Edward Glaeser on the Future of Cities

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on May 26, 2009

From energy price fluctuations, to the bursting of the housing bubble, to unemployment, where Americans live and what impact that has on society’s economic health is currently a much-discussed topic in both urban planning circles and in the public discourse.

Edward Glaeser is the Glimp Professor of Economics and director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. Glaeser’s work as an economist encompasses fields from housing and transportation, to land use and law. His research especially concerns factors that determine cities' growth.

Q. You have noted that the economic approach to urban policy emphasizes the need to focus on people, rather than places. What happens when the emphasis shifts in this way?

Glaeser: The dichotomy between people and places is something of a strange one for urban economics because we often note that so much of what makes our lives special occurs at the place-level – our neighborhoods, our communities, the quality of our commutes, the safety of our streets – which are all place-based things.

On the other hand, while investing in place, it’s important to always remember that the objective is to enrich and empower people’s lives. Too often, public policy gets determined by place, probably because our politicians are of course place-based. When place gets put ahead of people, then mistakes can be made.

One example of this is the desire to invest in infrastructure in declining cities. Detroit’s People Mover, for one, was a piece of infrastructure that was unnecessary and inappropriate, given the needs of the city. Instead of investing in the children of Detroit by investing in schools, money was poured into a public transit system that doesn’t go particularly far or carry many people, and that is completely redundant given that it’s traveling over more or less empty streets below.

This is not unique to Detroit; it’s common to many U.S. cities and many other places. Leaders turn to silver bullet answers for things in hopes of rejuvenating their communities – things like transit, occasionally public housing and downtown revitalization plans. And in some cases infrastructure is necessary, particularly in growing areas. But the hallmark of declining cities is that they have an abundance of infrastructure relative to the state of demand. After all, those cities were built during an earlier economic age when they were more productive and demand was higher. As a result, the last thing these places need is more infrastructure. Yet, the focus on place makes it more attractive to leaders to put up a showy new building and claim “Cleveland is back!” when of course you’ve done very little to enrich the lives of the people living in Cleveland.

The central thing to recognize is whether place-based investments actually enrich the lives of people, or whether instead we should be investing in things like education, which really will have a longer impact on the lives of ordinary citizens.

Q. What does the current economic turmoil portend for the future of American cities?

Glaeser: Cities are really in two different places right now depending upon whether or not you’re sitting on Main Street or Wall Street, or whether or not you’re looking at things from the perspective of City Hall.

Many cities became dependent on revenue streams that have dropped precipitously in the wake of the current economic crisis. But the beautiful thing about urban areas is that they bring together smart people who innovate and learn from one another, and urban areas can be tremendously flexible, dynamic, interesting places. Certainly New York and Boston and San Francisco have received major hits in terms of key sectors, particularly financial services, but the history of cities shows tremendous ability of places to adapt. Just think of the innovations that occurred in the 1930s. Chester Carlson was inventing the Xerox copier in a garage in Queens in the wake of the great depression. Being in New York connected him with an immigrant scientist, Otto Kornei, who helped him create a new technology that transformed the way the world does business.

Over and over again there are stories of smart people in cities connecting during downturns and figuring out ways to make places more productive. So the fact that City Halls are facing tough times shouldn’t lead us to think that our cities are in trouble. In fact, our cities are likely to lead the way out of this recession and are likely to continue to be the most economically vibrant parts of America and the world.

Q. You recently looked at America’s metropolitan areas to estimate the environmental costs and benefits associated with living in different parts of the country and came to the conclusion that “skyscrapers are green.” Please explain.

Glaeser: There’s a great irony in the fact that the places that look greenest in this country are often the least green.

There’s a story about Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s going on a picnic in the woods outside of Concord, Massachusetts. He was cooking a chowder and the flames from his fire lit the surrounding forest and burned down a huge amount of Concord woodlands. The lesson of that story is that being around nature is often the worst thing that human beings can do to nature. Often we do better by concentrating ourselves in dense urban areas in order to minimize our environmental footprint.

Together with Matthew Kahn, an environmental economist at UCLA, I’ve tried to put together a carbon usage estimate for every type of household in the U.S., for all major metropolitan areas, for central cities and for suburban areas. We’ve tried to sum together the carbon emissions associated with car driving, with public transit, and with home heating and cooling emissions and electricity usage. What we’ve found is that there are striking differences across metropolitan areas. Coastal California, for example, has the most environmentally friendly metropolitan areas in the country, not only because they have energy efficient appliances, and relatively energy-efficient sources of electricity, but primarily because the temperature is just so darn temperate. If you don’t have cold winters and really hot summers, then you are going to use a lot less energy. So it’s deeply ironic that California environmentalists have often tried to block development in coastal California, while that would be the most environmentally friendly form of development that you could possibly imagine in the U.S.

