Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation
By Edward Glaeser and David Cutler.
Penguin, 2021.
Hardcover, 480 pages, $30.

Reviewed by Matthew M. Robare.

David Cutler and Ed Glaeser’s new book, Survival of the City (Penguin, 2021), is an oddity. It is not strictly about urban resilience in the face of public health threats, nor is it about the relationship of urban planning to that resilience (or lack thereof). It is neither fish nor fowl. 

Like many hybrids, the book is a mule. It is sterile in the sense that it seems misaimed. The part on public health will appeal to people whose interests are there, the part on the post-covid recovery will appeal to urbanists, but I am not sure there is enough overlap between the two audiences to justify having one book. It is also mule-like in that it takes a degree of patience by the reader to let the parts stubbornly plod along, repeating themselves and meandering through history until they come to the point.

I also cannot help but think that the book was written and published too soon. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has subsided, much remains unknown or unclear about the origin and transmission of the virus and so portions of the book were already dated at the time of publication. The business of masks is a classic example, as the guidance has gone from not needing to wear masks ever, to everyone must be masked at all times, even outside, to not having to wear masks outside to the non-K95 masks you wore for two years did not do anything.

The first part of the book, which focuses on public health, features an extended section covering the history of epidemic and pandemic diseases and how doctors and governments dealt with them. Taken on their own, these sections are not bad — taken individually, they are well written and the history is genuinely interesting — but the point, that cities were vulnerable to disease before they made investments in public health, is a simple one that can be demonstrated with a few examples. It does not require an extensive account of the Plague of Athens or the Plague of Justinian, or the spread of the concept of quarantines through Medieval Europe. Instead the authors spend pages on those epidemics as well as others, like Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in the 1790s and the emergence of cholera in India in the early 1800s and the Spanish flu in 1918.

To make things worse, the history of these diseases does not even support the point all that much. The Black Death wiped out rural communities as well as cities, cholera first struck a British army, the Spanish flu was indiscriminate in crowded First World War trenches and the much less densely populated American city.

There are good parts of this section, such as its discussion of the problems of healthcare in the United States without the author, an advocate for universal healthcare, becoming preachy. Overall, however, the sections do not seem well connected to each other. The thesis of the part does not always support the thesis of the whole. For example, there is an extended section where the authors outline their plan for a “NATO for public health” to correct for the flaws in the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it is unclear how the organization would have the teeth to deal with countries like China that would lie and cover up the origins of a disease if it benefited them. While getting countries to agree in principle to act in concert in the event of a new, dangerous disease emerging seems like a possibility, the fact is that NATO has had many challenges. This has included everything from countries outsourcing their militaries to the United States to France withdrawing from the command structure for several decades. Moreover, similar organizations like CENTO and SEATO either collapsed or failed to prevent Communist aggression.

As Glaeser takes over and refocuses the book towards cities, nothing really improves, as he jumps from topic to topic without tying them together. He writes about downtowns recovering from Covid lockdowns, then jumps suddenly to a lengthy, overly detailed story about gentrification and schools in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles and then swiftly into the killings of African Americans by police officers. Glaeser’s chapters also suffer from the same sort of premature analysis that Cutler’s do. In 2021, when the book was published, masks and social distancing were still required by authorities in many cities around the world. Travel still required testing and was the only time I had to show my vaccination card to do anything. Moreover, public transit agencies had been bailed out by the federal government and rents were actually down from people relocating to suburbs.

By 2023, the masks and social distancing have gone away for the most part, save among the most paranoid. Federal support for cities has returned to pre-pandemic levels — but ridership has not, as people return to cities (driving rents sky-high) but continue to work from home. In fact, since most transit services focus on bringing white collar workers from outlying neighborhoods to downtown offices and back, traffic is worse than ever as people make trips during the day, but from their homes where their cars are convenient. As a result, Glaeser seems to be writing about a different time. The threat to downtown comes not from people working remotely from rural idylls, but from people working from their apartments four days a week and their offices one,  and not spending money at restaurants and stores. The city is threatened less by the enforced isolation of a Covid lockdown and more by easy online shopping for everything from clothes and groceries to furniture and appliances. The transit services people use to get to downtown have also responded to falling ridership and vanishing federal funds by cutting service, further driving ridership away. An informal Twitter survey found that many Bostonians want to return to the office more, but view the public transit as unreliable for getting there and home on time.

Again, there is nothing bad about Glaeser’s chapters taken individually, but as a whole, they are as disconnected and meandering as the ones written by Cutler and leave the reader wondering what the book is about. Is it about public health? Is it about urban economics? Is it about sociology? Unfortunately, by trying to cover all these topics in such an in-depth way in one book, they end up doing none of them well.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance writer based in Boston.

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