Keys to the City

By Casey WalkerMay 30, 2011

Keys to the City

Aerotropolis by Greg Lindsay and John Kasarda
The Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

CONSIDER THE PROBLEMS which beset the frenetic mega-city of your choice — not just New York or Los Angeles, but places like Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo. Each has its slums, its political morass, its dangerous, dispersed particulates in the air. It's tempting to imagine the best solution to the chaos is an unspooling: level the fire-trap tenements, empty the choked highways, shut the dangerously sub-par schools, run those few, prosperous global traders out of their well-appointed penthouses at the point of a pitchfork. End the misery, once and for all. You could feel that way about any of the above cities, or even about a hundred cities in China you've never heard of, some of which are expanding by an entire Pittsburgh every year. Listen to the bottom-rung stories of global commerce: suicidal workers in China's booming factory cities, life in the no-go zones of Rio's favelas. That's enough to make you want to send us all back to the land.

And yet, for all the smog and political corruption and inequality, our clustering in cities has a logic. It is neither an accident nor a disaster that humanity is now, for the first time in its history, a predominantly urban species. The rationale for city life is not simply economic efficiency, and it is not simply the giddy cosmopolitanism of art museums and restaurants and architecture. What cities offer is contact: "super-linear" contact, as the Santa Fe Institute calls it, exponential connections among people. This contact breeds innovation, the production of more and better knowledge. If an increasingly urban way of life is our collective future, now would be a good time to refine the conversation, to pay better attention to what cities do well and get a sharper handle on the problems for which we can fault them.

For help in this task, we have Edward Glaeser's thrillingly optimistic account of our current urban moment and its future prospects. Rather than environmental despoliation, for example, Glaeser encourages us to see efficiencies that vastly outweigh the environmental costs. Glaeser contends that people aren't crushed by cities, but ennobled by them; that cities attract poverty much more than they create it; and that, for the world's rural poor, urban life offers a level of economic and social mobility that far outstrips the life offered by subsistence agriculture. Resurrect Jane Jacobs as a Harvard economist with a sharp eye for government policy wrinkles and unintended consequences, and you get Glaeser's The Triumph of the City.

Glaeser's vision of "triumph" really bifurcates into two related themes. The first is a historical brief about the fantastic capacity of cities —"our species' greatest invention" — to make us think, live and act in new and productive ways. Think of the ideas cities have produced: democracy, algebra, Renaissance art, advanced surgery. Modern day Baghdad may be at its low ebb, but in antiquity it was a famously successful metropolis. The Abbasid caliphs brought a compendium of scholars to the city's "House of Wisdom," where the world's extant knowledge was translated into Arabic, and whence knowledge of the Old Testament, Indian mathematics, Hippocrates, Plato, and Aristotle passed into the Arab world. It was Chinese prisoners of war that brought the secret of paper-making to Baghdad; it seems the city, as an innovation engine, isn't terribly picky about how one arrives there. If you can attract or conscript enough people into the same dense space, then one person's radical idea will quickly become shared wisdom. 

It hardly seems a coincidence that European discovery, in the post-Roman Empire centuries of urban decay, looks stalled when compared to that era's thriving Islamic world. It's astonishing to think, as Glaeser points out, that a thousand years ago continental Europe had only four cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants, three of them governed by the emirs and caliphs who had created a trading network spanning from Portugal to Persia.

Glaeser's second goal is to explain not just why the city has triumphed historically, but why it is still relevant in an era where technology seems to have eliminated the need for proximity. Perhaps, at some point long ago, people needed to talk in person in order to share ideas; Socrates couldn't just annoy people on a call-in radio show, nor could Brunelleschi Skype with Donatello about linear perspective. The last century of communication innovation might suggest that the exchanges in the House of Wisdom, or the extraordinary creative sharing among artists in Florence that gave us the Renaissance, are just historical relics. 

