A Patient Search

In 1960 at age 71, architect Le Corbusier summarized his career in a monograph titled Creation is a patient search. That would also be a fitting sub-title for Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. In this enjoyable book, Johnson dispels the myth prevalent in our society that inspiration comes to people as a lightning bolt with ideas and inventions fully formed. He weaves several stories of the slow, circuitous path of creativity and uses Darwin’s life-long investigations of evolution as a continuum.

Though early in the book Johnson succumbs to the fad of ascribing all good things to cities, most of the examples he cites come from rural, urban, or exurban settings. In fact, Darwin’s insights in the Galapagos and on an atoll in the Indian Ocean happened in the wilderness. Google and Apple took shape in suburban two-car garages and blossomed in suburban Silicon Valley. Edison toiled in rural New Jersey, purposely distancing himself from towns or cities.

For a thorough history of Thomas Alva and the race to electrify the world, read the scholarly and entertaining Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes. You will also meet George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.

Don’t get me wrong. I love cities. But why do urbanist writers need to twist data to make their poinst? Even the author of Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser, lives in the suburbs. He even gave his book the pompous subtitle How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.

The trend of Urban-Is-Great pops up everywhere. This story is from CBS on line:



O.K. But when you actually look at the maps, you find that the boroughs of NYC are at best in the top 40% of health, with the Bronx actually being last in the state (see link below for the actual data). In Colorado, Douglas County is the healthiest, with Denver ranking in the bottom 22% of the state. The healthiest counties are the suburbs immediately adjacent to urban counties, not the cities themselves. Other healthy counties are in rural resort areas. Why didn’t CBS underscore those points instead?



Ed Glaeser and Steve Johnson, to an extent, attempt to make a case for cities as the best places to think. Just this year, Forbes came out with this survey.

Forbes’ Geekiest City- The 20 U.S. cities with the highest percentage of workers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions


No. 1 San Jose, CA: 980,000 people =  5,000 people/sq  mi

No. 2 Boulder, CO: 92,000 =  3,800 people / sq mi

No. 3 Framingham, MA:  67,000 people

(compare to NYC: 8+ million, 26,000 people / sq mi; or Chicago: 2.8 million 12,750 peop / sq mi)

Like the study of health, these are actually low-density or suburban areas near big cities. Why not highlight that fact?

A balanced study of health and creativity would look at the complex relationship between cities, suburbs, and rural areas. I patiently search for that book.