Within cities, within metropolitan areas, central areas tend to be lower energy users, lower carbon emitters, than places on the urban fringe. The first reason for this is driving – the closer you live to the center, the more dense your area is, the less people drive, and public transit emissions don’t make up for that. The second reason that cities are more environmentally friendly is that people tend to live in smaller housing units where land is expensive and space is costly. And because they’re living in smaller units, they’re using less electricity and using less fuel oil and using less natural gas, all of which reduces their carbon emissions. For that reason putting people in skyscrapers looks relatively green.

Q. Domestically and globally, which cities do you think the rest of the world should be looking to for models of growth and smart land-use planning? Is there any one thriving city that points the way for the future of cities?

Glaeser: Singapore is close to being an ideal model of what good land-use planning looks like in the 21st century. There are a couple of things that make Singapore attractive – one of which is their embrace of height. Singapore is filled with high-density dwellings, both in the inner city and in more suburban areas, where high-rise public housing is the model of choice. They also have been pioneers for 34 years now of the use of congestion pricing on the roads. As a result you have the second densest country in the world that has virtually uncongested streets because you have congestion pricing that varies with time of day, on a street-by-street basis, so people can drive places quickly and get around easily. On top of which, Singapore excels in the very basics of city government – providing good schools for their children, safe streets, and a superb sewerage and water system.

Within the United States there is a broad range of models. Much of the growth of the U.S. has occurred in car-based cities, whether they’re on the edges of older metropolitan areas, or places like Phoenix, where basically the entire city is car-based inside and out. There are good things about cars. The average commute by car in this country is 24 minutes; the average commute by public transportation is 48 minutes. So cars so save time, but on the other hand, they often exact a difficult environmental cost. Americans have not yet figured out ways to encourage people to use their cars less to offset the social costs of driving – both congestion and environmental costs.

The challenge in European cities is to balance the desire for tradition and preservation, with the need to grow. A place like Paris, which grew and changed so much in the 19th century, has basically decided that the central city is going to be frozen in the outlines drawn by Baron Haussmann 150 years ago. That means, that you don’t have the extra building that makes the city more affordable. They tried to accommodate this by allowing high-rises in the business district, La Defense, but as a result they have basically a second city cut off by many minutes from the downtown area. So the European challenge is to figure out ways to allow higher density while at the same time preserving things that are of core cultural heritage.

Q: What would you identify as being the most significant challenges facing cities moving forward?

Glaeser: The four fastest growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. since the last census were Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix – all warm places, all places built around the automobile. As a result, we have to figure how to handle commuting in a more efficient fashion. The right to drive freely on highways is not part of the Bill of Rights, slipped in somewhere after the right to keep and bear arms. We need to do better in terms of pricing roads and in designing car-based cities since driving poses such high social and environmental costs.

And we need to figure out how to make higher-density options more attractive to Americans, to make them actually viable competitors with suburban enclaves. It is quite unfortunate that public policies have themselves added, unnecessarily, to the decentralization of populations, particularly the localization of school provision, which means that so many parents feel like they have to get out of the central city in order to get the schools that they want for their kids. But this is not necessary. There are many countries where schools in the central cities are amongst the best in the country. But that would require a different model of schooling, one that involves more competition, more freedom and hopefully more resources in the central city as well.

Q: Any final thoughts on these topics?

Glaeser: The great irony facing the urban world is that in an age in which distance is dead, where communication and transportation costs have made it possible for us to connect across oceans and continents seamlessly, the great irony is that people value being close to one another more than ever in cities. And it has been a remarkable thing to witness the turnaround, the renaissance, in many older cities in the U.S. and Europe, and to witness the growth of mega-cities in the developing world, where those cities are in fact the conduits between the developing world and the developed world, where ideas and people move across and connect to each other.

The reason for the resurgence of cities is that human beings are a naturally social species, and we learn from each other, and the effect of globalization and new technologies has been to increase the returns to being smart. We get smart by hanging around with smart people; and that’s what cities do. Cities today succeed by connecting smart people, by enabling them to learn from each other, from the knowledge that we have, by imitating the successes and avoiding the failures of the people around us. As knowledge and ideas ever increase their importance, cities are always going to continue to be valuable. For that reason it continues to be important to figure out how to get the basics of managing a city down, and when we look at the growing mega-cities, for example India and China, the right response should not be that these cities should be smaller. There’s no future in rural poverty. The right response is that these cities should continue to grow, continue to offer opportunity to people that come to them. We should figure out better ways to provide clean water, and safe streets, and fast commutes for people living in these areas, and that’s why getting urban governments right is so important.

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