Glaeser: Eco-Cities

Right! Finished Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City. It’s okay. Glaeser is an economist who’s pretty big on the free market, so there’s definitely some points of difference that I have with him. He has a bit of a clumsy, callous way of talking about things sometimes – for instance, at one point he writes that “In places like Ireland and Israel, factions have wasted decades fighting over land.” That’s… a singularly dense way to describe those conflicts. Setting aside all of the obvious retorts, this argument is very easily skating over the ways in which economic forces contribute to instability in those places. I mean, I’m not as informed about the Irish struggles, but I’m starting to learn more about the Middle East, and here’s just one tiny example that might serve as a bit of a counter-point.

In 1956, Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, pushing out French and British investors. Britain and France were fucked off about the move, because it threatened their economic position, so they hatched a plot with Israel. The Israeli army would invade Egypt, and Britain and France would ‘step in’ to ‘restore the peace’ but actually to regain control of the canal and protect their economic interests. The whole thing ended up coming out (it’s called the Sevres Protocol), and Britain and France backed down, humiliated, after public pressure from the US, the USSR, and the UN. The whole affair worsened relations between Egypt and Israel, and unquestionably harmed the peace process. Glaeser’s glib remarks about ‘factions wasting time’ makes it sound like small-minded yokels bickering over provincial tribalisms and standing in the way of Economic Progress, when in fact the conflict here hinged on the economic self-interest of major global players like France and Britain. I dunno – it comes across as very smug economist, just rolling his eyes and going ‘ugh, why can’t these people set aside their political nonsense and focus on making money,’ as if money-making is somehow a non-political process that never informs any political decisions.

Anyway – there’s a few other problems that I have with Glaeser, but I want to get back to the environmentalism thing. In Chapter 8, ‘Is There Anything Greener Than Blacktop?’, Glaeser points out that cities aren’t necessarily all that bad for the environment – at least not compared to living out in the suburbs. Obviously we have a pretty strong set of cultural associations around this sort of thing, and I thought it was interesting to see how the facts don’t always line up. So for instance, we’ve got a cultural set of binaries around the relationship between the country and the city, with the country representing a purer, more natural way of living, as opposed to dirty, cramped, artificial city life. These sorts of binaries have come down to us from the Romantic era, where people were overwhelmingly moving towards urban living, and poets and shit were getting snippy about the change. And I’m not saying that the Romantics were just being reactionaries – life could be legitimately awful during the Industrial Era. The mass of people emigrating into cities meant that factory owners had a large labour pool, meaning they could get away with some pretty shitty working conditions. If you want to think about it from an economic point of view, it’s a problem of supply and demand: an abundance of workers means that if you get fed up with poor work conditions, there’s always someone more desperate than you who’s willing to take your place.

Anyway, point is, we’re not living in the Industrial Era any more. Nostalgia for living in the countryside as a ‘purer’ lifestyle is a little bit anachronistic, especially when it’s paired with hippie-dippy environmentalism. The concern, for Glaeser, is that if you want lots of trees and fields and nature and so on, you’re really talking about low-density housing, where everybody has more land and more space and there’s more room for trees and ponds and shit. The problem with low-density housing is, uh, that you can’t fit as many people into as small a space. You end up with urban sprawl, with lightly-populated suburbs stretching for miles and miles outside the city center. Everybody in those suburbs drives to work, because they’re too far away from the city center to walk (and they won’t take public transport, which is mostly used by poorer people), meaning massive carbon emissions that continue to skyrocket as the suburbs sprawl out ever-further. Big lots of land also typically mean bigger houses, which are harder to heat and cool, meaning – yup – more carbon emissions. The aesthetic of the suburbs might be one of trees and nature and all that feel-good environmental stuff, but in practical terms we’re talking about a fuckload of energy. Meanwhile, I’m living in a high rise apartment just out of the CBD. It’s tiny, so it’s easy to heat, and it’s close to everything. I walk to work every morning. You’re not getting that shit out in the suburbs. And yeah, there’s probably vomit on the pavement outside, or some junkie getting arrested down the road, and everything in the immediate vicinity is concrete and roadworks and not very #nature – but my carbon footprint is fucking tiny.

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to live close to nature, or wanting to live in the countryside. But if you’re moving out to the suburbs because you think it’s more environmentally friendly, because it’s not a dirty polluted inner city or whatever, it’s worth having second thoughts about, you know, cars and shit. Glaeser talks a lot about building cities around the elevator instead of the car, building up instead of out – and while I don’t think I’m educated enough to have a firm opinion, the idea definitely appeals to me. Glaeser gives the example of Singapore, which is very much a vertical city, mostly because it’s trying to squeeze five and a half million people into 720 square kilometers (which is about the surface area of Tonga). He gets very excited about the extra congestion charges that Singapore employs – basically you get an extra road charge for driving, which encourages people to use public transport and keeps the roads unclogged for buses and shit – although he’s quick to note that Singapore’s something of an anomaly in being able to lay all these rules out. It works for them because they’re a city-state on a tiny island. Other places aren’t in that situation, meaning we can’t expect to repeat the same methods and achieve the same results.

We’ll finish up our time with Glaeser with a little bit of Tolstoy. At the start of Chapter 9, ‘How Do Cities Succeed?’, Glaeser repeats Tolstoy’s famous line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He suggests that for cities, the reverse is true: “failures seem similar, while successes feel unique.” Some of his examples are a bit dopey – for instance, he writes that the cuisines of each successful city are wildly different: “no one would confuse raw tuna [as in Tokyo] with Cantonese duck [as in Hong Kong] or the multi-ethnic mixture that makes eating in Singapore such a delight.” I mean, okay, but isn’t the implication therefore that the cuisine of a failed city in China seems similar to the cuisine of a failed city in South America? Like I say – dopey example. He also immediately goes on to talk about how each successful city does have some pretty fundamental things in common, in that they all “attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively,” but – ugh, okay, the argument here is a mess. But what I liked was the suggestion that there isn’t one abstractable template for success. Each city faces its own problems, whether stemming from geographical issues, changing economic priorities, national or international pressures – each place is dealing with different shit. There are some things that we can learn from each other, and some things that probably won’t work out in practice like they do elsewhere. Urban planning has unexpected consequences – that’s sort of the hallmark of urban planning. We learn, we trial, some shit works out, and some of it doesn’t. Cities are fucking fascinating, y’all.

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