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The 4 Secrets of Our Greatest Invention

‘Triumph of the City’ by Edward Glaeser is a gem that shares insights into why cities are our greatest accomplishment

There is a near-perfect correlation between urbanization and prosperity across nations. As more and more of the world's population lives in urban areas than ever before, some areas are more appealing than others.

What makes your city one of those cities? Why do some cities succeed and others fail? “Triumph of the City” by Edward Glaeser is a gem that shares insights into why cities are our greatest invention and the patterns that make or break them.

1. Humans Not Buildings

When a city focuses on the people that live there they succeed. Taking care of buildings and infrastructure is a forever commitment. They require annual maintenance and eventually become obsolete. Education perpetuates itself as each generation teaches the next.

“What is the city but the people…” — Shakespeare

One of the primary defining elements of a city is density. With density, ideas move from one person to the next. Architect David Sim summarizes it with an equation.

Density x Diversity = Proximity.

Increase buildings and people being next to each other and human creativity can flourish. This is then leveraged when you have diversity in thought, experience, and heritage pushing your city to even higher limits.

“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.” — Edward Glaeser

Shout out to my hometown, Kalamazoo, MI which lives by this philosophy. Our city is one of the few places in the United States where free college is available to those who graduate from high school.

2. Economic Diversity

As a resident of Michigan, I can relate to the discussion and pain when Glaeser writes about the decline of the Rust Belt. The Rust Belt is the Great Lakes Region in the United States.

Until the 1980’s the primary focus of the region's industry was the extraction of raw materials, and manufacturing. With the industrial revolution coming to an end, it put the city of Detriot in a difficult position.

Detriot’s economy was once the envy of cities everywhere. Dubbed the Motor City for the mass production of vehicles, the variety of firms creating new and better cars helped the city thrived. As industry leaders vertically integrated, buying up the competition, the spirit of entrepreneurship was replaced by company men.

Because Detriot’s economy was dependant on the automobile, as the industry changed, so did the city. In 2009, Detroit was the largest metropolitan area to ever declare bankruptcy.

Many cities have had a similar fate to Detriot. How can you reverse the tide?

“Too many officials wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project.” — Edward Glaeser

Most cities try to build their way out of decline with buildings and large transportation projects. Building is the result, not the cause, of success. The Bilbao Effect is the exception to this rule.

The way forward is the same as how these cities got started: competition, connection, and human capital. — Edward Glaeser

Areas with small businesses grow quicker than those dominated by enormous enterprises. Consider Silicon Valley. A hotbed of start-ups and innovative creation for decades. Is Detriot a warning sign of things to come? How long until the Four (Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook) create the same corporate monotony?

3. A Hub for Entertainment

Humans are the most important part of any city. Smart, talented people like to work as well as play. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “Live, Work, Play”?

As the creative class continues to rise, people will choose places that offer pleasure as well as opportunities for productivity. Suburbs cater to young parents because of better schools and larger homes but cities attract single people because there is stuff going on.

Today restaurants are the most important draw for cities and urban areas. Because cities are dense, restaurants, pubs, breweries, and coffeehouses become the living room and kitchen that residents can’t have in their small apartment.

4. Sprawl Affects Us All

“Cars, not culture, are the root of sprawl”— Edward Glaeser

Cars require an extreme amount of land to move through. The storage of vehicles, when not in use, also requires a vast amount of space (a cities most valuable asset).

Cars save time and could be one of the great productivity tools. But when was the last time we considered our automobile to be a productivity tool? It’s certainly hard to think that when you’re stuck in traffic.

Ultimately, density is what makes cities successful. Reducing density by sprawling out, and making room for automobiles has consequences both on the city budget and on the reduction of human interaction.

One of the best ways to combat sprawl is by building up.

“In the most desirable cities, whether they’re on the Hudson River or the Indian Ocean, height is the best way to keep prices affordable and living standards high.”- Edward Glaeser

More Than One Way

There’s more than one way to skin a cat and there’s more than one way to build a successful city.

Tokyo invested in its people, focused on density (building up, not out), and because of their smart, well-educated population are set up for decades of continued success.

Boston once the center of the American Industrial Revolution has reinvented itself to be a hub for robotics, financial services consulting, and biotech. All of which require smart people.

Singapore succeeds by offering businesses better government than nearby states. Lee Kwan Yew understood that business people preferred law and order rather than bribery, which attracts smart people to their city.

Cities will continue to thrive because cities magnify human strengths.

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