Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, by Edward Glaeser, Penguin, RRP £25, 313 pages
Cities for People, by Jan Gehl, Island Press, RRP $49.50, 269 pages
For Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser, the author of Triumph of the City, the metropolis can do no wrong; he even flagellates himself for having moved out to the suburbs to bring up a young family.
Glaeser’s is a relentlessly upbeat version of city life, but also a realistic one. He points to the huge invisible subsidies given to the US suburbs through low gas prices, cheap energy and expensive highway infrastructure. He laments the cost to the environment of oversized houses and a total reliance on the automobile.
Although puppyishly enthusiastic, Glaeser can also be provocative, noting for instance that 1,000 years ago three of the world’s four biggest cities – Seville, Cordoba and Palermo – were Islamic. (Constantinople was the fourth.) It is a point worth remembering, as western architects, forgetful of history, rebuild the Gulf.
On density he is obsessive: we should build higher, bigger, denser, more, and we should forget suburbs and villages, which belong to the past.
But Glaeser is prepared to ridicule the US government’s efforts to pour money into failed post-industrial cities such as Detroit or Buffalo in a feeble and, so he asserts, doomed attempt to revive them. Dead cities, he argues, are beyond resurrection once their raison d’être (heavy industry, a thriving port etc) has disappeared.
Glaeser draws attention to the correlation between wages and the “liveability” of a city. He quotes statistics demonstrating that people are prepared to accept lower salaries in New York or London than they might receive elsewhere, just for the privilege of living in a happening city. They could have been earning more in Houston.
He is also good on urban resilience, recounting how wily cities such as Boston, New York and London have continued to adapt and evolve in order to remain vibrant and wealthy. This paean to what his faintly ludicrous subtitle calls “our greatest invention” makes a good story. It won’t be long now until we’re all living in cities; we’d better, like Glaeser, learn to love them.
So what might make cities more loveable? Architect Jan Gehl is a man who purports to know. The most successful contemporary urbanist, he has become the most in-demand consultant on international big-city building schemes. His method is to globalise a distinctively Danish, down-to-earth wisdom, drawing many lessons from his home city of Copenhagen, which is one of the safest, most pedestrian-friendly, coherent streetscapes in the world. No surprise that Lord Rogers, who has spent much of his career arguing for walkable, café-framed piazzas, should donate a forward to Gehl’s Cities for People.
In many ways, this book builds on the work of Jane Jacobs, the renowned urban theorist and community activist whose study of New York neighbourhoods formed the basis of her influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). And, in echoing Jacobs’ blend of common sense and observation, Cities for People offers little to disagree with.
Yet the Dane’s vision is not unassailable, and this deadeningly designed publication, which looks like a second-rate text book, offers little to inspire. The architect’s observations on the liveliness of the city remain curiously lifeless. Part of the problem is that not everywhere is Copenhagen, and though the book is full of snippets from successful cities, lessons learnt in Rome do not necessarily translate to Rotherham.
Gehl was preceded in his urban critiques by Steen Eiler Rasmussen, whose mid-20th-century writings brought a rather different, albeit equally Danish, sensibility to urbanism. Rasmussen wrote about detail and juxtaposition, about texture and sound. He evoked a poetic world of surfaces and shadows. This lyricism, and the accompanying surprise and delight, are sorely lacking in Cities for People.
Too often the schemes to which Gehl contributes are moribund malls without walls which rely on chain cafés, generic vegetation and over-landscaped, often pointless public space. Historically public space was about the expression of power, civic pride or commerce. Now it is a kind of marketing device, a sop to justify the overscaled development around it. Gehl, however well-intentioned, has become its guru.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic