Triumph of the City

A book that deserves some attention from policymakers here is Edward Glaeser’s new book “Triumph of the City“. The book has nine chapters, along with an intro and conclusion. It makes the case that city-living is, in general, conducive to innovation, health and environmental protection. The nine chapters go through the role cities play in bringing people with ideas together, the role of slums in acting as a pathway from destitution, the attractiveness of cities as places to live, the health advances that have been made in cities, the benefits of building up, the role of human capital policies, and the environmental advantages of cities.  Glaeser puts particular store on policies designed to build human capital in cities through education and through attracting intelligent and entrepeneurial people. Its simplifying his position somewhat but he strongly advocates building up rather than sprawl and he is a critic of the use of building projects as methods of urban renewal. Glaeser has published several highly influential articles in Economics and he really packs ideas into this readable book. If anyone has read it, or is going to read it, feel free to use this thread to talk about some of the ideas in the book as well as their relevance in Ireland.

25 replies on “Triumph of the City”

There are lots of disadvantages to cities that are not of the type that economists, with their extremely limited outlook on life, usually bother about. Cities have far higher crime rates. Cities have far less community spirit. Nobody knows their neighbours in cities. Far fewer people go to Church in cities. Social problems are far greater in cities. Cities provide the mobs for crackpot revolutionaries. Cities have far higher incidences of drug problems and family breakdown. Cities where everyone lives in tall tower blocks are worst of all, places that are totally soulless and devoid of the slightest semblance of community spirit. People living in small towns and rural areas are more likely to be socially conservative, more likely to be respectful of tradition, have a far higher work ethic, and are less likely to want an all-powerful state and big-government.

Precisely because of the reasons, the metropolitan elites usually despise people who live in small towns and rural areas, seeing them as a hindrance to the development of the type of ultra-liberal ultra-secular leftist big-government society that they wish to bring about. Through their control of the media, the metropolitan elites engage in continuous demonisation of people who live in small towns and rural areas, portraying them as backward, hicks, rednecks, culchies, or whatever. This is certainly the case in the U. States, where the metropolitan elites despise small-town rural America, with its attachment to God, patriotism, hunting, social conservatism and the Republican party. It is also the case in Ireland, where the Dublin 4 elites despise small-town rural Ireland, with its Church-going, GAA clubs, one-off houses, and its continuing refusal to vote for Dublin 4-approved political parties and ultra-liberal causes, like abortion, that the Dublin 4 elites wish to force through. If the Dublin 4 elites had their way, most of Ireland would be depopulated and the small-town rural population moved to about a dozen large urban areas, called gateways. The pretence would be that this was done in the interests of economic efficiency, but, in reality, it would be done in the pursuance of Dublin 4’s ultra-liberal ultra-secular social agenda.

Until last week, Dublin 4’s hatred of small-town rural Church-going GAA-loving Ireland was manifested in its demonisation of Fianna Fail, which, through its control of the media in Ireland, it proved very effective at doing. It is quite a blow to them, therefore, that, when turning away from Fianna Fail, whether temporarily or not, small-town rural Church-going GAA-loving Ireland simply switched to Fine Gael, a party with a very similar outlook on life to Fianna Fail, and which can now expect to receive the same demonisation from the Dublin 4 elites that Fianna Fail had to endure. I note that the new Taoiseach is from Mayo, a place that the Dublin 4 elites view as only semi-civilised and the epitome of everything they despise. I expect that the plotting in Dublin 4 media/academia circles to get rid of him has allready begun.

What’s the maximum carrying size of a city? Mumbai has 20 million people already. 65% of them live in slums and none of these people have access to a toilet. Did New York or London in the 1800s have such levels of destitution or hinterlands of 1 billion people all dreaming of a move to the same city? Slums as a springboard out of destitution is a fine theory but not when the majority of the city is a slum.

What isn’t defecated onto the railway lines and into the rivers is pumped straight into the sea.
The city’s water supply is plagued by e-coli and the rich pumping ever deeper into the groundwater.

Mumbai is an ecological disaster in the making.

