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The use and misuse of Glaeser's Triumph of the City

John Muscat, 12 March 2012

Appeals to authority are now the stock-in-trade of progressive pundits across a range of public controversies. In the face of popular discontent bubbling up from forums on the net and elsewhere, their fall-back posture is heavy-handed ‘expertism’. Policymaking is the prerogative of those with the right qualifications and credentials. Ordinary citizens should butt-out, no matter how self-interested the experts may seem. So too in the field of urban policy, encumbered as it is with a green-compact-city orthodoxy, do appeals to authority hold sway.

Over the course of 2011 a book title kept cropping up in some of the media coverage of urban issues – Triumph of the City by Harvard economist and New York Times blogger Edward Glaeser. Arguing that successful cities should be “urban theme parks” or “playgrounds” for the benefit of “smart inhabitants” – as progressives like to conceive themselves – while the energy-wasting populace must be brought to heel, Glaeser is, for the pundits, an authority figure from central casting.   

The Sydney Morning Herald’s urban critic, Elizabeth Farrelly, claimed the book “instantly became flavour of the month amongst the cognoscenti”. Proceeding to deliver another full-throated hymn in praise of density, she abridged Glaeser’s argument in typically hyperbolic terms. If only we lived in “dense urban centres”, miracles would abound: cheaper housing, better transport, protected wildernesses, no climate change, decent coffee and “a choice of walk-to tapas”. 

Her colleague Ross Gittins, the paper’s economics editor, was equally impressed. “Glaeser’s observations seem of obvious relevance to Sydney”, he wrote.  “Our sky-high house and unit prices are partly the product of … excessive government restrictions on development”, wrote Gittins, before adding, without a hint of irony, “there are limits to how far Sydney can be allowed to sprawl”. He resolves this contradiction with the phrase “Sydney needs to go up”, echoing a warning of Glaeser’s which serves as the new slogan of green urbanism: “If cities can’t build up, then they will build out”.  

This is sweet music to the green-tinged intelligentsia, for whom there is no worse crime against the planet than a bulging ‘human footprint’. Before weighing-up the merits of Glaeser’s build-up-not-out pitch, though, it should be said that many of his Australian fans either misrepresent or misunderstand his position. Farrelly’s diatribes against developers and suburbs are commonplace. She is all in favour of rigid ‘urban growth boundaries’, prescriptive urban consolidation and other features of the anti-sprawl agenda adopted by state and local governments over recent decades. So apparently is Gittins.

Glaeser’s views are more complex. “The government should not be in the business of enforcing lifestyles that we happen to find appealing”, writes Glaeser, “[t]he government’s job is to allow people to choose the life they want ...” He takes care to explain that this perspective accords with sound economic thinking:

“[A]t the heart of economics is the belief that businesses work best by competing furiously in a market that the government oversees as impartial umpire. The same is true for cities. Competition among local governments for people and firms is healthy … The national government does no good by propping up particular places, just as it does no good by propping up particular firms or industries.”

Identifying this principle as ‘spatial neutrality’, Glaeser is indifferent to the type of ‘growth boundaries’ so popular with Australian town planners and their green theorists, commenting at one point that “greenbelts may serve to check urban growth – which may or may not be desirable”. Indeed, it’s hard to see how any form of coercive zoning can be consistent with his position.

Glaeser’s core argument is that the principle of neutrality has been systematically violated in the United States. “Cities [by which he means inner-cities] can compete on a level playing field”, he says, “but over the past sixty years, America’s policies have slanted the field steeply against them”. These policies include inner-city development controls, especially height restrictions, the home mortgage interest deduction, the Interstate Highway system, inferior inner-city schools administered by local school boards and inadequate gasoline (petrol) taxes. Remove such “artificial barriers” and “everybody, not just the privileged few, can enjoy the pleasures of Manhattan or Paris or Hong Kong”.

Lurking behind Glaeser’s sedate prose, but never quite breaking out, is some kind of ultra-centripetal theory of human settlement. Human beings maximise their satisfaction by living in the centre of the world’s leading city, measured by size, wealth and amenity. It’s just that economic and legal barriers fix most of them in various grades of less desirable places. If the whole world could, in other words, they would pack up and move to Manhattan (“New York is still a paradigm of urbanity”, says Glaeser). In the years between 1880 and 1920, when millions of people from all over Europe swarmed into the crowded tenements of New York’s lower east side, such a theory might have had some plausibility. But the world changed. Since at least the middle of the twentieth century, the statistical and historical evidence points in the opposite direction. Countries like the US and Australia saw massive population shifts to the suburbs and attracted millions of immigrants hoping for their own suburban lot and house.

However much Glaeser’s “artificial barriers” may have contributed to suburbanisation in the United States, the key issue is how important they were relative to one of the great transformations of the twentieth century: the unremitting growth of motor vehicle ownership and motorised commercial transportation. Even Glaeser concedes that “transportation technologies shape our communities, and modern sprawl is the child of the automobile”, though he insists the convenience of car ownership can be diminished.  

The problem is that the trend towards urban dispersion started well before Glaeser’s so-called barriers came into existence. In his book  Downtown: Its Rise and Fall 1880-1950, Robert Fogelson writes that “by the mid and late 1920s, however, some Americans had come to the conclusion that the centrifugal forces were beginning to overpower the centripetal forces – or, in other words, that the dispersal of residences might well lead in time to the decentralization of business”. And the trend shows no sign of abating. Having analysed the 2010 US census, Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox find that during the 2000s, just 8.6 per cent of the population growth in metropolitan areas with more than a million people took place in the core cities, the rest took place in the suburbs. “America continues to suburbanize”, they say. This is despite the financial crash, which would have blunted some of Glaeser’s pro-suburban incentives. Could it be that most people just prefer space over density?

As for Australia, Glaeser’s core argument simply doesn’t hold. Most of his “artificial barriers” have no direct equivalents here. Our advanced motorways are intra-urban rather than interstate networks, and attract significant toll charges, our schools are subject to state rather than local board control and home mortgage interest is not tax deductible. No reasonable person would claim that our governments have “slanted the field” in favour of suburbs over recent decades. The very notion of spatial neutrality has been anathema. Urban consolidation is all the rage, suppressing land releases while driving up values to the point that Australian houses are consistently ranked ‘severely unaffordable’ in the annual Demographia survey, due in no small measure to a crushing mix of developer and infrastructure contributions and utility levies.  

Still, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that four of the five strongest growing Sydney Local Government Areas (LGAs) in the year to 30 June 2009 were in the outer west: Blacktown, Parramatta, The Hills Shire and Liverpool, which offer home buyers the best prospect of owning a detached house and provide many industries with the cheap land, low rents, extensive space and proximity to major road junctions they need to thrive. According to the Department of Finance, 90 per cent of the containers passing through Sydney’s Port Botany originate in or are destined for the city’s outer western region. In its recent decision to abandon some of the previous state government's residential zoning restrictions on Sydney’s fringe, the current government is just coming to terms with reality.

Following Glaeser’s logic, if, in conditions of “a level playing field”, or even a “field slanted” against outer suburbs, residents and businesses still “choose” to locate on the periphery, government officials have no right to interfere, and will cause economic damage if they attempt to restrain these choices. Contrary to the impressions of his green-tinged admirers, Glaeser offers, in the Australian context, a powerful argument in favour of hands-off planning, decentralisation, suburbanisation and urban growth. 

This article was republished in On Line Opinion and New Geography and featured on RealClearPolicy.

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