Witold Rybczynski is one of America’s most talented commentators on architecture and design, with a column on architecture in the online publication Slate that’s consistently wise and perceptive.
But in a recent column, Rybczynski did something that might seem off for an architecture writer: He gave voice to the argument that the physical landscape of cities isn’t their most important feature.
Rybczynski was drawing upon “Triumph of the City,” a new book in which Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues that the stature of cities is based primarily on the collective knowledge of its citizens; everything else is incidental. This is why some old industrial cities such as Detroit have continued to decline, while others such as Boston have fared much better.
“From its founding,” writes Rybczynski, “Boston emphasized education, which helped the city reinvent itself several times: as a trading port with the West Indies and Europe in the 17th century; as a manufacturing center in the 1850s; and as a financial, biotechnology, and hi-tech center a century later.”
Spending on education has enabled Boston and cities like it to adjust to changes in the economy and benefit from them.
Glaeser’s argument is important, Rybczynski says, “because politicians and planners tend to overvalue the physical environment. They encourage cities to look for the Next New Thing, whether it’s pedestrian malls, downtown stadiums, iconic museums, or light rail.”
Such amenities can be helpful, and we’ve championed many of these things many times before. But the basic point made by Glaeser and affirmed by Rybczynski is that in any successful city, the quality of human capital wins the day.
That reality is a sobering one for Baton Rouge, where state spending on elementary, secondary and higher education has dropped, and where the workforce is plagued by high rates of illiteracy and low graduation rates at both the high school and college levels.
If Baton Rouge is to be the next great American city, as Mayor-President Kip Holden has so often proclaimed, then it must invest in building brainpower, the primary ingredient of any great 21st-century city.