The triumph of the cities


The Renaissance movement started on the streets of Florence, and the Industrial Revolution started in Birmingham

Cities have survived a tumultuous end to the industrial era, and they are now more prosperous, healthier and more attractive than ever

Two hundred and forty three million US citizens are concentrated into the country's 3 percent of urban land. In Tokyo and its suburbs, the world's most productive metropolitan area, is home to a total of thirty six million people.

There are twelve million people residing in Bombay, and the size of Shanghai is approximately the same. In a planet that has enormous amounts of space (the whole of humanity would fit in Texas, every one with their own detached family home), we still prefer the cities. Although it is currently cheaper to run long distances or move from the Ozark mountains to Azerbaijan, more and more people are living in large metropolitan areas. Every month five million more people arrive in the cities of emergent countries. In 2011, more than half the world population is urban.

Cities, those dense agglomerations spotting the planet, have been the motors of innovation since the times when Plato and Socrates were arguing in the Athens markets. The Renaissance movement started on the streets of Florence, and the Industrial Revolution started in Birmingham. The great prosperity of contemporary London, Bangalore and Tokyo is due to their capacity to generate new ideas. Travelling through these cities, either on cobbled pavements or through a maze of little streets, around roundabouts or under motorways, is equivalent to studying human progress.

In the richest countries in the West, the cities have survived the tumultuous end of the industrial era, and now they are more prosperous, healthier and more attractive than ever. In the world's poorest areas, cities are growing at a huge rate because urban density offers the shortest route from misery to prosperity. In spite of the technological advances that have shortened distances, the world is not in fact flat, it is paved. Cities have triumphed. However, as many of us know through experience, sometimes urban routes, even though they are paved, seem to lead to hell. Perhaps cities do win, but often their citizens lose. Every urban infancy is shaped by an extraordinary avalanche of people and experiences; some, like the feeling of power an adolescent gets when travelling on the underground for the first time, are delicious; others less so, like witnessing a shooting in an urban environment for the first time (an unforgettable part of my own childhood in New York thirty five years ago). For every Fifth Avenue, there is a Bombay suburb; for every Sorbonne, there is a Washington D. C. institute guarded by metal detectors.

My passion for the urban world started in the New York of Koch, Thurman Munson and Leonard Bernstein. Inspired by my metropolitan childhood, I have spent my life trying to understand cities. This passion has been based on theories and economic data, but I have also travelled to the streets of Moscow, São Paulo and Bombay, and I have researched the history of bustling metropolis, and the daily lives of those who live and work in them. I am so passionate about studying cities because it raises some fascinating, significant and sometimes worrying questions Why is it that the world's richest and poorest people so often live next door to one another? How do previously flourishing cities deteriorate? Why do some of them return dramatically to the first stage? Why do so many artistic movements emerge so quickly in certain cities at specific times? Why do so many intelligent people put into practice such foolish town policies?

In the United States, the workers in metropolitan areas with big cities earn 30% more than workers who live outside metropolitan areas. These high salaries are counteracted by the cost of living, which is higher, but this does not alter the fact that the high salaries indicate high productivity. The only reason why companies withstand the  labour and property costs of being in a city is precisely because being in a city offers productivity advantages that compensate these costs. The North Americans living in metropolitan areas with more that one million residents are, on average, 50 per cent more productive that those who live in small metropolitan areas.

The proportions are the same if we take into account the IQ of individual workers. The different income levels between metropolitan areas and rural areas is as big as in other rich countries, and even more in poor countries.

In Europe and North America, cities accelerate innovation, linking together their intelligent inhabitants. However, in the emergent world cities play an even more decisive role: they are points of communication between markets and cultures. In the 19th century, Bombay was the gateway for cotton. In the 21st century, Bangalore is a gateway for ideas. If someone had mentioned India to an average North American or European in 1990, he would probably have spluttered uncomfortably about the tragedy of Third World poverty. Today, it would be more likely that this person would splutter uncomfortably about the possibility of his job being subcontracted to Bangalore. India is still a poor country, but it is growing at a feverish rate, and Bangalore, the country's fifth largest city, is one of the continent's greatest success stories. The wealth in Bangalore comes not only from its industrial power (although it is still an important textile production centre too), but also from its strength as an idea production centre. By concentrating so much talent in the same place, Bangalore facilitates the assimilation of this talent by both local people and outsiders from Singapore or Silicon Valley, and also those who come into contact with the Indian human capital. This reminds us of the anti-urban figure of all time, Mahatma Gandhi who said that «the true India is not in its few cities, but in its seven hundred thousand villages», and that «the development of the nation depends not on the cities, but on the villages». That great man was wrong; India's development depends almost completely on its cities. In all countries there is an almost perfect correlation between town planning and prosperity. As the proportion of a nation's urban population increases 10%, the per capita output increases by an average of 30 percent. The income per capita is almost four times higher in countries where most of the population lives in cities, than in those where most of the population live in rural areas.

There is the myth that although cities increase prosperity, they do not cease to be depressive. However, in the most urbanised countries the people say they are happier. In the countries where more than half of the population is urban, 30 percent of the people say that they are very happy and 17 percent say that they are not too happy, or that they are not happy at all. In the countries where more than half the population is rural, 25 percent of the people say that they are very happy and 22 percent say that they are not. In all countries, existential satisfaction increases in proportion to the percentage of population living in cities, even taking into account the country's income and educational level.

So, cities like Bombay, Calcutta and Bangalore not only stimulate the Indian economy, but also its state of mind. And naturally they are not «anti-Indian» cities, the same way that New York is not anti-American. These cities are, from many points of view, the places where a country's genius is expressed more fully.

