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Expanding economic life: the potentialities and future of cities

Book review of: Edward Glaeser. Triumph of the City. How our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier
Olivier Walther
Bibliographical reference

Edward Glaeser. 2011. Triumph of the City. How our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. New York, Penguin.

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1Economic life, said urban theorist Jacobs (1984: 32), develops by grace of innovating; it expands by grace of import-replacing. These two master economic processes are closely related, both being functions of city economies”. Triumph of the City, the latest book by Edward Glaeser, an economist from Harvard University, is both a tribute to and a critical appraisal of Jacobs’ work on the potentialities and future of urban life. Building on Jacob’s (1969) ideas of endogenous city growth, he argues convincingly that “cities magnify humanity’s strengths” (249) and brings an important contribution to the controversial recognition of the role of (large) cities in the economy. At the same time, Glaeser’s book takes a critical approach to urban development and criticizes in particular the way cities have been managed in terms of migration, transport or housing policies over the last decades. The book thus addresses both scientific knowledge and policies and its major interest probably lies in this double contribution.

2The author develops his theory of urban economics by building on the contemporary paradox according to which, in a world that has seen the cost of communication diminish drastically, the physical proximity made possible by cities has become more and more desirable. Glaeser synthesizes a large number of publications published as of the mid-1990s and shows that cities play a major role in the innovation activities on which economic growth thrives. Human density and the variety of human activities produce various external economies of scale (or agglomeration economies), which can be explained primarily by the fact that cities allow limiting transaction costs and provide more access to markets in comparison to other forms of human settlements. Moreover, cities also offer a whole range of externalities, which stem from a highly qualified labor market, from spillovers that develop between firms that may or may not work in the same field, and from links between firms and their clients. To these classical Marshallian economies are added benefits of particular institutions that develop in cities and that allow strengthening business relationships and trust between economic actors. From this viewpoint, Glaeser argues, cities are “humanity’s greatest invention”, in spite of the anti-urban discourse that has stigmatized them and of urban policies that have hardly contributed to their development.

3For Glaeser, a balance must be found between two contradictory positions adopted by supporters and opponents of urban policies in recent decades. On the one hand, urban policies should avoid investing too large a share of taxpayers’ money in places where economic activity is obviously declining. Recalling that cities are primarily made ​​of men and women who live there rather than of concrete, Glaeser argues that public policy should aim at helping poor people rather than poor places. “Investing in buildings instead of people in places where prices were already low may have been the biggest mistake of urban policy over the last sixty years” (53), he says. The author argues that, in declining cities, it is often less useful to spend huge amounts of public money in infrastructure such as the Detroit People Mover or on urban redevelopment such as in New Orleans after Katrina, than to provide financial and human resources to people living in these cities so that they can acquire new skills and possibly move to areas where jobs are created.

4On the other hand, urban policies should also avoid limiting urban investments in such cities that attract new people and ideas. As in Calvino’s (1974: 16) city of Zora, “which was forced to remain motionless and always the same” and finally “languished, disintegrated, disappeared”, great cities need to reinvent themselves constantly. On this point, Glaeser takes issue with Jacobs, who as of the early 1960s vehemently criticized the urban renewal project of Greenwich Village in New York. “Jane Jacobs liked protecting old buildings because of a confused piece of economic reasoning. She thought that preserving older, shorter structures would somehow keep prices affordable for budding entrepreneurs” (147), says the author.

5Fifty years later, this protectionist strategy has led to a situation where rents in Manhattan have become totally unaffordable to the middle-class. In order to lower housing prices and absorb the increase of population that results from a newfound attractiveness of certain metropolises, Glaeser argues in favor of taller buildings. From this perspective, he compares New York to Chicago. As a matter of fact, the latter has shown a highly proactive approach to building, even on the Lake Michigan front, with the result that the Windy City is currently much more affordable than New York. Glaeser also highlights the Vancouver model, by reminding that building urban towers that mix residential and retail in the downtown area increases the residents’ quality of life, of which the Canadian city is World Champion. The debate goes far beyond North America. In France, too, architect Jean Nouvel recently complained that, “As soon as a building is a little more dense, a little taller, the project gets attacked”, after the height of his towers, planned on the Séguin island in Paris had just been lowered, from the original 160 meters to 120 meters (Le Monde 2011).

6In order to strike a balance between urban over-investment and protectionist measures, Glaeser builds on the principle of spatially-blind policies, according to which “National policy should strive to enrich and empower everybody, not to push people to live in any particular spot” (65). Far from promoting urban development to the detriment of rural or suburban areas, Glaeser defends a principle – of liberal inspiration – that holds that public policies should aim at allowing people to choose where to live, inasmuch as they pay the right price.

7Glaeser applies this principle to a number of fields of territorial planning, beginning with suburbanization. “People who like suburbs should be able to live there, but their choice should be based on the true costs and benefits of suburbanization” (268), he says. It is still far from being the case, in that most public policies in the United States and Europe encourage people to settle in the suburbs. On this point, Glaeser acknowledges the comparative advantages of suburbanization, most notably for young American households that no longer can afford to live in downtown neighborhoods. These households have access to mortgage loans and transport infrastructure that enable them to live better and with more space, by settling in the outskirts of large cities or by moving to urban areas that present few constraints to suburbanization. Thus the population of Houston, which has no zoning code, has grown by one million people since the 2000 Census!