The city model seems to have failed in India at least. Time for some fresh thinking.

Mukesh Mehta, a consultant specialising in slum redevelopment, cites the “provision of urban amenities in rural areas”programme, a scheme that proposes to industrialise the villages. If villagers had urban-style facilities in their own areas –good jobs in local factories as well as adequate hospitals and schools –they would not need to migrate. These industries could be anything from producing poppadom snacks to printing stationery.

But India is plagued by that kind of thinking already – the false idea that cities act as a drain on the countryside, and that large transfers of people to cities should be matched by large transfers of money to (now depopulated) rural areas. We could call it the Dev/Gandhi attitude to modernity. There is simply a minimum population density that we need to make factories/hospitals viable. We can’t afford to pay for County Colours Regional Hospital in Ireland, let alone in India.

I suppose letting people kill themselves with fertiliser in the countryside is much more romantic, isn’t it?

One of the oddities of Ireland’s very rapid growth from 1990-2008 is that we still have a relatively rural population compared to most other European policy, something that the housing boom actually perpetuated. I thnk jto is right in idenitfying some of the biases he mentions, though sitting uncomfortably alongside these views is a belief that rural life is healthier and more wholesome by some measure (summing it up – fashion favours countryside living, but not countryside livers).

I think spatial planning is one of the critical debates in Ireland on our future of our society, and one we have not come to terms with:

1) the failures of Dublin are not because of its size – 1.5m people is pretty small by city standards. It is lack of policy attention which must get a lot of the blame, and hopefully a refocussing of decison making powers around an accountable mayor will help that.
2) there are real costs associated with country living. We think of this in terms roads, broadband, but also the costs of public service provision – I live in fingal where the average class size is bigger than many rural schools. Efficient public service provision is not all a ‘black box’, and reducing costs may chnge the manner (spatially) we provide services.


Your some boy for your opinions. Have you actually lived in Dublin and rural Ireland. they say experience is a good indicator of vision. Having lived in Dublin 4 and currently in rural Ireland I would opt for the city for innovation and job creation. For example, a banker mets an IT type and they get an idea formed. In Rural Ireland, its farming and constrution and they still vote Fianna Fail, enough said. Drugs is a major problem, midland towns are now distrubtion centres for drugs. I think you need to loose the rose tinted glass,s.


80% of Indians live outside the cities. There is no depopulated rural area worth speaking of. Having people dying in the cities of infectious diseases is really modern.


The young male unemployment rate around Irish towns is something that is going to brew enormous social problems over the next decade. Do you really see these towns as having sufficient momentum to create jobs?

Hello Liam. We miss those Mon and Wed sessions! We could have done with another bloc.

Cities: Big problem. All that food, water, etc., not to mention the ‘other’stuff. Seems that there may be an optimum size (area and population) that can be sustained by the adjoining hinterland (ie. min transport costs) such that the natural resources are not worked to extinction. Fine balance. Not one that a consumer society is willing to contemplate – at least not at present mo. that is.

The issue of employment is one that has to be viewed ‘backwards’. At what points do you inflect from lin to log and back to lin again? City is like a closed container of bacteria: sooner or later you run out of nutrients. QED. Or to put it another way. You start out needing lots of hand labour but gradually you need more of the cerebral stuff. This latter reaches max, (you have maxed up your technology), then declines. Now you start to need more of those hands again. Funny old world.

Ignore jto.


the future is urban, there is (was) even a plan so that it would work kind of efficiently but was generally ignored from the day it was printed. It’s worth a read. It still dictates planning policy in theory. Blessed Gormley’s reformed planning legislation may have given it more weight now but unfortunately the development horse had long bolted.

Ed Glaeser has an opinion piece in the FT.

Its trash. Pompous, vacuous, Spinola. But the guy is a … WHAT? Please excuse me whilst I re-read ‘Limits to Growth: the 30 year update’. Just take a few secs. Ah, yes! Something about ‘footprints’. Knew it would come to me.


