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Edward Glaeser | Skyscrapers and sweatshops

Edward Glaeser | Skyscrapers and sweatshops
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First Published: Fri, May 27 2011. 07 54 PM IST

Triumph of the City: Penguin Press, 352 pages, $29.95 (around Rs 1,350).
Triumph of the City: Penguin Press, 352 pages, $29.95 (around Rs 1,350).
Updated: Fri, May 27 2011. 07 54 PM IST
The past two decades have seen large cities in North America and Europe rebound from a painful post-war history of technological change and spatial restructuring. Since the 1980s, urban centres throughout the developed world have built new business districts and gentrified into consumer zones as educated workers and families returned to cities hollowed out by decades of de-industrialization, suburban flight and social upheaval. Urban manufacturing hubs and ports shaped by the production and shipment of goods and commodities were left behind by finance, information and business services in a new global economy centred in cities such as New York, Chicago, London and Paris.
Triumph of the City: Penguin Press, 352 pages, $29.95 (around Rs 1,350).
This post-industrial city has since become the archetype for mega-cities across the world, and Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City is a tribute to the endurance of the metropolis and the capacities of its citizens to rebuild spaces and reinvent economies. Weaving historical comparisons with policy discussions and the passion of a committed urbanist, the book is an attempt by a respected academic economist at mass market non-fiction. Like Thomas Friedman’s writings on globalization or Samuel Huntington’s on the clash between the West and Islam, Glaeser styles his theories into simple universals. Globalization works hand in hand with urbanization, therefore the world is “paved, not flat”. Civilizations don’t simply clash, but also exchange goods and transfer ideas via cities which are “gateways between markets and cultures”.
The first chapter, What Do they Make in Bangalore?, essays themes explored throughout Triumph of the City—of how cities grow, decline and reinvent themselves, and the human and policy dimensions of the fast pace of urbanization. Bangalore and Silicon Valley are “success stories” which show that despite the “death of distance” prompted by new information and communication networks, people’s physical proximity remains central to productivity and innovation. This paradox means cities command flows of people, ideas and capital around the world, and are also the most central hubs in this new economy. As with the elevator, which made vertical growth possible in skyscrapers, and the automobile, which encouraged horizontal expansion into the countryside, new technologies have contradictory effects on urban life.
An ardent modernist and proponent of free markets, Glaeser has no love lost for heritage conservationists who seek to limit building in historic neighbourhoods, since this drives up the prices of scarce land and housing, or for the pastoralism of suburbanites who own large homes and commute by car to the city. Glaeser hopes that high-rise urban density will prevail over low-rise suburban sprawl. The costs and externalities of US-style suburban living, if adopted in India and China, would spell global ecological disaster, and Glaeser is genuinely eager for India and China to “leapfrog” this unsustainable model to limit global emissions and safeguard the planet.
Sky’s the limit: Glaeser describes Mumbai as the next Manhattan. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Glaeser reaches for a global readership in Triumph of the City, and ranges freely across time and space to draw comparisons between cities—from classical Athens to colonial Singapore to Reformation-era France to industrial Milan. However, his core arguments and research are almost entirely drawn from policy debates in the US, and his anecdotes and facts on other cities are often ahistorical or superficial.
Glaeser connects his chapters through the key concept of “human capital”—the accumulated skills, education and experience of city dwellers. He uses the term flexibly, to mean everything from sail-making in Boston before the coming of steamships, to state subsidies for education and industry in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. “Successful” cities are those whose policies aim at nurturing talent, attracting expertise from around the world, and exploiting this capital for maximum competitive advantage.
Public policy in India has only begun to treat urbanization with the attention it deserves. Glaeser’s prescriptions are useful to a post-liberalization generation which has outgrown the Gandhian dictum that India lives in its villages, but who are doing more to “catch up” than “leapfrog” when it comes to urban policy and planning. Triumph of the City makes many forceful pleas: that “cities are people, not structures”—urban renewal is driven by investing in human capital and not showcase constructions; that overcrowded slums are a sign of urban vitality—a calculated bet by the poor to improve their lives; or that road-building can never decongest a city—only congestion pricing and carbon taxes can limit traffic.
While Glaeser’s advocacy of high-density, low-carbon, mega-urban growth is eloquent and instructive, urban policy in India (or other developing cities) cannot be based solely on the virtual economy of “skills” and “ideas”. His celebration of “human capital” has a decidedly white-collar bias, claiming that “less-skilled manufacturing cities have faltered while more-skilled idea-producing cities have thrived” throughout history.
In spite of ambitious urban projects to go global—some, like the Delhi Metro, truly qualify as leapfrogging—Indian cities thrive both on the casual labour of the poor in slums, as well as the “skilled” work of human capitalists living in skyscrapers. Glaeser’s description of Bangalore as boom town or Mumbai as the next Manhattan may appeal to American readers anxious about outsourcing—or who have seen Slumdog Millionaire—but their relevance in India is questionable.
Since half of Mumbai’s population is priced out of the formal property market, his advice to uncap limits on vertical construction will not make housing more affordable for the poor or middle class. Though he considers Bangalore a “success story”, its IT sector has arguably done more to routinize and re-export innovations than to create new breakthrough technologies. Our slums support higher densities than our skyscrapers, and our IT parks often resemble sweatshops as much as university campuses.
Globalization has certainly created winners in India, and they mostly live in cities, but Triumph of the City in India is still far from assured.
IN SIX WORDS
The future in an urban world
Shekhar Krishnan is an urban historian completing his PhD on colonial Mumbai from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, May 27 2011. 07 54 PM IST