Much of the research evidence, though, belies this line of thinking: in our current age, when distance is smashed by aviation and communication technology, cities in fact matter more than ever. "All those electronic interactions are creating a more relationship-intensive world," Glaeser writes, "and those relationships need both e-mail and interpersonal contact." His review of the research verifies that we're still better with generosity, cooperation and trust when we meet people in person. In fact, communications revolutions from the telephone onward have turned out to be complements, not substitutes, to the need to learn by being near one another. "Technology innovators who could easily connect electronically pay for some of America's most expensive real estate to reap the benefits of being able to meet in person," Glaeser points out. It's true that we're so globally interconnected that you can now be swindled out of your entire life savings via email by a Nigerian bank scam, but studies back up what Bernie Madoff figured out: people trust you more face-to-face, and there's billions to be had with a Manhattan address. The same goes for artists, scholars, financiers. Urban proximity still matters.

Throughout the book, Glaeser adeptly flips the script in this manner, re-describing what we may have misunderstood about the function of cities. Take poverty, for instance. If you're a laborer in the remote northeast of Brazil, chances are you live below the poverty line (only 30% of residents are above it) and fare far worse than you would in Rio, where 90% of the residents earn more than $85 a month. No one is endorsing the conditions of slum life, but Glaeser insists our diagnosis is wrong: the slums aren't Rio's fault. Rather, the favelas are the direct consequence of the benefits the city offers relative to rural poverty: "Cities aren't full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people," he writes. Perversely, the better a city makes its public schools and the wider access it gives to public transit, the more attractive it becomes to poor people who would not otherwise have access to that education, or the means to travel to a job. It's not good to be poor, but Glaeser's point is that it is better to be poor in a city than in the country: there, at least, there are people to meet, with skills to impart. 

Recasting slum life in this manner is a daring move, and not one inclined to make critics of globalization entirely happy. Cities attract poor people, it's true, but it might also be the case that misguided First World policies are driving rural people into urban slum conditions. Mike Davis, for example, in his book Planet of Slums, rails at IMF and World Bank debt restructuring in the developing world, blaming those policies for making small-scale agriculture untenable. "[Structural Adjustment Programs] devastated rural smallholders by eliminating subsidies and pushing them sink or swim into global commodity markets dominated by heavily subsidized First World agribusiness," Davis argues. Glaeser rightly notes that, when it comes to the laborious work of subsistence agriculture, there is very little to be wistful about, but we might still think there are ways of improving rural lives that do not involve such rough displacement. If we can't blame the city for the slums, we also must not overlook global economic policies which drastically limit the options available to the world's rural poor.

When it comes to the environment, the issue of the city's role becomes much simpler: dense, well-governed, smart-growth cities actually minimize human impact on the planet. It's the pretty, tree-lined suburbs that are in fact a green-earth nightmare. As a culture, it seems, we've gotten the suburbs entirely wrong. Movies and books that condescend to the suburbs, portraying nothing but thin inner lives and Stepford conformity, end up papering over the real grounds for critique. The actual trouble with the suburbs is that they are a government-subsidized assault on sustainable living. 

You can't fault people for living in the subdivisions public policy has encouraged them to live in, but we should demand a shift that does not actively discourage city living. On average, that architectural constant of the suburban subdivision, the single-family home, consumes nearly 90% more electricity than a New Yorker's apartment. U.S. Carbon emissions would plummet 70% if all Americans suddenly were to live more or less as most New Yorkers do. Urban density, which makes possible public transit and a great deal of zero-carbon walking and biking, leaves a vastly smaller environmental footprint than life in the driving-intensive suburbs: "Anyone who believes that global warming is a real danger should see dense urban living as part of the solution," Glaeser writes. Examined in this light, the suburb might turn out to be the single oddest relic of twentieth-century life in America, a strange experiment encouraged by a cornucopia of government policies that acted as artificial inducements to urban exodus.

The biggest anti-urban policy culprit, in Glaeser's view, is the home mortgage-interest deduction. This tax credit, designed to promote home-ownership, actually ends up encouraging Americans to buy bigger, typically suburban, homes: "As long as owner-occupied housing remains disproportionately non-urban, then subsidizing ownership will hurt cities," Glaeser says. Then there are the federal highway funds and poorly calibrated gas taxes which help keep the social and environmental costs of driving hidden, in effect subsidizing the car and suburban commutes. School financing is another issue; once we accept that cities are always going to attract poor people, then local school financing just looks like an easy way to let the wealthy cluster in more expensive areas where their dollars make for better schools. (Paris has great urban schools, but they are, of course, nationally financed.)

