Urban (love) affairs

Ed Glaeser explains why cities are the hub of economic innovation—and our best hope for saving the planet

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier
By Edward Glaeser
New York, The Penguin Press, 352 pages


cities have always been my hometown. I’ve lived in five of them during my lifetime. The only house I have ever owned is in a city. My neighborhood is diverse and compact, and I like it that way. No leafy suburbs for me. I’ve always assumed I just gravitate toward more bustling settings. But along comes Edward Glaeser to pronounce cities nothing less than mankind’s “greatest invention.” That’s a weighty load to carry, but he makes a good case for it. In the process, Glaeser makes his new book, Triumph of the City, important reading for anyone who thinks about cities and wants to understand the potential of this great invention —as well as the consequences when it fails to adapt quickly enough to a rapidly changing world.

Why are cities such a great invention? They are the cradle of innovation, providing a rich environment within which we learn from each other and build upon our strengths, Glaeser says. Ideas emerge more readily in the ferment of city life and spread more rapidly around the world. “Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies,” Glaeser writes. “They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.”

According to the United Nations, the greatest urban growth the world has ever known is now occurring. By 2030 more than half the world’s population, 5 billion people, will be living in metropolitan regions. Cities work because they are crowded. They move ideas from person to person, from invention to production to the marketplace.

This is a book that does not lack vision, ambition, passion, and boldness for describing how cities enhance human living in all sorts of ways. Given the projected growth of cities worldwide, it has become increasingly important to understand why some cities thrive and others don’t. Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor, points the way toward a global urban future that could renew our economy, lift the poor out of poverty, and just possibly save our planet. It’s a tall order. What’s more, doing so will require a good deal of counterintuitive thinking and the adoption of public policies that will be tough to sell to a politically dominant middle class now sprawled out across suburbia and beyond.

Glaeser argues that prosperous cities are “gateways between markets and cultures.” Our task is to figure out how to make those “gateways” function better. It begins with people. As we all know so well, these days skilled, educated people (“human capital” in today’s lexicon) often determine a city’s fate. “To thrive,” Glaeser writes, “cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively. There is no such thing as a successful city without human capital.” No argument from me here. Why has Boston prospered while Detroit and our own similar, but smaller, industrial “Gateway cities” like Springfield, New Bedford, and Fall River have fallen further behind? They have lost the skills race to Boston, and for that matter, to Bangalore, Milan, and Singapore. Fair or not, not every city will attract enough educated people to help it grow in the 21st century.

The factors determining a city’s fortunes have changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Cities once got rich because of their access to dense transportation networks and a reliable pool of labor. Glaeser explains that New York City’s better port gave it a strategic advantage over Boston. The building of the Erie Canal opened up New York to markets in the American heartland and spurred the growth of Rochester, Buffalo, and Chicago. These cities once prospered because they “grew on spots where goods had to be shifted from one form of transportation to another,” he writes. But by the 1970s that competitive advantage had disappeared, replaced by the need to attract and retain knowledge workers. Cities that failed to see this coming faced a long decline.

Many of these cities have become home to growing numbers of poor. But slums—the right kind of slums, at least—can be good, according to Glaeser. While he says the middle class has long gone to the suburbs—pursuing a suburban lifestyle (like Glaeser’s own) of more living space, “spongy lawns for toddlers,” and better schools—cities that have cheap housing, adequate public transportation, and work provide opportunities for the poor to move up the economic ladder. As the noted urban thinker Jane Jacobs wrote: “A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle class people… Cities don’t lure the middle class, they create it.”

That’s still happening in cities with growing, dynamic economies. In others, however, that transformative effect Jacobs celebrated has vanished. “If an area has become the home of default for the poor people who are staying poor, then that area is failing,” Glaeser writes. It’s the lack of social mobility—not poverty—that’s the real problem cities must solve. Overall, cities are more prosperous and productive than rural areas. According to Glaeser, when a nation’s urban population rises 10 percent, per capita output increases by 30 percent. One confusing detail is whether Glaeser sometimes means “metropolitan area” when describing cities. Metropolitan Boston consists of more than 100 cities and towns, and it is this agglomeration, not just the area within Boston’s boundaries, that defines Boston’s successful knowledge economy. What does become clear is that sprawl is the real enemy in Glaeser’s view. His book is really about the social benefits of density. Regulations, Glaeser says, need to be streamlined to encourage the construction of skyscrapers and discourage sprawl, ushering in “a new emerald-green age of cities.”

