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The Healthy, Happy City is Hopeful

May 9, 2011

In Chapter Nine of “Triumph of the City,” author and economist Edward Glaeser begins a discussion of “How Do Cities Succeed?” He says:

“Tolstoy may have been right that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but among cities, failures seem similar while successes feel unique.

“Someone wandering through Leipzig’s boarded-up neighborhoods could very well think she was in Detroit. Empty houses give off a similarly depressing feeling whether they’re in England or Ohio.

“But no one could ever confuse Bangalore with Boston or Tokyo with Chicago. Successful cities always have a wealth of human energy that expresses itself in different ways and defines its own idiosyncratic space.”

The uniqueness of each successful city is perhaps one of the challenges in studying exactly what makes a particular city successful, but the author doesn’t hesitate to write his subtitle: “How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.”

And he discusses how each of these claims is true. City dwellers live longer on average. I wouldn’t doubt the reduction in auto deaths and suicides are enough to make the difference.

Cities end up being “greener,” lowering the carbon footprint for each inhabitant. Well-run cities can make an enormous difference. The same is true economically.

People will migrate to cities even to live in slums because the economic possibilities are greater than in the poverty-stricken lives they left. A successful city will always face this challenge, and the author claims that anti-growth movements actually cripple cities unnecessarily.

You can decide. There are numbers, and there are also considerations about quality of life. Chicago’s modern Mayor Daley “made a fetish of tree planting” (before our own Mayor R.T. Taylor) at the same time he vigorously supported construction.

Thus, part of the improved quality of life in Chicago comes from trees and parks, and part of it comes from cheaper housing than is offered by other big cities, such as New York and San Francisco.

As Glaeser said, each successful city is unique. Each analysis must be done with care. For example, let’s look at the variation in real wages.

San Diego and Honolulu offer surprisingly low real incomes while Dallas, Texas, and Rochester, Minnesota, offer unusually high real incomes. Why isn’t everyone in Honolulu hopping planes for Dallas?

The real wages are compensation for winters in Minnesota and summers in Dallas. Low real wages are the cost of living in pleasant Honolulu. Could this help explain wages in Salida?

There are many variables that determine our circumstances, including our decisions. As a species, we are drawn to cities, and the benefits keep us there, for the most part.

The close proximity permits better communication and cross-pollination, so to speak. That’s how Silicon Valley in the U.S. and Bangalore in India became vibrant technology centers.

I think this explains why cafes continue to thrive in an age of Facebook and why “lone eagle” telecommuting never really took off. Modern communications is only an enhancement of, not a replacement for, face-to-face meeting.

Glaeser is a proponent of high-rise, high-density living. Speaking of the Dr. Seuss fable “The Lorax,” he says, “True environmentalists should toss their copies of this book into the recycling bin and denounce the Lorax fallacy—that cities are bad for the environment. High-rise pioneers like William Le Baron and A.E. Lefcourt are better guides to a greener future than Henry David Thoreau.”

Of course it’s not so simple. There’s more: education, the bias toward sprawl, urban poverty, NIMBYism, and so on. But Glaeser is convinced, and the idea of the healthy, happy city is hopeful and intriguing.

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