Review: Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

03 Feb

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

I’m having some trouble with capturing my reaction to this book. Overall, the content and presentation were very interesting, but I don’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions.

Summary via TLC Book Tours:

America is an urban nation. More than two thirds of us live on the 3 percent of land that contains our cities. Yet cities get a bad rap: they’re dirty, poor, unhealthy, crime ridden, expensive, environmentally unfriendly… Or are they?

As Edward Glaeser proves in this myth-shattering book, cities are actually the healthiest, greenest, and richest (in cultural and economic terms) places to live. New Yorkers, for instance, live longer than other Americans; heart disease and cancer rates are lower in Gotham than in the nation as a whole. More than half of America’s income is earned in twenty-two metropolitan areas. And city dwellers use, on average, 40 percent less energy than suburbanites.

Glaeser travels through history and around the globe to reveal the hidden workings of cities and how they bring out the best in humankind. Even the worst cities-Kinshasa, Kolkata, Lagos- confer surprising benefits on the people who flock to them, including better health and more jobs than the rural areas that surround them. Glaeser visits Bangalore and Silicon Valley, whose strangely similar histories prove how essential education is to urban success and how new technology actually encourages people to gather together physically. He discovers why Detroit is dying while other old industrial cities-Chicago, Boston, New York-thrive. He investigates why a new house costs 350 percent more in Los Angeles than in Houston, even though building costs are only 25 percent higher in L.A. He pinpoints the single factor that most influences urban growth-January temperatures-and explains how certain chilly cities manage to defy that link. He explains how West Coast environmentalists have harmed the environment, and how struggling cities from Youngstown to New Orleans can “shrink to greatness.” And he exposes the dangerous anti-urban political bias that is harming both cities and the entire country.

After reading the first chapter, I was very concerned about the rest of the book. It presented a whole bunch of opinions, stated as fact, with very little to back them up. I felt like arguing with all of them, even the ones I agreed with.

Luckily I did better with the rest of the book, where the arguments are arranged logically and supported with studies of particular cities.  I really liked the looks at different cities around the world, at what aspects of them work and which don’t, and the history that led them to where they are now. For the most part, it was very thoughtful analysis, leading me to think about what it means for a city to be successful, and what can happen to make a city become more successful.

The one ongoing issue I had was with what was being compared at any given point in time.  Sometimes it was city life vs. rural life, at others it was city vs. suburban life.  It was never a three way comparison, and sometimes it needed to be.  It wasn’t always clear at each point what definition of “city” was being used– for the most part, I think my community wasn’t included in what he considers a city– except in his sections on Silicon Valley.

There were still some conclusions that I did not feel were supported by the facts given, and some where I could see the argument being made but still didn’t agree. These were outweighed by the number of times the book had me thinking about issues and solutions I hadn’t even considered before.

Looking at the title, did he convince me that cities make us:

  • Richer?  Yes, he swayed me on this one.  In general, cities will help you move up in income.
  • Greener?  Yes, he convinced me here as well.  Cities make more efficient use of resources.
  • Healthier?  No,  I believe him that city residents are healthier, but I think this may be due to who wants to live in the city.  I don’t think they are any less healthy, however.
  • Happier?  No, this is where I’m least pursuaded.

This would be a good book to read with a friend or two, to discuss the ideas and to compare notes on experiences with different cities. I’ve got some quibbles with his comments on Silicon Valley, the only “city” mentioned that I have real experience with. I wonder what people from other parts of the country (or world) would think of the arguments regarding their homes.

TLC Book ToursI read Triumph of the City as part of a  TLC Book Tour, and the publisher provided me with my copy of the book.  Thank you to Penguin Press and TLC Books for the opportunity to participate.  For other opinions on Triumph of the City, check out the other tour stops:


Posted by on February 3, 2011 in books, reviews, tour


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6 responses to “Review: Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

  1. Heather J. @ TLC

    February 4, 2011 at 8:54 am

    This sounds like a book that would be perfect for a book club – enough controversy to give everyone something to talk about, but not enough to get everyone arguing. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts as part of the tour. I’m glad you didn’t find the whole book as frustrating as that first chapter!

  2. Ash

    February 6, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I’ve really enjoyed this book, although I’m not quite done. This is a great review.

  3. Tricia

    February 22, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    You hit that first chapter spot on. Fortunately, I thought it really improved after that (except for the last chapter which was nothing but a summary). Nice review!

  4. Laurent Franckx

    September 11, 2011 at 1:45 am

    I suppose you’re (depending on the specific city) right on the “happy” issue – but that’s precisely the problem: if people move out of cities to pursue what they think is high-quality suburban life, society as a whole loses.
    see also my discussion at


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