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Cities are humanity’s greatest achievement; why stand in their way?

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues persuasively that cities have made the world far smarter, richer, healthier and happier.

Edward Glaeser
Edward Glaeser

“I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man.” — Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson wasn’t right about everything. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser makes plain in his new book, “The Triumph of the City,” urban life is probably humanity’s greatest invention. Cities provide proximity, which, as Jefferson suggested, provokes all manner of pestilence, suffering and degradation. But cities also make possible humanity’s greatest achievements: the exchange of ideas, collaboration and, ultimately, civilization.

Without Vienna there would be no Haydn influencing Mozart and no Mozart teaching Beethoven. Without Paris Monet and Cezanne would never have found each other. Without Chicago Belushi and Aykroyd would have been solo acts. Cities underscore the magic of interaction in which the whole becomes so much greater than the sum of its parts. Especially in a digital economy, face-to-face contact becomes an essential generator of human creativity and added value.

Glaeser argues persuasively that cities have made the world far smarter, richer, healthier and happier. As a new era approaches, urban density also offers, paradoxically, the key to preserving nature and making the planet greener and safer.

Glaeser’s book arrives at just the right moment. America is on pause. But in the next few years it will climb out of a deep recession and begin building itself again. When it does it would be wise to consider a new start that removes all the barriers that have constrained and punished cities over the last 60 years. Glaeser isn’t asking for special treatment, just for a leveling of the playing field that would allow the urban form — with all of its advantages of efficiency and creativity — to compete fairly with suburbia and exurbia.

It’s a theme we’ve often explored in this column. Glaeser is a native New Yorker who, once he had a family, retreated to the wilds of suburban Boston for all the usual reasons: artificially cheap gasoline, subsidized freeways, a mortgage-interest tax deduction and better schools (largely made possible by the other factors). Given the disadvantages that governments have dealt to cities, it’s a miracle that some of them still flourish, he says. He suggests that the nation would emerge as a better global competitor if more cities were given a fair chance to work the magic of human interaction.

“Too many countries have stacked the deck against urban areas, despite the fact that those areas are a — if not the — source of national strength,” Glaeser writes. “Cities don’t need handouts, but they need a level playing field.”

Favored treatment for the automobile has been the key driver in reshaping cities, he says. Cars have been a mixed blessing — vital for expanding energetic Sun Belt cities like Houston and Phoenix, but a curse to most older northern cities that have had to rip their hearts out to make room for them.

Glaeser is no dreamy idealist. His case is strengthened by the hard-nosed approach that a center/right economist brings to the table. Take the matter of urban poverty; he’s in favor of it. Well, not quite. But he sees poverty as part of the city’s natural function — to draw impoverished people from the countryside so that together they can create more value for themselves and society. Even the poorest inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro are better off in the city’s shantytowns than in the rural huts they’ve left behind, he argues. As for the U.S., everyone knows the incredible contributions of impoverished immigrants to the national story.

It’s nearly inevitable that some cities decline, Glaeser says, casting a special eye on Detroit. When the industrial economy fell, the city simply didn’t have the resources to respond. A city in the 1970s that was — in terms of per capita income — wealthier than New York, lacked the education, diversified economy and small-scale entrepreneurship to compete when a few big companies hit hard times. New York was a basket case, too, but was able to cash in on its financial services sector, cultural scene and political talent to pull off one of the most dramatic urban turnarounds in history. New York had another huge advantage: density. Detroit’s sprawling auto plants and offices were set apart from the city itself, reducing the churn of ideas that proximity brings.

As for urban politics, Glaeser saves some of his harshest comments for Detroit’s then-mayor Coleman Young. While Young’s antipathy toward the white power structure was understandable, Glaeser says, you can’t use pity and revenge to resurrect a city. Nor can you overtax the well off, because they can — and will — walk away. “Detroit’s middle class escaped Coleman Young by moving to the suburbs,” Glaeser points out, illustrating his point that it’s unwise to press heavily on income redistribution at the local level.

He also comes down hard in favor of investments in human capital (education and training) in troubled cities like Detroit over investments in buildings (convention centers and stadiums). “Help poor people, not poor places,” is his refrain.

While similar factors (such as industrial decline) characterize a city’s downfall, no single thing accounts for a city’s revival, Glaeser says, although in today’s economy a good education system comes closest. He singles out Boston and Minneapolis-St. Paul as rare cold-weather cities that are thriving. He credits uncommon commitments to education as the main catalyst. Few analysts would have selected MSP as a candidate for renaissance, he writes, but Scandinavian values coupled with health care, business and cultural ideas spawned at the University of Minnesota have produced the Midwest’s most prosperous metropolitan place.

Glaeser’s treatment of MSP is a bit breezy, but that shouldn’t do damage to his wider, mostly spot-on conclusions, among them:

  • Cities magnify humanity’s strengths.
  • Governments should encourage urban density for the sake of efficiency and environmental benefit.
  • There’s too much emphasis on historic preservation in most cities; truly historic buildings should be saved, but cities generally should be allowed to evolve.
  • Don’t blame suburbanites for sprawl; suburbanization is the product of government policy.
  • Maximizing human interaction is the key to preserving and reviving successful cities.

Glaeser’s book, published by The Penguin Press, is a lively recitation of economic insights and counterintuitive observations that should provoke thought and discussion among citizens and policymakers. To the book’s credit, it lacks an ideological view just as the country needs a big dose of pragmatism.