Glaeser is also in the vanguard of new thinkers making the convincing case that cities are good for the environment. “Simply put,” he says, “if we wanted to reduce emissions by changing our land-development policies, more Americans should live in denser, more urban environments.” Families need a car (or two or three) to get around too much of America, and, increasingly, India and China as well. New York and other cities, in contrast, are actually our greenest places, with their dramatically lower automobile use and compact, stacked dwellings with heating and cooling carbon footprints that are a fraction of those of an average house in the suburbs. “Anyone who believes that global warming is a real danger should see dense urban living as a big part of the solution,” Glaeser concludes.

But city-friendly policies creating incentives that result in more sustainable growth will require a completely new way of politics. For example, to attract and retain the urban middle class, Glaeser says we need to improve city schools with policies that promote more competition and school choice—like a large-scale regional voucher program. Other­­wise, urban public schools are doomed to educating only the poor. Capping the federal home mortgage interest deduction will encourage more “thrifty living in modest residences” by the middle class, writes Glaeser. We should challenge zoning decisions that restrict growth, make housing more expensive, and contribute to sprawl. And while we’re at it, he says, we might want to adopt higher gasoline taxes like Europe’s or “congestion pricing” to reduce our reliance on cars and control rising CO2 emissions.

As an economist, Glaeser looks for the right incentives to nudge us toward better behavior. Congestion pricing was conceived in the late 1950s by a Nobel Prize winning economist, William Vickery, as an efficient way to charge commuters for the congestion they create. It has been adopted in Singapore and London. But since New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flirted with the idea several years ago, I am aware of no US mayor even commissioning a study of whether or not it would work here. Imagine what charging commuters for their rush hour travel would do to help us pay for the Big Dig, buy the T reliable new trains, and build Boston a 21st-century transportation infrastructure. Now imagine getting such legislation passed.

That’s a shortcoming of this book. There’s a wide gulf between Glaeser’s rational policy ideas and a winning political strategy to see them adopted. The urban/suburban coalition needed for policies more favorable to cities doesn’t exist yet. Still, new ideas need to be planted, nurtured, and discussed, and that the book does well.

Mobilizing a political coalition strong enough to turn Glaeser’s many bold ideas into law will require the kind of leadership that has been absent for some time. Chicagoan Barack Obama, our first city-based president in decades, said all the right things when he established the White House Office of Urban Policy to coordinate federal efforts to revitalize cities. But not much has happened and, as is often the case, it really is up to mayors and local leaders to make cities work better. There is no tougher job in government than mayor, especially in a city on the outs. If you have any doubt, watch one episode of Brick City, the reality TV show starring Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

What does Glaeser’s way of understanding the economics of cities mean for us here? Glaeser says that “Massachusetts rises or falls with Boston.” Lately, that has made us a state on the rise. Over the last 30 years, Boston has become a global hub for the knowledge economy.

But that does not mean we should ignore the state’s smaller cities and watch them just fade away. Worcester, the second largest city in New England, is proof that targeted state investment, in this case a public medical school, can spark economic growth. Lowell and New Bedford are leveraging universities, national parks, and old mill buildings to attract artists, entrepreneurs, and empty-nesters. Pittsfield, once a General Electric company town, has learned that it cannot rely on just one industry and is diversifying its economy to generate growth.

Although it has not been easy, these cities have stuck to a strategy that is starting to turn things around. But creating educational and economic opportunity and accelerating growth in these places as well as Boston—in other words, reinventing the invention we call cities—will ultimately require not only Ed Glaeser’s bold policy ideas, but a new political coalition for the 21st century that’s ambitious and confident enough to embrace cities as the best hope for our future.

John Schneider is executive vice president of MassINC and directs the organization’s Gateway Cities initiative targeting the state’s smaller cities.