Book Club I

November 21, 2014

(Today I introduce a new semi-regular element to the site. Book Club where I review city/urban-centric books from the pile that have been gathering dust here around me, victims of very good intentions but little carry through. I have some trepidation, to be sure, of revealing my towering ignorance of urban issues through this series. But hey, that’s never stopped me before. Besides, these books aren’t going to read themselves, and if they did? They could bloody well review themselves.)

bookclub

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It was pure coincidence that I decided to take Triumph of the City with me on my recent trip as well as the September 2013 issue of Harper’s. Yes, my magazine subscription backlog is as impressive as my waiting to be read book pile. Essentially, I’m admitting my eyes are bigger than my brain or self-discipline. harpers0913I wonder if there’s a book to help me with that…

“Saving Your Children from a Harvard Education” (subscription required) was the title of that month’s Anti-Economist column by Jeff Madrick where he outlined a series of crimes against economic theory committed by Harvard professors over the past 3 decades or so. The last example he cited in his piece was the debt-to-GDP debacle foisted on the world by two Harvard academics, Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, which gave cover to governments worldwide to go on an austerity frenzy. Turns out the paper was full of “data omissions, questionable methods of weighting, and elementary coding errors”. An ‘academic kerfuffle’, the authors shrugged although the world still awaits the positive outcome of the austerity measures they helped justify.triumphofthecity

Turns out Triumph of the City’s author, Edward Glaeser is a Harvard appointed professor as well and, I have to say, he doesn’t exactly burnish the school’s cred any with his book.

It’s not that Glaeser is some anti-urban, pro-sprawl, pro-car type like, say, Wendell Cox although he does share the sentiment that housing prices are influenced mainly by onerous land use and development regulations. Get rid of planning rules, let developers build anywhere there’s demand and more people will be able to afford home ownership. Like Cox, Glaeser cites Houston as somewhere that’s doing it right. Build it and they will come. When they come, keep building more. Supply meet demand. Demand? Supply.

Sure, even Glaeser admits, Houston has a huge carbon footprint, in its insatiable need for electricity to keep all those ranch style houses cool in the summer, and the gasoline consumption for all the driving necessary. singaporeBut what are you going to do? It’s the free market at work, am I right?

Glaeser’s analysis of cities seems only partial, using the bits that fit and ignoring those that which doesn’t. While reading the book, I kept thinking it felt a bit Freakonmics-ish, funny coincidences that in no way denoted causality. Unsurprisingly, when checking his endnotes I discovered regular citing of Steven D. Levitt, a co-author of the Freakonmics books.

Singapore and Hong Kong seem to be the model for Glaeser’s ideal city of the future. Density created almost exclusively through tower living. Its simplicity runs at odds to the complexity of most current cities. While there is nothing inherently wrong with skyscrapers, is that all there really is? What about encouraging more midrise growth in places that seems more appropriate? houstonCouldn’t we help fight the negative externalities of sprawl in places like Houston by promoting less single family housing with slightly more dense forms of dwellings instead of expecting New York City to loosen up and allow more tall buildings around the perimeter of New York City’s Central Park?

For such a free market advocate as Glaeser comes across as, he seems uninterested in addressing urban sprawl with any sort of market costing. While he gives a thumbs up to the congestion charges in London and tolls in general, he doesn’t make much of putting a real price on the cost of infrastructure like the roads and highways that are necessary to maintaining single use communities with single family housing, content to claim that housing is affordable simply because the market’s keeping up with demand. detroit1Glaeser also spends surprisingly little time on public transit. Somehow it’s just going to be there as people make their way to their high rises downtown.

I guess that’s what I found most dissatisfying about the book. The lack of, I don’t know, thoroughness to it. Fixes were straight forward, mostly if the heavy hand of government would just keep out of the mix. Glaeser sees slums and tenements as hotbeds of opportunity, where everyone has one innovation in them to fill a niche that will eventually allow them to prosper. He skirts around the role racism has played in the decline of places like Detroit, suggesting its reliance on a single industry was the sole cause of what’s happened. He sees little merit in doing much to help places like Detroit or New Orleans. History has dealt with them. Let’s move on.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh on Professor Glaeser. It’s not so much that I disagreed with much of his views and conclusions. horsefeathersThey just didn’t come across as very vigourous. He seemed hidebound and stuck by his laissez-faire ideology. On more than one occasion he presented choices in a simplistic, binary alternative. “As noted earlier,” Glaeser writes re: the public school system, “this problem could be eased by a move either to the left or the right.”

Really?

I guess I just expected more from a Harvard professor. But as Jeff Madrick pointed out in Harper’s, that’s a mistake too many of us make.

— bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


Conservatives To Cities: We’re Just Not That Into You

February 3, 2011

Trying to shake free of the grip events in Egypt have had on me for the past couple days and get on with life… even writing that makes me squirm in embarrassment. Sorry about all that repression and killing of unarmed civilians, Egyptians, but I’ve got a post to write. Hold tight. I’ll be back in a jif.

I was struck while watching the situation unfold in Cairo’s Tahrir Square by the thought that governments, especially authoritarian ones, must hate cities. All those millions of people, gathering together, plotting, resisting, café latteing. While it may make for some easy turkey shoots, exerting control in cities of millions can ultimately prove impossible. Thus, unlawful assembly edicts tend to be urban oriented. Country rabble rousers are easily rounded up with a quick visit to the closet highway exit Tim Hortons location.

In between paroxysms of outrage and despair, I came across a series of articles yesterday that suggested even non-dictatorial states aren’t really that crazy about cities. It either began here or here or, quite possibly, here (which is why I love the internet. Stories nested within stories, allowing you to read about a subject for hours on end without so much as a bathroom break. Just strap on your Depends and wallow in the informational overload.)

Now, much of this has a very American slant and is not entirely relevant to us in Canada especially the views on the U.S. Senate being, at heart, an anti-urban institution due, in part, to the power wielded by the many smaller populated states. Although we have had a variation on that argued here recently about the under-representation of the more populous regions in both our federal and provincial legislatures. This discrepancy has allowed our current Prime Minister to piece together a workable minority government over the last 5 years without any representation in the country’s 3 largest cities. And all his machinations to build a winning majority have not included attempts to garner increased urban support.

Which brings me to the pertinent point of all these articles: the politics at the centre of this anti-urbanism. Conservatives seem to take a dim view of cities. Or at least, the higher density, public transit depending, non-car loving, artsy-fartsy, (you know where I’m going with this), downtown, pinko elitist parts of cities. On the surface you could argue, why wouldn’t they? Downtowners are not their kind of people and don’t tend to vote Conservative. So, fuck `em. Conversely however, it could be pointed out that Conservatives don’t stand for anything much that downtowners might get behind.

It’s a thought we touched upon a little last August when we reviewed Tim Falconer’s book, Drive.  After talking to the Sierra Club’s Transportation Committee chair, John Holtzclaw, who believes that higher density living creates a more open-minded, tolerant society, Mr. Falconer concludes that, “People who live closer together and are less dependent on the automobile develop a different attitude toward citizenship and activism.” A different attitude from one that prizes individualism over the collective as the surest vehicle toward achieving well-being.

Conservative antipathy toward urbanism is nothing new nor is it something they possessed exclusively. E. Barbara Phillips noted in City Lights the early 20th-century perception of city life was largely negative. “Alienation. Rootlessness. Superficial relationships. The loss of human connections. Materialsim. Money instead of personal relations as the bond of association among people.” One moved to the city out of necessity while pining for the simplicity of small town life.

Understandable as we still saw ourselves as a largely agrarian country. A century later, however, and that is no longer the case. Despite our wide open spaces and iconic national images of the Rocky Mountains, prairie wheat fields and (formerly) frozen tundra, we are now an urban nation, like it or not. As of 2006, nearly 14 million Canadians lived in cities with populations of 500,000 or more. That’s almost half of us and the percentage over the last 5 years certainly won’t have declined.

It’s all part of a global urban trend which makes our anti-urbanism somewhat archaic and more than a little self-destructive. As cities go, so goes their countries, and if we insist on knee-capping them with outdated approaches to planning, transit, sustainability and infrastructure, we will make ourselves less competitive and less economically viable. Aren’t those the core of conservative values?

He asks, living in a city that just elected a mayor who needs space, his own driveway and backyard. A mayor that thought it necessary to build parking for a new proposed waterfront aquarium site that the developer’s chose “… because of the (pedestrian and transit) options…” and that “… parking made the project not financially viable…” A mayor whose administration is eyeing with suspicion sustainable and green initiatives as something outside of a city’s “core services”.

Yeah, some points of view die hard and when they rise up to take control of the levers of power, all we can do is resist mightily and try to mitigate the damage until we regain our civic senses. We can also take solace in the fact that at least so far here in Canada, anti-urbanism hasn’t achieved conspiracy level status where light rail transit, sustainable development and smart growth are seen as some U.N. plot to pry right thinking Americans out of their “personal mobility machines” and into tiny, cramped “human habitation zones”. It’s a sci-fi, dystopian view of cities that conservatives seem bound and determined to make a reality.

city mousedly submitted by Cityslikr