Book Review – The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

“The Triumph of the City: …” by Edward Glaesar is an epiphany which throws light upon the driving forces behind the very existence of cities. It shatters the notion of cities being associated with downfall of humankind, and establishes them being spaces of shared knowledge that ultimately shape our well-being. This review is an attempt to bring out significant aspects of the book on central stage. The idea is not to criticise the arguments made by the author, rather to critically examine the nature of those arguments in the present context. The review is divided into three sections. The initial section gives a general overview of the book. It highlights the key ideas that have emerged through the chapters. The second section denotes the shift in author’s argument over the read. And the final section contains the reflection of author’s words from a neutral viewpoint. The impressions from classical literature are taken along with for making any external claims.

The Triumph of the City Book Cover
The Triumph of the City, Source – Good Reads

Summary of content

Through the book, the author has tried to illustrate the splendour of cities- calling them our greatest invention of all time. Stating that the majority of world’s population resides in urban areas (and the proportion continues to rise), he conveys that life in cities has been a priority of people over the years (and it remains promising for the future of humankind). All the arguments made further reinforce the greatness of cities- them being manifestations of human interactions. On the following lines, the author has also tried to outshine the cities through their contemporary reflection of poverty, crime, and diseases. With the illustrations of various cities across the world, it is established that cities are a platform of “shared knowledge” and the primary goal of city-life is to provide better life to its people. Drawing the evolution of spaces through classical literature, the author has raised a series of questions- the answers to which are unique for every city taken into consideration.

Some of the key revelations about cities are unveiled in the following order. First, our ability to think and create is enhanced being surrounded by like-minded people. The evergreen boom of Bangalore and Silicon Valley validates the fact- them being the prodigy of bringing knowledge together. Second, modern cities are not mere money-making spaces, rather they are a gateway between markets and culture. The example of Tokyo in harbouring the tradition along with economic development steals the show. Third, not all urban poverty is bad. Considering the case of a person living in Dharavi, he would not have chosen to be there had he any better option with him. More so, the ever-increasing rural to urban migration can be attributed to cities having access to jobs and opportunities. Fourth, an intervention for human capital yields the best return. That is how New York and Detroit turned out so different- the former coming back to life post globalization and the latter getting declined forever. Fifth, the density of a city determines its impact on the environment- smaller the cities, less is the energy requirement and less is the carbon footprint. It can be also thought in terms of saving transportation costs and preserving the suburban belt. And lastly, factors of urban distress pose a real challenge to the cities. An effective governance, however, has the power to shape the cities safe and resilient.

Related Article: Influence on Urban Planning by Kevin A. Lynch, Edward Soja’s Theories of Urban Space

The shift of argument

The book has nine chapters. Through each chapter, the author tries to answers a question establishing a connect between cities and humankind. Throughout, his focus shifts from stating that cities are the auxiliary support of human actions to pointing out various challenges of the city-life. In the first chapter- What Do They Make in Bangalore– the primary argument is that the successful cities are the ones that provide space for meaningful human interactions. Examples of Athens and Silicon Valley are also taken for the same. In the second chapter- Why Do Cities Decline– the author explores the reasons for urban decline. With the instances of New York in 1970s and Detroit under Coleman Young, the author has tried to lay emphasis on the economics and politics of a city’s rise/fall. In the third chapter- What’s Good About Slums– the ideals of economic prospects are reflected in the lives within urban slums. The Favelas of Rio and the American Ghettos have always been a priority location of people irrespective of their shortcomings. In the fourth chapter- How Were the Tenements Tamed– the author contemplates the dusty workplaces to be the engines of cities. Be it the case of Kinshasa or Dharavi, the idea of emerging through crimes and diseases remains the same. In the next chapter- Is London a Luxury Resort– the author has highlighted various economic factors which drive the city. Market forces like division of labour, economies of scale, competition, and affordability are introduced as intrinsic properties of a city. The high-end perceptions of London and New York are illustrated to validate the arguments. In the chapter six- What’s So Great About Skyscrapers– the general notion of going vertical rather than horizontal in development is brought to attention. The redefined zoning regulations of New York and Haussmann’s redevelopment of Paris are two very different cases which point towards the similar objectives. The chapter seven- Why Has Sprawl Spread– talks about the physical out-spill effects of modern cities. The cities of United States are talked about in creating an adverse impact on Housing Infrastructure and Transportation. With the next chapter- Is There Anything Greener Than Blacktop– The argument shifts over the environmental viewpoint in the cities. The consequences of environmentalism and the footprints associated with suburban living are criticized and it is established that life in cities would in fact be greener! Through the instance of India and China, it is further illustrated how the whole world has to pay if the two countries proceed with suburban living. With the last chapter- How Do Cities Succeed– the author directs the whole argument of city life to be better by pointing out successful cities over time. Tokyo (the imperial city); Singapore and Gaborone (the well-managed cities); Boston, Minneapolis, and Milan (the smart cities); Vancouver (the consumer city); Chicago and Atlanta (Growing cities); and Dubai (a peculiar man-made city) are pointed out to demonstrate how people are rich, smart, green, healthy, and happy in them.

A critical note

The hypothesis of the book is very comprehensive in nature. It states that “Cities aren’t structures, cities are people”. To conform to this argument, the author has tried to bring in various illustrations of diverse set of cities from across the world. Starting from detailing out the features that cities to have a better quality of life compared to the rural counterparts, the author has swiftly changed the focus to addressing the rising challenges in the cities in contemporary times. The book has very uniquely brought out the distinct features of cities, yet tried to bind uniformly through the read.

Although, the book also draws several instances from classical literature, there exists a gap (or, an anomaly). The book criticises the instrumental nature of “Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs and suburban viewpoints of Lewis Mumford in “The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, And Its Prospects”. Having a previous knowledge of them helps to highlight the fact that this variance from classical literature exists merely because of difference in era- the reviewed book being published in the recent age, and them being published in 1960s. Jacobs did use conceptual tools of her era to understand the success and downfall of American cities. They were not economic in nature, rather social. She constantly pestered on dynamics of diversity within the cities, slumming and un-slumming, gradual and cataclysmic money, and border vacuums. Similarly, Mumford glorified the life in suburbia in early 1900s- with arguments supporting the quality of life with the greens. It is somewhat not reasonable to make a point by standing on (or taking help of) a point of view that was referred to in the previous century. Though it is appreciable that these literary gems are stated in the book, yet for someone not familiar with them would certainly form a sceptical opinion towards them.

Furthermore, the book has also opened horizons towards appreciating the dynamic nature of cities. Some cities succeed in first attempt, and some fail. And some cities bounce back from the worst. It is very difficult to identify the force behind, but the book has equipped with various “kinds” of forces to look at. Sometimes, it is the radical movements which direct the fate of cities. Whether we take an instance of Renaissance in Europe, Industrial revolution in United States, or simply the Globalization. Sometimes, it is the political will. And sometimes, it’s a slow gradual process towards prosperity, or decline. The read has inculcated a sensitivity to such forces.

The conclusion of the book is also very exceptional. Through the conclusion, the author has tried to bring harmony of thoughts by jolting down the points that are open to interpretation of every author like- levelling the playing field, curse of “not in my backyard- NIMBY”, bias towards sprawl, contrast of poor people and places, urbanization through globalization, etc. Lastly, it is the concluding sentence of the book that imparts a sense of an ultimate triumph within the reader- “London’s ornate arcades or Rio’s fractious favelas, whether in the high-rises of Hong Kong or the dusty workspaces of Dharavi, our culture, our prosperity, and our freedom are all ultimately gifts of people living, working, and thinking together—the ultimate triumph of the city.