Cities on a Hill

Originally published in the Harvard Gazette

March 3, 2011
Sarah Sweeney (Staff Writer, Harvard Gazette)

Green Acres isn’t the place for everyone, especially Edward Glaeser.
Glaeser, who was born and raised in New York City, is an advocate of the metropolis, and he upends the myths that cities are unhealthy, poor, crime ridden, and environmentally unfriendly in his new book "Triumph of the City."
The Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics began thinking about cities when he was just a child. "I found it impossible not to be fascinated by the urban world around me," he recalled.
"In those days — the bleak 1970s — New York’s future seemed far from assured. It has been a great joy to watch that city, and other great cities like Boston, come back."
Glaeser said humans are a social species, and cities are a natural fit for them despite being highly unnatural.
"Cities are thriving despite new technologies that make it effortless to telecommute from any far-flung spot, because those technologies and globalization have increased the returns to being smart, and we are a social species that gets smart by being around other smart people," he said. "Cities succeed today by connecting people and enabling them to learn from one another. My 19 years at Harvard have only strengthened my belief that the most complex ideas are best transmitted face to face."
Glaeser also believes that people should stop idolizing home ownership and romanticizing rural villages.
"I believe in choice, but I also think we should stop subsidizing home ownership," he said. "People should be free to choose suburban homes, but the federal government shouldn’t be bribing people to leave urban areas. The home mortgage interest deduction does not create a level playing field. It pushes people out of urban apartments into suburban homes."
In research that estimated carbon emissions associated with living in different parts of the country, Glaeser discovered that it’s actually greener to live in the city.
"I find that cities have significantly lower carbon emissions than suburbs because of less driving and smaller housing units, even holding household size and income constant," he said. "I’m an economist, and that perspective leads me to put great value in human freedom. Plenty of people don’t want to live in urban areas, and that’s perfectly fine with me, as long as people are paying for the social costs of their actions, including any environmental costs."
"We are a destructive species, and the best thing we can do for nature is to stay away from it."
City living is more popular than it has been in the past, said Glaeser, in part because cities have become more pleasant over time.
"Cities are great places to play, as well as work. And an increasingly educated and affluent population seems to value the higher-end entertainment that is disproportionately available in cities," he said.
But is he biased about cities because he hails from the ultimate one?
"Of course."