The urban capacity to promote co-operative brilliance is new. For centuries, innovations were spread from one person to another in packed urban streets. When Brunelleschi discovered the geometry of the linear perspective during the Florentine Renaissance, he triggered an genius-artistic explosion. He transmitted his knowledge to his friend Donatello, who added linear perspective to his bas-reliefs. Their friend in common, Masaccio introduced this innovation to painting. The artistic innovations in Florence were glorious secondary effects of urban concentration. The wealth of the city came from the most mundane activities: banking and textile production. Today, however, Bangalore, New York and London all depend on their innovation capacity. The spread of knowledge from one engineer to another, from merchant to merchant, is the same as the flying of ideas from one painter to another, and for a long time urban density has been a central element in this process.

The vitality of New York and Bangalore does not mean that every city triumphs. In 1950, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the US and had 1,85 million inhabitants. In 2008, it had 777,000, less than half this figure, and it continued to lose its population at a constant rate. Eight of the ten largest cities in the US in 1950 have lost at least a fifth of their population since then. The failure of Detroit and many other industrial cities cannot be blamed on cities in general: Instead it is attributable to the sterility of those cities that lost contact with the essential ingredients of urban reinvention.

Cities prosper when they have an abundance of small companies and trained citizens. In other times, Detroit was a beehive, full of small inventors all connected to one another. Henry Ford was just one of many businessmen with talent. However, the unexpected success of the great Ford idea destroyed the old city, which was more innovative. In the 20th century, the expansion in Detroit attracted hundreds of thousands of less qualified workers to immense factories that became like forts separated from the city and the world. While industrial diversity, business acumen and education lead to innovation, the Detroit model led to urban decadence. The era of the industrial city has finished, at least in the West.

Many civil servants in afflicted cities wrongly believe that they can restore their city's lost splendour through large-scale building projects, new stadiums or light rail systems, convention centres or housing complexes. With very few exceptions, no public policy can slow down the tidal wave of urban change. We must not forget the needs of the poor who live in the «oxide belt», however public policies have to help the poor, not the poor cities. New, shiny properties may conceal a city's decadence, but they cannot solve its underlying problems. The distinctive trait of cities in decline is that they have too many homes and infrastructure with respect to their economies. With so many homes on offer and such little demand, it makes no sense using public money to build more. The foolishness of basing urban renewal on construction projects reminds us that cities are not built for buildings, but for people. After hurricane Katrina, builders wanted to invest thousands of millions of dollars in rebuilding New Orleans. However, if the population in that city had been given 200,000 million dollars, they would each have received 400,000 dollars to move house or study or buy a better home elsewhere. Even before the flood, New Orleans had looked after its poor people in a rather mediocre way. Did it really make sense spending thousands of millions of dollars on city infrastructures, when that money was really needed to help educate the kids in New Orleans? The grandeur of New Orleans has always come before its people, but not its buildings. Would it not have been better to ask ourselves how the public spending could have been used to do as much as possible for the hurricane victims, even if this meant that they left to go and live somewhere else?

The bottom line is that the task of a municipal government is not to finance buildings or trade fairs that are incapable of paying their own costs. Instead they have to look after the inhabitants of their city. A mayor who can educate the children in his city so that they can have opportunities on the other side of the world, will triumph even if his city reduces in size.

Although the limitless poverty in Detroit and similar cities clearly expresses urban poverty, not all urban poverty is bad. It is easy to imagine why someone visiting a low class district in Calcutta could share the opinion of Gandhi, and start to doubt that massive urbanisation is intelligent; however, urban poverty has many good sides. Cities do not make people poorer, they attract poor people. The influx of less fortunate people into cities, whether it is Río de Janeiro or Rotterdam, is proof of the virtues of cities, not their defects. Urban constructions may last for centuries, but urban populations are fluid. More than a quarter of the inhabitants in Manhattan did not live there five years ago. Poor people are constantly arriving in New York, São Paulo or Bombay in search of something better, and this is a fact of urban life that is worth celebrating.

Urban poverty should not be compared with urban wealth, but rural poverty. It may be that the slums in Río de Janeiro are terrible in comparison with a prosperous residential district in Chicago, but the levels of poverty in Río de Janeiro are much lower than those in the rural areas in the North East of Brazil. Poor people have no way of getting rich quickly, but they can choose between the cities and the countryside, and many of them, very smartly, choose the cities. The flow of rich and poor to cities energises urban areas. However, it is difficult not to consider the costs of concentrating poverty. Proximity encourages the exchange of ideas, but also the exchange of bacteria and bag snatching. All the world's old cities have suffered the impact of urban life: sickness, crime and overcrowding. And the fight against these ills has never been won by passively accepting the status quo or by trusting everything blindly to the free market.

The great steps taken by US and European cities will surely be repeated in the cities in emergent countries in the 21 century. This will make the world even more urban. At present, the city of New York, where it was expected that the children born in 1901 would live seven years less than their counterparts in the US countryside, is much healthier than the country as a whole. The urban victories over crime and sickness allow cities to prosper not just as production centres, but also as centres of pleasure. Urban magnitude makes it possible to pay for the fixed costs of theatres, museums and restaurants. Museums require large-scale, expensive exhibitions, and attractive facilities that are some times too costly; theatres need stages, lighting, sound equipment and many rehearsals. In cities, these fixed costs are affordable because they are divided between thousands of visitors and enthusiasts.

Throughout history, most people were too poor to allow their tastes in entertainment to determine their place of residence, and cities could not consider themselves areas of pleasure. And nevertheless, as people have become richer, they have tended to choose cities according to their lifestyle: and that is how the consumer city was born.

By Edward Glaeser

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