How is Ireland going to work transport wise when oil get to $200 a barrel and then $300? Modern Dublin was built on the assumption that cheap petrol would last forever. The commuter towns within 100 miles are even worse.

Wow, looks like there’s a sudden awakening to green thinking.
Modern Dublin was built based on whoever rezoned land, infrastructure had little to do with it.

That goes for the rest of the country too unfortunately.

@fergaloh – it would be good to have more debate on the spatial strategy. No horses have bolted. There is a new government with a large majority and a mandate to “do the right thing”. A good time to think about what that right thing is.


you forgot the Galtee cheese-eating, Wrangler jeans-wearing, Cidona drinking affections of rural Ireland.

ala McKenzie’s cultural topography

“In the world’s poorer places, cities are expanding enormously because urban density provides the clearest path from poverty to prosperity.”

Tra la la la.

I was in Bombay 2 weeks ago and near Mahalaxmi temple walked past 2 senior citizens sleeping on the street, under a billboard asking what the Finance Minister would do for the stock market in his budget. Why would a pensioner and his wife leave the countryside to move to Bombay for a place on the street? Distress migration.

From the link above

Who Migrates?

Agrarian stagnation has always remained in the backdrop of distress
migration. Nearly two-thirds of India’s 100-crore ( 1 bn) population depends on agriculture, which contributes only around 20 per cent of the country’s GDP. This fact broadly explains the pathetic situation in the sector. There has been low investment in the sector, falling from 1.6 per cent in Ninth Plan to 1.3 per cent in the Tenth Plan. As a result, capital formation in agriculture has been low and agriculture has remained rain-dependent.

The migrants we interviewed were mainly from agricultural backgrounds
(81%). We found their parents were also largely (83%) from the same
background. However, the disaggregated data clearly points out that the
percentage of families totally dependent on the income from their own
land in the parents’ generation has come down from 52 to 38 per cent in
the migrants’ generation and the number of families dependent on
agricultural wages has increased from 31 to 43 per cent. This indicates an
increased dependence on wage-earning and a decrease in asset-holding
in the second generation. This micro data is an endorsement of the national
data on increasing landlessness. As per the Rural Labour Enquiry Report on
General Characteristics of Rural Labour Households (55th Round of NSS,
1999-2000), “At the all-India level, 59.15% of the Rural Households possessed
cultivated land. This percentage during the previous survey (1993-94) was

Reasons for migration

This section primarily depicts the economic side of the story. Most of the
labourers, who were from different parts of Chhattisgarh, said they had small land holdings, no irrigation facilities and agriculture is totally dependent on rain.
Since many of the families gave more than one reason as their reason for migration, for example, some mentioned unemployment and indebtedness together, the data presented here reflects multiple answers and, hence, the total exceeds 100. They cannot depend on the income from agriculture. Droughts bring debts. Hence, they moved to the cities for food security. A majority of the labourers spoke of debts

The labourers in one of the sites had migrated from states such as UP, Bihar and MP. They were largely agricultural labourers in the village, where they earned only Rs. 30 a day and work was not available throughout the year. The agricultural wage was much below the rural wage rate, as shown by the government data. The villagers moved to the city to ensure two square meals a day. Three to four of them said they own small plots of land in the village. However, as the family grew, the number of people dependent on that land grew. People from Bihar spoke of the recurrence of floods leading to heavy debts whereas migrants from Jhansi reported three consecutive years of drought.

When asked whether, under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act
(NREGA), it was easier to find work during the lean season in agriculture,
they said that that the people implementing NREGA were corrupt and they
only gave jobs specifically to the people who could bribe them. The issue
of corruption also came up while discussing the Below Poverty Line (BPL)
category of ration cards and other facilities.

Jane Jacobs is an excellent source on how economic growth coincides more with city regions than with nation states. I suppose the old city states of europe would be a good analogy.

Michael Porter is also worth reading on the economic power of clustering and proximity.

The economic case for the ideas of Edward Glaeser & co makes eminent sense but I don’t understand the fixation on tall buildings to achieve high density. Generally building to 4, 6 and 8 storey level very quickly achieves high density. Look at Kensington in London, predominantly four storey buildings and one of the denser areas of the city and most pleasant and sought after to live in too.

Town planning is not rocket science. There are tried and tested ways of achieving high density areas that people are happy to live in and it mainly consists of the perimeter model form of apartment block type development of 4, 6 or 8 storeys high depending on how dense you want to go.


Are you John Waters? Seriously? Your comments sound silly enough to be his. Just a a few points for you.

(a) First of all, it is Dublin that creates the wealth in this country, and funds through the exchequer (like the EU does for rural Ireland through agricultural subsidies).

(b) Stop trying to conflate American arguments with Irish ones because I will explain why.

First of all, the United States was founded on the principles of religious liberty, where all congregations are free to practice as they which – hence the explanation for the religious tradition to this day. This is unlike Ireland, where the Catholic Church (almost of a pre-Modern and medieval form) has traditionally been a dictator when it comes to not only social issues in Ireland, but has been instrumental in keeping the Protestant and Evangelical community as second-tier and second class citizens in the new state.

America’s great sporting institutions, along with the activities of hunting are private and individualistic affairs. This is unlike the mental and cultural tyranny of the GAA – which like the Catholic Church seems to think it has the right to dictate to other people what to do, or take part in – which is effectively a government subsidised monolith, reeling in countless taxpayers earnings to pay for it’s keep nationwide. This is not to mention the privileged and elitist position it has in the state funded broadcasting station RTE, where it gets the big seat for the majority of the time.

Then there is one-off housing. Actually, I’m pretty sure that the United States, like most other normal countries does not have this condition, aka. ribbon development on every single rural road. Actually, you can drive for a hours in America without coming across so much as a farm. This also comes back to the ideology in America, that you don’t get something for nothing. If a community, whether rural or urban is to make it – it is assumed that it will do so on it’s own laurels. It must do something in economic terms to pay for itself, and if it can’t, well that’s nobody else’s problem so to speak.

In rural Ireland, all of the one-off housing, like the GAA is funded in most part by the taxpayers given the need to provide infrastructure and services to such a thinly (and unique to Ireland in this sense) spread out ribbon development. Were these houses or people living in America, they would be expected to pay their own way, for roads/ infrastructure etc. so it is questionable if they would be able to survive.

I also wanted to take on this comment for another reason – I have always loved America, including it’s culture, landscapes, history, technology, industrial and commercial success etc. and was sickened to see some fanatical (possibly?) Fianna Failer, with his belief in not only one off housing, but of forcing the Catholic Church and the GAA down everybody else’s throats – comparing the situation in rural Ireland, that of America. I actually agree with much of the conservative argument that comes out of America as I believe the modern US faces many dangerous social, cultural and economic forces.

I also admire their sticking by the Founding Fathers beliefs, and the tradition of liberty going back to the writing of the constitution. America, by all accounts in my opinon is one of the great nations of the world and of history. That is more than what I can say for this backward, dependent (economically), catholic ridden and corrupt (e.g. FF) little island. I have always looked at documentaries and read books about the US, and I have always been fascinated by it.

How dare you bring the great nation of America into this argument, when it is as an entity the direct opposite of so many facets of this nation in it’s outlook and ideology. One other thing you fail to mention is, and regardless of whether it is true or not – is that many Americans, whether today or in the past view Catholicism as a great threat to not only individual liberties, but to the American Republic itself. Looking at Ireland, both past and present would seem to confirm that there may be an element of truth in these beliefs on the behalf of Americans.

It migt be worth the so called D4 “elite” (as they have been called here) to remember that Dublin is one of the smallest capital cities in the world. It’s a quarter of the size of Manchester for crying out loud. Please get a grip. Dublin is not a cosmopolitan sprawling metropolis on a parr with Paris or New York and the only people who think it it is are those who’ve never lived outside of it. When I come back from large cities abroad, the first thing I notice about Dublin is how small and quiet it is. After 13 years of living in New York, I was actually asked how I’d cope living in the “Big Smoke” of Dublin at an interview…sad but true.

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