Wrestling With Edward Glaeser

I have finished two books in the past couple of weeks that are about the same general topic: the future of our cities.  These works, however, come to strikingly different conclusions.

 Triumph of the City is a 2011 work by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser.  In a burst of amazing publicity, Glaeser has been all over the media touting his ideas of more density, more density, and – did I say – more density as the prescription for our cities and the planet.  In contrast, my son passed along his copy of the 2009 book by former Boston Globe reporter Anthony Flint, Wrestling With Moses:  How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City which I finished last week.  This small yet eloquent tale reads like a novel and carries the punch of the biblical story of David vs. Goliath.

In Triumph of the City, Glaeser makes a compelling overall argument:  that cities are efficient, inherently environmental, and healthful for the future of the planet.   I agree with that general thesis.  Where he goes off the rails is how he sees the future success in cities coming from density through skyscrapers and misses the larger point that cities are complex organisms that require a mix of uses, building types, and density to work well for human beings.

Glaeser likes to throw out bombs against things he doesn’t like (e.g., historic preservation, environmentalism, regulation in general) that – upon reflection – don’t hold up to scrutiny.  His attacks on historic preservation, for instance, make it sound as if all of Manhattan is under the rule of the New York City Landmarks Commission, when in fact only 3% of the tax lots in New York City are designated as either historic districts or individual landmarks.  One of the best rebuttals of Glaeser’s work that I’ve seen comes from Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has a great blog on The Man Who Thinks Manhattan Isn’t Dense EnoughBenfield takes apart Glaeser’s attacks, noting that what makes cities attractive can often be their inefficient places that people like.  In fact, when Glaeser says he “will take the side of people over buildings any day,” he’s not only setting up a false choice but he’s missing the point that people are drawn to the places – like Greenwich Village – which under Glaeser’s formula would have been demolished to make room for more skyscrapers.

Jane Jacobs understood how economists, city planners, and others who think they know what’s best for “people” let their egos get in the way of sustainable and livable communities.  In Wrestling With Moses, Anthony Flint provides a lively and page-turning tale of how a bunch of “busy housewives” defeated Robert Moses’ plans to demolish Greenwich Village and his desire to take the Lower Manhattan Expressway through the heart of what are now some of the most vibrant neighborhoods of the city.  In the past two months I’ve walked these neighborhoods twice with family and colleagues, and the prospect that they may have been lost to large overflight highways is stunning in its audacity.

Wrestling With Moses shows what one person can do when they focus on bringing power from the power brokers to the people.  I find it interesting that Jacobs’ seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was originally attacked from the left and supported from the right.  It is interesting because Glaeser – who notes in his acknowledgements the imprint of Jane Jacobs, “who bestrides the world of cities like a colossus,” on his work – nonetheless attacks her findings from his libertarian point of view.

When we think of the future of the American city, there are important points from Glaeser that need to be recognized and supported.  Yet, when I think of the kind of city where I want to live, I’m glad that Jane Jacobs wrestled with Robert Moses – and that her ideas continue to hold up well today as we use them to wrestle with the likes of Edward Glaeser.

More to come…
DJB