Ed Glaeser considers the post-pandemic challenges facing cities

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.” 

“But we certainly have been reminded that a contagious disease is a longstanding companion of city life,” Glaeser said in our conversation. “The plague of Athens leveled that brightest of lights in the Mediterranean world 2,400 years ago. In the 19th century, American cities, including Boston, were routinely hit by epidemic events, yellow fever in the first decades of the 19th century, cholera in the middle of middle decades, influenza in 1918-1919, that were far deadlier than COVID-19 has been.”

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. 

Though he remains a huge believer in the central role cities will play in our future, it’s not a pollyannaish view that dismisses the very threats that the pandemic has brought to the fore and the need for cities not to rest on their laurels. Due out this fall is a new Glaeser book on urban economics titled Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation. “So we’ve gone from triumph to survival,” he said. 

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

 

Nuclear option: Walter Sorenson was so angry about how he was treated in Essex County Probate and Family Court by Judge Abbe Ross that he convinced his state rep to file legislation seeking to remove her from the bench. Winning passage of the measure is considered a long shot, but surprisingly many others who have appeared before Ross have stepped forward to add their own stories of alleged judicial bias. What’s strange is that there is no pattern to the stories — those complaining include men and women of different races, ethnicities, professions, and sexual orientation. Meanwhile, attorneys who have appeared before Ross say the problem is not Ross but the court itself, which is flooded with cases and not enough resources to handle them, which leads to unhappy petitioners. Read more.

An arts boost for schools: Lots of people are big believers in the value of arts education for its own sake, but supporters of the arts have increasingly felt forced to justify such programming in the face of increased focus on core academic subjects like English and math. A new study of 11 years of arts programming in the Boston Public Schools provides some quantitative support for arts, linking the offering of arts courses to a modest gain in student attendance and greater student and family engagement with schools. Read more

RFP goes out: The state is launching its third procurement for offshore wind, seeking bids for up to 1,600 megawatts. Read more.

 

OPINION:

Tit for tat: Last week it was Dr. Eric Dickson, the CEO of UMass Memorial Health Care, who was railing against Mass General Brigham’s plan to open outpatient centers in Westborough, Westwood, and Woburn. This week John Fernandez, a top official at MGB, offers a spirited defense of the expansion. He says the regulatory process governing such expansion “is not intended as a popularity contest, nor is it a forum for squeaky wheels protecting their own economic interests.” Read more.

Blind spot: Jim Jordan, the former strategic director for the Boston Police Department, says Massachusetts has a blind spot when it comes to assault weapons. The state bans their use but not their manufacture or export. Read more.

Unfinished work: Adam Berman, Kate Kellogg, and Jenna Myers say nursing homes in Massachusetts have made staffing gains, but a lot more work is needed. Read more.

One use for federal stimulus: Tom Birmingham of the Pioneer Institute says federal stimulus money offers a way to implement a strong history and civics curriculum and testing to make sure students are grasping it. Read more.

Supplementing the stimulus: The American Rescue Plan contains major anti-poverty initiatives, but Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton says Massachusetts must pitch in as well. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

A first stab at trying to get motorized dirt bikes to stay out of Franklin Park appeared to have little effect on Sunday, with bikers zipping past electronic billboards set up by the city warning that they are not allowed in the park. (Boston Herald

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

State health officials say they are ready to start vaccinating teenagers age 12 to 15 if the federal government allows it. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Pfizer seeks full FDA approval of its COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, the vaccine is approved under an emergency use authorization. (NPR)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Baseless charges of election fraud pushed by Donald Trump and supporters after the 2020 election have their roots in a 2018 effort cooked up by a conservative Texas businessman who began pushing the idea there had been manipulation of voting data in that year’s election. (Washington Post

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy officially declared support for the effort by Rep. Elise Stefanik to oust Rep. Liz Cheney from her Republican House leadership post. Cheney has fallen out of favor for insisting that the party must repudiate former president Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen from him through massive voter fraud. (New York Times)  Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois compares the Republican Party to the Titanic. (The Hill)

ELECTIONS

The crime problems centered on drug use and addiction issues around the intersection of Mass. Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston have only gotten worse in recent weeks, and are becoming a major issue in the unfolding mayor’s race. (Boston Herald

US Sen. Elizabeth Warren tells Politico that she will run for reelection to the Senate in 2024. 

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A new report says the bulk of the spending in the first months of an experimental guaranteed basic income program in Chelsea is taking place at food stores and restaurants. (Boston Globe

The proposal by Tree House Brewing of Charlton to open another facility in South Deerfield appears to be picking up steam. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

Massachusetts enters a new stage of reopening Monday, with amusement and theme parks allowed to reopen and the loosening of restrictions on organized sports and indoor singing. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

The changes in admission criteria at Boston’s three 7-12 grade exam schools have, as projected, led to increased acceptance of Black and Latino students and a decrease in admission offers to white and Asian applicants. (Boston Globe

The Salem and Peabody schools learn from Holyoke as they figure out how to address chronic absenteeism. (Salem News)

TRANSPORTATION

The long-discussed idea of creating a direct link between the MBTA’s Red and Blue lines is getting renewed attention as Mass. General Hospital, which abuts where the connection would be made, rolls out plans for a nearly $2 billion expansion. (Boston Globe

Former state transportation secretaries Fred Salvucci and Jim Aloisi say the proposed big federal COVID-19 relief legislation provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fashion an equitable transportation spending plan for the country. (Boston Globe)

Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to allow municipalities to install red light cameras is a controversial one. (Salem News)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The mother of a 16-year-old Hopkinton girl whose death has sparked criticism of the Middlesex district attorney and calls for an independent investigation of the case has a pending assault charge involving allegations that she beat a teenage daughter (the child’s identity is redacted in the police report of the incident). (Boston Herald) The mother’s Go Fund Me campaign for an independent investigation of her daughter’s death has raised more than $50,000. (MetroWest Daily News)

Closing arguments will be heard today in the federal corruption trial of former Fall River mayor Jasiel Correia. (Herald News

A man is fatally shot by the police after ramming his SUV into the Leicester police station and apparently pointing a rifle at officers. (Telegram & Gazette)

PASSINGS

Longtime AP religion writer Rachel Zoll, of Amherst, dies at 55. (Associated Press)