Triumph of the City, a Book Review

Why cities matter - and how to kill them.

With the rise of the Tea Party, most Americans have become aware of the trade-off between government power and individual liberty.  We've written about the suppression of individual rights which are implied by building codes, work permits, and other bureaucratic obstacles to getting anything done and we've explained how even the government can no longer implement significant visions as we could in the past.

Prof. Glaeser's purpose in writing "Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier" was to show how much mankind has benefited from cities.  Gathering large numbers of people together in the same place facilitates trade because there are more buyers and sellers available within convenient distance.

Cities also help with innovation, as large numbers of people can share ideas, experiments, and figure out what works and what doesn't work.  The concentration of lawyers, financiers, traders, and other specialists makes it easier to get a new business going, which contributes to overall wealth.

Cities also reduce energy use - city dwellers use less energy because they don't drive cars as much, and when apartments are stacked on top of one another, all but the very highest apartment loses very little heat through the ceiling because of the warm apartment just above.

Prof. Glaeser explains these matters well, but his discussion of building codes and how they affect the public welfare resonated the most with us.

The Genesis of Cities

Humans have been gathering in cities for most of our history.  Population density was initially limited by two factors - how much food and water can be brought in and how must waste can be taken out.  In muscle-powered situations, having a river run through the middle of the city as in New York, Babylon, Rome, London, etc., helps.

The Romans were particularly good at the hydraulic engineering needed to bring fresh water into Rome so that waste could be washed out their sewers such as the cloaca maxima.  The importance of keeping incoming water separate from outgoing water had to be re-learned over and over, most famously in the 1854 London cholera epidemic which ended when the authorities removed the handle of the Broad Street pump because the well had become polluted via a leaking cesspool.

Once the industrial revolution advanced far enough that cities could pump large quantities of water into a city and pump sewage out, population density was limited by the height of apartment and office buildings.  There were two critical factors - how far people were willing to walk up stairs, which seems to be 7 or so stories, and how thick the walls had to be.

Technology to the Rescue

Elevators go back a long way - Archimedes is said to have built one 2,200 years ago, but making them practical had to wait for better power sources than slaves cranking a capstan.  Even then, people didn't want to ride elevators until Elisha Otis invented a safety brake in 1854.  All at once, buildings could go to 10 or 12 stories.

The problem was that tall buildings had to have thick walls - the 1890 Pulitzer World Building had seven-foot-thick walls which wasted a great deal of space.  It wasn't until the steel-framed skyscraper became practical that the "canyons of New York" became practical.

The result was an orgy of building which hugely increased the population density.  A.E. Lefcourt built enough skyscrapers to enclose 100 million cubic feet and accommodated as many workers as the city of Trenton.  The Wall Street Journal complained that "He demolished more historical landmarks in New York City than any other man had dared to contemplate."

On the plus side, he and his colleagues built nearly 100,000 housing units per year which kept the city more or less affordable.  In the garment district, for example, factory workers lived close enough to their jobs to walk to work.

Regulation, Regulation, and Regulation

Residents started to complain about the increasing canyonization of the city around 1913.  Laws were passed in 1916 which required that buildings become narrower as they became taller.  By 1960, the original zoning code had been amended more than 2,500 times, defining 13 types of residential district, 12 types of manufacturing, and 41 types of commercial district.

These rules led to all manner of strange consequences which affected the development of the city in unforseeable ways.  For example, commercial art galleries were forbidden in residential districts but permitted in manufacturing areas, while non-commercial art galleries were forbidden in manufacturing areas but permitted in residential areas.  If nothing else, this would prevent an existing art gallery of one type from switching to the other type should the market so dictate, clearly a source of economic inefficiency.

During the 1950's and '60s, projects ran into increased grass-roots opposition.  Activists who liked protecting old buildings thought that would keep rents low, but protecting a one-story building instead of replacing it with a 40-story building guarantees that the area will become unaffordable.  Places that build a lot aren't expensive and places that don't build much aren't affordable.

Height restrictions preserve sunlight and preservation protects history, but often at great cost.  Manhattan issued permits for an average of 11,000 new housing units per year from 1955 to 1964.  The average dropped to 3,100 per year between 1980 and 1999 at a time when prices were climbing rapidly.  Absent regulation, apartment costs would drop closer to the $500,000 it costs to  build an apartment in New York, as opposed to the actual sale prices of $1 million or more due to the regulation-imposed shortage.

