Triumph of the City \nby Edward Glaeser \nPan Macmillan HK$195 When Jean-Paul Sartre penned his famous line 'L'enfer, c'est les autres' ('Hell is other people') in 1944, the world's urban population amounted to just over a quarter of the total. In 2008 it surpassed 50 per cent. In Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor of economics, tries to convince us the reverse is true: heaven is other people - lots of them, living and working in close proximity, in cities. His generally convincing thesis is that our burgeoning metropolises deserve to be lauded for all the benefits they have conferred on humankind. In short, 'cities magnify humanity's strengths' and are our species' greatest triumph. Triumph of the City is a breezily readable 338-page testimonial to a concept so vast and ubiquitous it is almost unnoticed; 'the fish is the last to know it lives in the water', as a Chinese saying goes. Glaeser looks at cities as nodes of human development and cultural and scientific advance. And he is upbeat about the prospects for the developing world, where five million people every month stream into swelling urban settlements. The teeming masses of Lagos, Mumbai and Sao Paulo may be disquieting for the denizens of more prosperous parts of the world but to Glaeser these are signs of growth, vibrancy and aspiration, not suffering and denigration. It's a hard conceptual pill to swallow. It was the same one used to justify Hong Kong's shantytowns between the end of the Japanese occupation and the go-go 1980s. 'If they work hard enough, they'll move onwards and upward,' rich Hongkongers were wont to say. Many of the most avid supporters of this view were factory owners, of course. Glaeser is likely to raise hackles in this area. He can see the misery of a slum in Kolkata or Kinshasa but says 'there's a lot to like about urban poverty', because it beats the rural variety. In short, cities attract the poor with the promise of a better future. That cruel maxim again. Glaeser's uber-capitalistic mindset can be chilling in places. But he writes with a warmth that makes this ambitious work - a hybrid of a social anthropology textbook, an urban economics primer, and a Malcolm Gladwell-style popular psychology page-turner - a fun read. While most chapters are thematic, some cities merit a whole chapter to themselves, such as Tokyo, Detroit (for all the wrong reasons), Kinshasa, London, Paris, Mumbai, Vancouver, and Dubai. Weirdly, Singapore shares a chapter with the Botswanan capital, Gaborone - both being examples of super-efficient cities with much more in common than generally otherwise known. Yes but, I say. In his rather superficial look at what makes Singapore tick, Glaeser lauds its tree-lined streets, but he could have mentioned Lee Kuan Yew's tree-planting programme of 1963. Hong Kong gets random mentions throughout Triumph of the City. Apparently to make up for this, the book includes a photo of our city - a small file picture from the days of Daimaru department store in Causeway Bay (visible in the photo). The Hong Kong reader might feel short-changed by this eclectic study of what makes cities great. Manhattan native Glaeser lets his love of height tower above his other passions. He says restrictions on height cramp the supply of space, which push up rents and property prices. That will put a smile on the faces of landlords, but hurts those who might otherwise move in, and hence perhaps the vibrancy of the city as a whole. Glaeser posits, for example, that Mumbai can save itself from third-world urban decay and ever-more inefficient sprawl simply by relaxing rules on building height. He thinks all cities in the developing world should build up rather than out. Almost the opposite of this is his bete noire: the suburbs. He says suburbs are horribly inefficient, consuming far more of everything than cities. Houses are much more expensive to heat and cool than flats. Worse, suburbanites drive thousands more kilometres per year than city dwellers, many of whom rely on public transport. Moreover, suburbanites forfeit the face-to-face connectivity that enhances both the creativity and the productivity of the city-dweller. Above all, suburbanisation is generating ecological cataclysms in places such as the sunbelt of the US, where air conditioning is becoming a carbon-emissions nightmare. And so, with an evangelical zeal, Glaeser argues that greater density is desirable: more people closer together means more possibility and more profitability. Even when opining on urban development in the developing world, Glaeser is unfazed by the dangers of overwhelmed sanitation and transportation systems, crummy housing or the psychological and/or spiritual impact of hi-rise living. He also looks at what makes some cities succeed while others fail. The successful ones share the magnetism to both attract talent and to enable these incomers to collaborate. Yet those that thrive, do so in their own special ways. Thus Tokyo is a national centre of political and financial heft. Singapore has leapt ahead through a shrewd mix of market forces, social programming, and governmental paternalism. And in the West, Boston, Milan, Minneapolis and New York are adept at finding new sources of prosperity when old ones have run their course. There are actually three or four more concise and penetrating books in this over-reaching opus. But as a rich feast of infotainment, debate, and forward-thinking, Triumph of the City is the formidable achievement of a passionate advocate of urban living.