The Triumph of the City is not just a history, and much needed defense, of the modern city. It also offers a set of prescriptions: we need gas taxes and congestion pricing to make the real costs of driving apparent; more skyscrapers and better mass transit to promote density; and a system of either national financing or private vouchers to slip out of the stalemate that leaves us with so many disgraceful urban schools. All of this is sensible, but it's the logic underneath the policy proposals that is most worth attending to: "Our culture, our prosperity, and our freedom," Glaeser writes, "are all ultimately gifts of people living, working, and thinking together — the ultimate triumph of the city."


Where Edward Glaeser gives us a history of the city with policy prescriptions, Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next gives us city space. What will the physical architecture of the future city of global capitalism look like? According to John Kasarda, business professor and globe-trotting consultant, working with the journalist Greg Lindsay, the city of the future is the city of the airport. If cities have historically been built to fit a period's dominant mode of transportation — walking, followed by pack animals, carriages, railroads, cars — then the airplane is next in line to rearrange how our cities look and feel.

The logic of the aerotropolis rests on the basic premise that we live in an intricately connected world of trade and goods, almost all of it underwritten by air travel. We know this globalization narrative already, because we're living it: the flat world; outsourced manufacturing; exotic Asian fruits in our supermarkets; the burgeoning industry of medical tourism. Lindsay's reporting gives contour to Kasarda's maxims about our contemporary world, where companies don't compete with one other as much as their supply-chains do, a global economy where speed trumps every other advantage. Lindsay takes us deep inside the Dutch flower market. He allows us to travel through booming Indian and Chinese cities, witness the rise of FedEx, UPS, Abu Dhabi, and Singapore. It's an insightful, lavishly researched account, full of the micro-data of interconnectedness: the far-flung factories that produce our computers and flat-screen televisions, the state of the art hospitals in Thailand angling for Western customers priced out of the American health care system.

Kasarda stumps for the collective recognition that global markets demand an infrastructure America has only built piecemeal. According to Kasarda, the ugly, broken-down tangle of brownfields and warehouses near many American airports is simply the result of our failure to properly plan for the airport, and to put it to efficient use. Oddly, the last revolution of the Jet Age will be to finally build our cities with some acknowledgment that we live in a world made possible by airplanes. The iPhones and iPods "Designed in California, Assembled in China" are still flown into an overburdened LAX which has proved politically impossible to expand, and is as difficult as ever to get to. On the other hand, our current and future competitors — China, India, South Korea, Dubai and Saudi Arabia — are all committed to building hundreds of these aerotropoli in the coming decades.

Overcome the multi-agency governmental infighting that has made O'Hare or LAX so difficult to improve, and we might have something like New Songdo City, in South Korea. New Songdo — scheduled for completion in 2015 — is a gateway city for the global business class, currently being built from scratch on a manmade island in the Yellow Sea, with the airport as its centerpiece. Residents should be able to travel from anywhere in the city to the airport in fifteen minutes; multinational corporations will flock to the new city, they believe, attracted by the hundred other cities no more than a four-hour flight away. Corporate workers will be more than pleased with the amenities, the hodge-podge urban design which borrows canals from Venice, Central Park from New York, gardens from Savannah, and shopping districts from Beverly Hills. That's the idea anyway: these instant cities are always more easily imagined than accomplished.

Kasarda is fascinated by Dubai, for example, another instant city built as a hub for the global market, though Dubai seems to undercut the aerotropolis vision as much as it endorses it. Much of Dubai sounds like the world as imagined by the most Randian (Ayn or Paul, either one will do) wing of the American right. There are no corporate or personal income taxes, and the city boasts a CEO-style leader presiding over its business-first paradise of smooth bureaucratic permitting, luxury houses, high-end shopping amenities, and indoor skiing. Of course, Dubai, built in a speculative frenzy, has also leveraged itself to the eyeballs, and would have defaulted on its creditors and had its towers repossessed by the desert sands by now had Abu Dhabi not stepped in to save it from financial ruin. (So much for the inherent rationality of unregulated free markets.) Worse, from the city point of view, is the tattered community that results when cities are planned for corporations but not for people. Apartments and houses sold instantly in Dubai, as fast as the plans could be drawn up, but who will live in them? Certainly not the vast pools of non-citizen migrant laborers who built them all, and who must move on to build the next new city. Aerotropolis tellingly quotes one British expat who claims traffic jams are the furthest thing from his mind; these are the fourth or fifth homes of the global elite, many of which were bought not to be occupied, but to be flipped. Aerotropolis or not, Dubai should give us serious pause as a candidate for utopia.

