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Thursday, 19 April 2012
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Made us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier argues the case for cities. The major advantages of cities are that:
1.       Cities allow intelligent people to congregate within a relatively small geographic area. Because lots of different skills can be found within cities there is a tendency for knowledge cross pollination.
2.       Cities allow economies of scale in entertainment facilities (theatres, museums, restaurants, etc). This allows them to offer rewards to their citizens.
3.       Cities are environmentally friendly as a major source of environmental damage is transportation and space usage. Cities can build upwards and use less space and transportation can better be managed on foot or via public transport.
The author provides some evidence that cities dwellers are more prosperous and that higher rates are associated with higher national incomes.
This book does consider that cities sometimes decline, either as a result of environmental shift or government policies. The cities of the USA have shifted over time. This was due initially to the movements associated with the opening of land to the west and changes in the size of boats which required larger harbours. The rustbelt of the USA is due to cities that were overly focused on single industries that have subsequently declined, such as the automobile industry or steel. The author recommends that rather than try to fight the decline with grand public works such cities should have a managed decline with empty buildings being demolished, and funds should follow people rather than buildings.
The book is largely free-market in approach, although it does see a role for government that goes slightly beyond getting out of the way of business. It is argued that governments ought to provide a decent infrastructure and public goods, as things like sanitation can only really be dealt with on a large scale. In general the tone of the book is that governments ought to focus on doing a few things well.
The book then looks at “suburbanisation” which is the trend for large sprawling cities that are common in the South of the USA. These are car based, decentralised cities built on cheap land. The appeal of these cities is their lower cost relative to the more centralised, older cities. They also offer better education and more space which makes them more appealing to young families. The book does not regard this as a positive trend as it increases environmental damage from transport (and also air conditioning required as these new cities are in very hot regions). The blame for this is placed on planning regulations which prevent older cities from building up in skyscrapers and force inner city land values high.
The book ends up asking if the cities in China and India end up as sprawling cities with the related environmental damage of being car powered, or if they will be skyscraper based and rely on lifts and public transport.