Ed Glaeser considers the post-pandemic challenges facing cities
Harvard economist says urban centers will remain vital -- but face new threats
HARVARD ECONOMICS PROFESSOR Ed Glaeser is one of the leading authorities on the role of cities in modern life — and throughout human history. His 2011 book The Triumph of the City lays out the central place of cities in driving innovation and economic vitality. He dubs them “our greatest invention,” and his book’s subtitle says they make us “richer, smarter, greener, and happier.”
But does the coronavirus pandemic, with millions working remotely and a sudden surge of migration to the suburbs and rural areas, spell the end of all that?
Glaeser, the guest on this week’s episode of The Codcast, thinks cities — and face-to-face work settings — will retain a central place in society, but he says they do face enormous new challenges in the wake of the pandemic’s harsh reminder that we remain vulnerable to the ravages of infectious disease, despite a hundred-year run in which easily transmissible illnesses have steadily receded as a major cause of death in the developed world.
“I don’t think that in any sense the core arguments of that book have been upended,” he says of Triumph of the City’s thesis about the great catalyzing role of cities, which the book says have been “engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace.”
Glaeser says one crucial variable will be whether government makes the kind of investment in public health infrastructure — which he says it should have been doing all along — to protect against future pandemics.
Glaeser says two big questions loom when it comes to the future of cities in the post-pandemic era: The first is whether “face-to-face urban life” is under existential threat, the second is whether cities like Boston, which have been huge winners in the knowledge economy of the last several decades, are particularly vulnerable.
He thinks the answer to the former question is no, and lays out a variety of pieces of evidence of the strong affinity we have for direct human contact and of the greater long-run productivity from in-person collaboration in the workplace. “I think the office will be back,” said Glaeser. “I think face-to-face work will be back. It’ll be back with a vengeance, and even more so the desire, particularly of younger people, to be out in cities, connecting with younger people, both at work and at play.”
While more educated workers were able to pivot readily in the short-term to remote work, Glaeser says there is lots of evidence that long-term productivity suffers from isolated work-from-home arrangements. Even in the very wired world of programming, he said, while those workers “were allegedly just as productive” during the pandemic, “the new hires for programmers [in 2020] were down by 40 percent in November relative to February. People weren’t onboarding new workers, which is really compatible with the view that you can coast on old relationships, but you can’t start something new. And I will say, this is exactly my experience. When it comes to working with long-term PhD students that I advise, it’s great over Zoom. It’s just fine. When it comes to getting some [undergraduate] 19-year-olds that I’ve never seen before excited about mathematical economics over Zoom, I’ve got no idea how to do that. And I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to.”As for the future of high-cost cities like Boston, however, Glaeser said the pandemic has underscored the ability of startups to relocate anywhere that their talent-rich workforce would be interested in living. “So I think Boston has to really think that it’s going to have to fight hard to retain the pools of talent that it’s kept,” he said. “Particularly if our elected leaders decide that they’re going to engage in aggressive, progressive redistributive politics — [for] businesses and the rich it has never been easier for them to relocate, whether it’s to Miami or Austin, Texas. And so we really are under a kind of threat we haven’t faced since the 1970s, where relocation is a genuine possibility.”
That said, Glaeser pointed to Google’s recent purchase of a million and a half square feet of office space in downtown Manhattan and the vibrant market in Boston and Cambridge for life sciences lab space as signs of the enduring draw of the cities that have led the urban renaissance of recent years.