Take Kasarda at his word, and the aerotropolis looks like the inevitable outcome of the ameliorative logic of global capitalism: it brings immense benefits, a rising tide for all boats, better lives, and a better world. Doubt him, and it's easy to see the aerotropolis as a frightening emblem of monoculture: a factory town custom-built by and for "frictionless" corporate profits, a city without citizenship. We might understand perfectly that our food, clothing, luxuries, and entertainments now come to us from the bellies of airplanes, and that economic competitiveness is a global game; and yet we might still feel that the business of the aerotropolis comes at the direct expense of nearly everything humans have ever found beautiful, enriching or consoling about city life. It hardly seems incidental, for example, that the infrastructure of the aerotropolis — built for supply-chain connections — seems to erase the spaces for connections of a more local, intimate variety that Glaeser champions. If there is any place for people to gather to express their discontent, to ask for change, to demand a say in their own lives, then it is never described; if there is a Tahrir or Tiananmen Square in the aerotropolis, Kasarda never mentions it. There isn't one in Dubai.

The aerotropolis, for all its access to the global market and express convenience for corporations (which might, on a moment's notice, decamp just as quickly for the next city where the tax advantages are suddenly more favorable), seems to ignore all human desires not explicitly related to economic growth and the pace of commerce. If Kasarda's argument is that cities have always been about economic production, that is, generously, only half correct. He's right that cities have decayed when their connectivity was eclipsed; port cities built for the clipper ship were decimated by bigger ports that could handle steamships. Cities grow, change, and die. He's wrong to ignore, though, that cities have almost always been built with a notion of some deeper contact in mind: to communicate with gods, to house a temple, to share ideas.

As a historical matter, the relationship of the city to the marketplace is much more vexed than Kasarda allows. Going back to Greek and Mesopotamian cities, the temple, not the market, was understood as the city seat. Even then, the market was much more than a place for goods. It acted as a communal meeting place, playing a role in city life that far exceeded simply transacting business. In the age of global capitalism, the old agora of Athens has been magnified a billion times, and then shattered and dispersed into its component supply-chains, transportation networks, and hubs for "value-added" parts and labor. This new agora may, indeed, cry out for the aerotropolis. But where's the Acropolis? Precisely what makes aerotropoli so frightening is that they don't seem to be anything at all like places many of us would want to live, even if they are the cities our consumer desires are building, one overnight flower, fish, and fruit at a time. To be horrified by the aerotropolis is, in essence, to be forced to choose between what we want to consume, and places where we might actually want to live. 


This 21st century conundrum has been a long time in coming. In her 1931 essay "The Docks of London," Virginia Woolf describes the shipborne commerce which brought the trade revolutions of her own time. "The only thing, one comes to feel, that can change the routine of the docks is a change in ourselves," Woolf observed:

Suppose, for instance, that we gave up drinking claret, or took to using rubber instead of wool for our blankets, the whole machinery of production and distribution would rock and reel and seek about to adapt itself afresh. It is we — our tastes, our fashions, our needs — that make the cranes dip and swing, that call the ships from the sea. Our body is their master.

City life has come too far, in its triumph of invention, to end up stuck with such an impoverished vision of a city's purpose as the aerotropolis. But if our picture of the ideal city is of a place that stands for more than global capital — if we want a House of Wisdom, too — then perhaps what we really need is a change in our own habits, our own bodies, our own desires.

LARB Contributor

Casey Walker is the author of the novel Last Days in Shanghai. He is at work on a novel about the US-Mexico border.


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