Review: The Gated City by Ryan Avent

The Gated City is a mini-ebook by Ryan Avent that makes the case for removing restrictions on densification in cities. In addition to being a left-leaning economist, Avent is also a journalist who is an editor at the Economist magazine and a principal contributor to its Free Exchange blog.

Avent’s journalism skills make him one of the more articulate and easy to read economists out there. This book brings Avent’s signature readability to the table and also has the virtue of being brief. This makes the book very much a recommended read. To me though that is as much for his introductory treatment of the economic value of cities as it is about the virtues of density. The primacy of urban regions in our new economic order is something that is hardly a matter of left or right. But I continue to be amazed at how few policy makers actually seem to know or care about this, particularly at the state level. Our governments continue to implement policies that are not just indifferent to the success of our cities, but in many cases outright hostile to them. More reminders of the real state of affairs are clearly needed.

Having read several other reviews of the book, I was expecting big and controversial claims to be made for density. In fact, Avent’s claims for the benefits of increased density are fairly modest. He suggests that removing artificial barriers to urban density might raise the growth rate in GDP by 25 to 50 basis points. That’s not a radical amount, though of course compounded over time adds up. He also doesn’t claim that more density is always better, that we should all live like Manhattanites, or that he professes to know what the optimum level of density is. In fact, he explicitly disavows all of those. He also says that he doesn’t care where people personally choose to live, and, while I would have preferred to see a more forthright statement on policies like urban growth boundaries and such that actively restrict suburban development, Avent does include New Urbanist critics of suburbia as among those who want to more strictly regulate land use.