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The 'Triumph Of The City' May Be Greener

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Cities get a bad rap even though two-thirds of all Americans live in them. They're often depicted as dirty, dangerous, polluted and unhealthy. The American ideal is usually seen as more Mayberry than Queens. Host Scott Simon talks with Edward Glaeser about his new book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Healthier, and Happier.


Cities get a bad rap, although two-thirds of all Americans live in them. They're often depicted as dirty, dangerous, polluted and unhealthy. The American ideal is usually seen as more Mayberry than Queens. But Edward Glaeser says that cities are the greatest invention of civilization - not just more dynamic, effervescent and cosmopolitan but actually less polluting, more healthy, even safer.

Glaeser, who is a professor of economics at Harvard where he also directs a couple of urban think tanks and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has written a book to remind up of the ingenuity of the invention of the city. His book is called "Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier." Professor Glaeser joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Professor EDWARD GLAESER (Economics, Harvard University, Author, "Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier"): Oh, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Among the very controversial bromides you have in here, let me ask you about one right off. How is blacktop greener than grass?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLAESER: It's a strange thing, right, because environmentalists have preached living among trees for more than 150 years, since Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden. But in fact, living among trees is actually a particularly brown thing to do. There's, of course, statistics that lies behind this.

And it's clearly true that in almost every metropolitan area, people who live in central cities are associated with significantly less carbon than people who live in suburban areas. And there are two main reasons for this: smaller urban apartments are generally associated with less heating and cooling energy and, of course, less driving. We, of course, do include the public transportation energy usage but that very rarely comes close to making up for all the energy used in cars.

And it's important to remember that it's not just a one-zero thing, where you either take public transportation or you drive. Anytime you move towards denser living you have less driving. Not just getting to work but getting around. And all of that makes cities and makes density pretty darn green.

SIMON: Remind us in the ways in which Detroit a century ago was like the Silicon Valley is today and what happened.

Mr. GLAESER: We have to give Detroit credit for providing high-wage jobs for ordinary Americans for decades, and that was a terrific thing. But unfortunately, this model, you know, the model that Detroit became - a few big producers employing relatively less-skilled, less-well-educated people - cut off in many ways from lots of parts of the world. This is a model that leads towards urban failure. And we've seen that over and over again.

And the successful industrial cities that managed to turn themselves around are ones that were able to shed their manufacturing and move into something else.

SIMON: Boston and Chicago.

Prof. GLAESER: Boston and Chicago and New York, Minneapolis, all of these - or San Francisco - all of these places.

I mean it's easy to forget that the largest industrial cluster in the U.S. in the 1950s was not cars in Detroit. It was garment production in New York City. This was a huge hub of industrial activity and one that was just as hard hit; harder by globalization than automotive production in Detroit. Right?

SIMON: Right. The shmatas are now being made in China.

Prof. GLAESER: Indeed. Indeed.

SIMON: Yeah. But they're still being sold in New York.

Prof. GLAESER: They're still being sold and they're still often being designed in New York. Right?

SIMON: You are of to say the least a little skeptical of preservationists.

Prof. GLAESER: Im the son of an architectural historian and I loved the buildings that are the legacy of history in our cities. I think that the ones that are true architectural triumphs that are important need to be kept and preserved. But that being said, cities should not turn into museums. They need to change. They need to evolve. Their, you know, physical landscape needs to move to match their human landscape.

Many of my favorite urban moments are the ones where some new and beautiful piece of building has a dialogue with neighboring buildings, as does the Hancock Building within nearby H.H. Richardson Church in Boston.

There are lots of reasons to think that, you know, new buildings - particularly when they add height, when they add space - are doing exactly what cities need. You dont actually make any space cheaper by restricting the construction of new space.

The best way to make sure you'll have cheap space is to build a lot of it. Right? This is why, you know, Chicago is, you know, so much more affordable than many other great cities, because Mayor Daley is, you know, pro-building and he always has been. And this means that, you know, businesses have lower cost. And more importantly, it means that young people who dont have a huge amount of resources, who aren't working for investment banks can actually afford urban life and can afford a nice apartment in a city.

And even if the new buildings themselves aren't affordable for those people who are at the, you know, at the bottom of the income distribution, cities are - by building new buildings, cities ease the pressure to gentrify and push up the prices in older areas. So, in fact, you know, building a tall building can actually help poorer people in the city - even if not a single poor person lives in that building.

SIMON: Edward Glaeser, his new book "Triumph of the City: How are Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier," thanks so much.

Prof. GLAESER: Thank you so much for having me.

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