8Instead of detailing the comparative advantages of cars and public transit, Glaeser proposes to study more specifically the travel time of private transport and walking. By considering that the average car commute in the United States was 24 minutes in 2006, while the average public transport commute was 48 minutes, Glaeser posits that competition between these two modes of transport will always favor cars. As he rightly points out, the use of public transport involves a fixed time period of 20 minutes to go to a bus stop and wait for the next bus. Therefore, “Even before the bus has traveled a stop, the commuter has used up as much time as many car commuters spend on their entire trip” (179). He argues that a more efficient way to compete with cars would be to increase residential density within a 25-minute walk to the workplace, so that walking would become more interesting than driving.

9At a macrogeographic scale, the author focuses most notably on the reasons why certain individuals move to metropolitan areas. In doing so, he reminds readers that above all, cities play a major role in the world, by spreading new ideas and technologies that enable to lift people out of poverty. He thus claims that “Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people” (9), and goes on to show that the improvement of living conditions in urban areas attracts even more people to cities. In addition to poor people, cities also attract highly qualified individuals for whom moving is a choice, not an obligation. In a knowledge-based economy, human settlements are no longer determined by the existence of fixed resources but by a whole range of mobile factors, including urban amenities.

10Due to the development of advanced producer services, both categories of migrants are currently drawn to large cities. The creation of wealth by those who chose to migrate is thus sustained by the work of those who have no choice but to migrate and who work in low added-value fields, cleaning offices, giving hair cuts, keeping grocery stores open throughout the night or answering phone calls. Although socially and spatially segregated, their shared work leads large urban centers to producing what Jacobs (1969) called “new work”, allowing economic expansion, which differs from the accumulation of preexisting activities that lead to economic growth. A specific trait of cities is that they substitute certain imports with continuous innovation, thus multiplying and diversifying their division of internal labor and creating the engines of development.

11Triumph of the City thoroughly documents this mechanism, by showing its universal character. The author devotes an important part of his text to New York City, whose contemporary rebirth is in stark contrast to the state of abandonment it was known for in the 1970s. However, he marshals examples from other cities as well, just as he does not limit himself to North American examples, and deals instead with a number of cities in the world, most notably in Japan (Tokyo, Nagasaki), Europe (Paris, Milan) and India (Mumbai, Bangalore). The attention the author pays to spatial heterogeneity should enable his analyses to enrich the geographic discipline and to engage it in a necessary dialogue with urban economics. Each chapter also examines the historical context of the cities it studies before discussing future implications. For instance, the author examines in detail the work of the baron Haussmann, who designed the contemporary splendor and architectural unity of Paris and whose major transformations of the city would be impossible today in a city that has become a museum.

12Beyond the circle of specialists in urban economics, hopefully Glaeser’s book will also elicit the attention of those who develop and implement public policies for urban development. This concerns Northern and Southern hemisphere countries alike. In this respect, it should be noted that the EU is able to release hundreds of millions of euros to aid producers of cucumbers and yet still lacks an urban policy, the urban agenda having so far remained under the umbrella of regional policies. In other parts of the world, and most notably in poor areas bereft of cities connected to the world economy, such as is Sub-Saharan Africa, individual countries and development agencies set up national development policies that have largely ignored or underestimated the value of cities (Taylor 2006). From this viewpoint, Glaeser’s book answers the recent plea by the World Bank (2009) in favor of a geographic and urban approach to development. It was high time! As a matter of fact, cities have long been stigmatized because of their supposed flaws and hampered by policies that have often resulted in their loss of independence. The author explains well the different reasons why both rich and poor people need more cities and better urban life.

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Calvino I. 1974. Invisible Cities. New York, Harvest.

Jacobs J. 1969. The Economy of Cities. New York, Vintage.

Jacobs J. 1984. Cities and the Wealth of Nations. New York, Vintage.

Le Monde. 2011. Sur l’île Seguin, à Boulogne, les cinq tours de bureaux proposées par Jean Nouvel créent déjà la polémique, 18 June.

Taylor PJ. 2006. Development as a ‘monstrous hybrid’: an essay on the primacy of cities in the expansion of economic life. Environment and Planning A38(5): 793-803.

World Bank. 2009. World Development Report 2009: Reshaping Economic Geography. Washington, The World Bank.

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Electronic reference

Olivier Walther, “Expanding economic life: the potentialities and future of cities”Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, Online since 21 July 2011, connection on 25 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Olivier Walther

Olivier Walther is a Researcher at the Department of Geography, Centre for Population, Poverty and Public Policy Studies in Luxembourg. He holds a PhD from the University of Lausanne and the University of Rouen. His major research interests lie in informal economic networks and cross-border integration in West Africa. Aside from West African studies, Olivier Walther is involved in several research projects dedicated to cross-border metropolitan integration in Europe. Email:

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