive fees and prices in terminals, grudgingly accept long waits, erratic schedules, and uncomfortable seats. We have come to accept intrusive searches and a culture of distrust in the name of safety. The result is that no one looks forward to the process of air travel. Airports and airlines have very few advocates.

In contrast, many cities have found success renovating train terminals. Whether or not railroads are economic engines of growth, there is often public support for the investment in urban train terminals as an attractive public space.  Without fundamental changes in the way that the entire air industry serves and interacts with the public, economics alone will not guarantee the creation of a successful aerotropolis.

David Potash

Lovely Cities

If we are now in an age of cities, P.D. Smith’s City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age  is the self-proclaimed resource for 2013. A richly illustrated compendium of history, biography, urban studies, anecdote and travel guide. Smith is an unabashed enthusiast for urban life and living. The chapters are arranged thematically (“Arrival,” “Where to City - Guidebook for Urban AgeStay,” “Money,” “Getting Around”) and jump from city to city across the globe. Less a travel book and more a considered reflection on all things urban, Smith’s work highlights the incredibly complexity that makes cities such important features. It is beautiful, thought-provoking, enjoyable, and interestingly, not quite right.

I was a frequent visitor to New York City as a child. My parents would take our family into the Village to eat, to midtown to hear music and see theater, and to the Bronx to visit my father’s relatives. The City  was always tremendously exciting for me. It usually was great fun, but not necessarily comfortable. It consistently surprised me. I loved being in the city but I did not love the city – I did not know it.

Demographers and planners consistently debate the relative impact of urban areas versus suburban areas. Most Americans live in suburbs, but recently population growth in cities has been faster than in suburbs.  Around the world, more and more people are living in cities, with a projected 75% of all humanity slated to live in metropolitan areas by 2050.  The overall vitality and strength the greater metropolitan area (that’s when you add suburbs to the city) are what matters, too; metropolitan areas are sites of energy, wealth and opportunity.

I grew up in Madison, New Jersey – the “Rose City.”  Located twenty-five miles from New York City, Madison was and remains very much a small-town suburb with 15,000 or so inhabitants. Most of the borough consists of single family homes and a small downtown with locally owned shops defines Madison’s shopping district. Understanding Madison is impossible without paying attention to its role and relationship with New York City. Some jobs in Madison require commuting, but also many other jobs depend upon the corporate headquarters and back offices that have sprung up in Morris County as part of the larger “edge city.”

Park Slope - 5th Ave and 9th StreetHealthy cities are never in stasis. Cities are inevitably changing, growing, realigning and shifting.

 As a toddler on one trip to Manhattan, pausing before a construction site, I had my parents in stitches when I asked if the city was every going to be “done.”

Cities defy omnipotent narratives and perspectives. Panoramic images may sell books – and Smith has plenty of these – but they are unhelpful fictions when it comes to understanding cities or why they are the future of mankind. Cities reveal themselves to observant participants, glance by glance, and only through multiples lenses – be it race, class, gender, time, space or mood. Pick a city block. It will never be the same block to a commuter, a tourist, or a resident. It is not the same block at 3:00 pm and 3:00 am. Rarely are two glimpses of a city the same. Smith misses this, amid all the photos, the walks and interviews. He writes that a city is its people, but never quite conveys the elusiveness of phenomenological meaning-making in an urban environment.

Last week we revisited Park Slope, Brooklyn , where we used to live. Walking well-traveled blocks and pointing to the children the entrances to buildings and houses where we once lived, it was familiar and not-familiar, same and different. Chance encounters with friends confirmed the vibrancy of the neighborhood, its constant state of flux, and the joy living in a city as dynamic and unknowable as New York City. 

How’s a Flaneur To Get Around Today?

Taras Grescoe is a travel writer and flaneur for the 21st century. A Canadian-born global citizen, Grescoe has authored five books of non-fiction:  Sacre Blues, an unsentimental study of Quebec; End of Elsewhere, a tale of his journey from one end of the planet to another; Devil’s Picnic, Grescoe pushing the limits of fun all around the world, Bottom Feeder, a query into whether or not one can eat seafood ethically, and most recently, Straphanger. Grescoe is an engaging writer whose curiosity and excitement carry his ideas and prose. It is clear that Grescoe greatly enjoys traveling and writing. It is easy to imagine coming across him at a restaurant or train station and having a very interesting conversation.

Straphanger is a study of mass transportation systems and their cities. An avowed user of public transportation, Grescoe avoids cars whenever he can. Grescoe is also an urbanite, drawn to the juxtapositions of dense city living. His book is a first-hand journey to twelve cities – New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Paris, Copenhagen, Moscow, Tokyo, Bogota, Portland, Oregon, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Montreal – through the lens of the cities’ mass transit. History, politics, economics and urban studies are sprinkled lightly into the mix, as are interviews and chance encounters.

The subtitle, “Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile,” addresses a recurring theme. Grescoe aims to give a compelling account of better ways to live and to get around. Here he is less successful, but not for want of trying. The book is helpful and informative, but far from authoritative or even particularly insightful. Grescoe’s argument is grounded in the excitement and expertise of a well-read tourist.

Hovering around the narrative are harder to answer questions. Was it particular conflations of leadership and opportunity that led to the development of certain cities and certain systems? Or are there lessons and models to consider? Compounding the queries is Grescoe’s approach itself. He’s an unencumbered man about to become a father. His responsibilities, as they are, consist of journeying to interesting cities, riding their mass transit systems and asking a few folks along the way some questions. Of course he doesn’t have to drive – and one wonders if he ever really grasps the day-to-day of the workers in the cities he describes. Accessing a bus or subway to get to an interview is one thing; to use mass transportation to try to juggle work and child care is another.

I, like Grescoe, feel at home in cities. I welcome density and the stimulation that comes from urban environments. I also readily acknowledge the multitude of costs that accompany driving an automobile on a regular basis. But I don’t believe that any of the above would make for supporters of public transportation. That assertion has to based on something harder, more universal, and much more practical. And that argument requires one to sit down, take root, and really learn about a city.