These problems are particularly acute in Asian cities like Mumbai.  In 1991, Mumbai fixed a maximum floor-to-area ratio of 1.33 in most of the city.  That restricts the average building height to 1.33 stories.  If you have an acre of land, you can build a 2 story building on 2/3 of the acre or a three-story on 4/9 of the acre if you leave the rest empty.  Tall buildings end up being too far apart to walk, so any trip requires a car.

People still came to the city, but since buildings couldn't be tall, the city spread out.  This not only wasted farm land, it make traffic horrendous.  Limiting height didn't stop growth, it just meant that more and more people were crammed into illegal, unhealthy slums or stuck in traffic crawling across miles of sprawl.

The rules keep Indian cities too short, which reduces housing supply and makes decent housing expensive.  They also mean that fewer Indians can connect with each other and enjoy the economic advantages which have been found in cities since the dawn of civilization.

In a way, the Indian regulations have defeated the entire point of having a city in the first place: if it takes an hour to get half a mile, you might as well just live in the countryside where it takes an hour to get to the next village anyway.  Of course, the Indians themselves don't see it that way and keep stuffing their cities fuller and fuller.

Since poverty often means death in Asia and since housing regulations increase poverty, it's safe to say that Indian land-use regulations cause many Indians to die before their time.  If cities can't build up, then they'll build out which increases transportation costs and pollution.

For years now, environmentalists have proclaimed that dense cities are more efficient than suburbs.  It's also well known that cities offer better-paying jobs, on average.

But for these benefits to be realized, regulations must permit builders to construct what's needed.  Most of the great American cities became big prior to zoning rules; more recent cities tend to have far fewer skyscrapers, vastly more sprawl, equally horrible traffic but much longer distances and trip times, and thus far more pollution and waste per capita.  Instead of attacking the regulations, though, environmentalists prefer to attack the human desire for comfortable digs.

Tall buildings, found in cities, enable human interactions which are the heart of economic innovation and of progress itself.  There's a good reason that new skyscrapers going up and being occupied has always been a sign of growing wealth.

If the regulators prevent their construction where and how the market dictates, though, sooner or later the regulators will win: the big buildings won't be needed anymore.  They'll have gone somewhere else, like Shanghai, Taipei, or Dubai.  Is that what we really want?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments

“Instead of attacking the regulations, though, environmentalists prefer to attack the human desire for comfortable digs.”

Definitions? “environmentalists,” “human desire."

Consider whether 'human desire' is compatible with 'human health', both physical and psychological.

For your consideration I would advise a preview of Jacques Ellul's THE TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY.

June 2, 2011 2:52 PM


Ellul, McLuhan, Becker,Rank, Krishnamerti, and others create a compelling combined argument that Western Society is profoundly sick.

Ellul successfully argues that “technique” is an entity in itself.

Through the concept of “extension” McLuhan explains the “identification” with the extention as “the greater self”; Ellul's entity as a “demon” overpowering the human soul.

Rank successfully argues as the fear of death is the basis of neurosis v Freudian sexual theory.

The psychology of Becker explains this extended greater self as delusion based in neurosis.

Krishnamerti expresses it all from the center of his enlightenment.

Ellul, THE TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY [and other works]

McLuhan, THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE [and other works]

Otto Rank, ART AND ARTIST [and other works]

Becker, THE DENIAL OF DEATH [and other works]

Krishnamerti, LECTURES [and other works]

June 2, 2011 4:22 PM

You seem to hold the same position as the guy who wrote "small is beautiful" but it is not that simple. You can't do small and make integrated circuits, computers, petrochemicals, or gasoline engines. Without big, we are back to horse and buggy days. Do you want to go back? I do not.

Our society isn't all that sick. The people who do not understand technology think it is, but that does not make it so.

June 2, 2011 7:51 PM

"The people who do not understand technology"

I suggest you get a grasp on Ellul if you think YOU are the one who "understands" technology.

To suggest that a society such as the one here in the US that is based on permanent war is not sick, perhaps you should take a closer look at your own beliefs.

Would I go back to horse and buggy days? Absolutely. just for the quiet.
But that isn't the point of my post. Even at that point the culture was profoundly neurotic and for the most part driven by fear and loathing.

June 2, 2011 8:06 PM

Really Fred, just google Jacques Ellul's THE TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY,
Get some grasp of what he is speaking to...


June 2, 2011 9:19 PM

"Even a man of high intellect can go badly astray for lack of intuition or feeling."~Jung, Man and His Symbols

June 3, 2011 7:27 AM
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