Book review: Triumph of the City

This review first ran in the Sept. 12 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

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

By Edward Glaeser

Penguin Press


As a Hamilton taxpayer, I’m less than thrilled that we’re picking up the $100,000 tab for the fiasco that was lingerie football at Copps Coliseum back in July.

And I’m not completely convinced that Festival of Friends needs a $100,000 handout from local taxpayers.

But I’d have no problem if $200,000 from the public purse paid for special events put on by Hamilton Hive.

The Hive brings together Hamilton’s new blood and young guns. It’s in the business of building networks among our city’s next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, small business owners, corporate leaders and civic boosters.

And it’s through these Hive-brokered conversations, connections and collaborations that we could finally fix Hamilton’s image problem and our never ending search for an identity. The Hive could prove to be a catalyst in building Hamilton’s reputation as the start-up capital of Canada. The best place and first choice for young, smart and savvy professionals looking to set up shop, launch a business, grow a company, raise a family and make their mark. 

Hamilton Hive is contributing to a key requirement for all successful cities, says author and Harvard University professor Edward Glaeser who believes the world isn’t so much flat as it is paved and urban. “To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively. Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens.”

So what’s it take to attract smart people and small firms? Glaeser says there are two competing visions. There’s the Richard Florida vision of chasing after the creative class by embracing the arts, celebrating alternative lifestyles and investing in a fun, happening downtown.  With a fondness for coffeehouses and public sculpture, Glaeser says it’s a vision that seems aimed at a 28-year-old wearing a black turtleneck and reading Proust.

The second vision of city building is boring by comparison, with a focus on doing a better job of being brilliant at the basics and delivering core public services like safe streets, fast commutes and good schools. It’s a vision built around meeting the needs of a 42-year-old biotech researcher concerned about whether her family will be as comfortable and their quality of life will be as good in Hamilton as they’d be in Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver.

With scarce resources, cities can’t afford to be everything for everyone. So which vision is best? Where should a city invest limited revenues and the energy of its leaders? While Glaeser supports subscribing to a bit of both visions, sticking to the basics is the best option for most cities on the rebound.

“There are roughly three times as many people in their thirties, forties and fifties as there are in their twenties, so it would be a mistake for cities to think that they can survive solely as magnets for the young and hip,” says Glaeser. “As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics. A sexier place won’t bring many jobs if it isn’t safe. All the cafes in Paris won’t entice parents to put their kids in a bad public school system.”

Struggling cities confuse aesthetic interventions with urban basics and accelerate their decline. “Too many officials in troubled cities wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project – a new stadium or light rail system, a convention centre, or a housing project,” says Glaeser, who calls this the edifice complex.

It’s a blind belief that struggling cities can build themselves out of decline and that abundant new building leads to urban success even if the existing stock of housing and office space outstrips demand. “Successful cities typically do build, because economic vitality makes people willing to pay for space and builders are happy to accommodate. But building is the result, not the cause, of success. Overbuilding a declining city that already has more structures than it needs is nothing but folly.”

Glaeser says city planners and civic leaders need to be realistic and expect moderate successes rather than blockbusters. “Realism pushes toward small, sensible projects, not betting a city’s future on a vast, expensive roll of the dice. The real payoff of these investments in amenities lies in attracting the skilled residents who can really make a city rebound, especially if those residents can connect with the world economy. We must free ourselves from the tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

Glaeser says municipal leaders have one overriding priority. “Ultimately, the job of urban government isn’t to fund buildings or rail lines that can’t possibly cover their costs, but to care for the city’s citizens. A mayor who can better educate a city’s children so that they can find opportunity on the other side of the globe is succeeding, even if his city is getting smaller.”

What cities must build first and foremost is their workforce. “There is no such thing as a successful city without human capital,” says Glaeser. Building that capital starts with kids and teens staying in school, getting a good education and going on to postsecondary. A highly educated, highly skilled workforce serves as the magnet that attracts employers with high skilled, high paying jobs. And those employers in turn attract even more highly skilled newcomers.

“The path back for declining industrial towns is long and hard,” warns Glaeser, who says Rust Belt cities built their economies around major employers that required low skilled labour. “Over decades, they must undo the cursed legacy of big factories and heavy industry. They must return to their roots as places of small-scale entrepreneurship and commerce. Apart from investing in education and maintaining core public services with moderate taxes and regulations, governments can do little to speed this process. Not every city will come back, but human creativity is strong, especially when reinforced by urban density.”

Glaeser’s case studies and histories of thriving and dying cities from around the world should be required reading for all Hamiltonians. His book also begs a question. We had no trouble taking $45 million out of the Hamilton Future Fund to rebuild a football stadium. What if we took another $45 million and covered the full costs of apprenticeship training, college diplomas and university degrees for every child in our Code Red neighbourhoods?  As Glaeser makes clear, educating our kids is a surefire way to fund a city’s future.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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