Ed Glaeser’s vision of the “bright urban future”

“Knowledge is more important than space,” Harvard Prof. Ed Glaeser told an SRO audience at the Friday morning plenary of CNU 19. And that, he added, is the story of cities writ small.

The context of his remark was his observation of how New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg created a “bullpen” office at City Hall, where city officials work out in the open rather than in private offices. It was something he had learned on Wall Street. Whereas most top corporate executives protect themselves behind heavy doors, big desks, and assistants, Wall Streeters work face to face in the chaotic environments of the trading floor. The value of finding out “what’s going on now” is simply too great for them to want it any other way.

Human beings learning from one another are at the heart of a successful city. “Small firms and smart people with connections to the world” is Glaeser’s formula for urban success. “When you bring smart people together, miracles can occur.”

These include miracles of reinvention. In the 19th century, New York’s three leading industries were sugar refining, printing and publishing, and the garment trade. A special niche was pirating English novels - this was where the Harper Brothers had particular success. New York has reinvented itself repeatedly, building on the culture of entrepreneurship established in the garment trade, Glaeser said. Cities that have failed to prosper in recent years - Detroit is a notable example - have lacked the capacity to reinvent themselves. In its early years, Detroit was a cluster of innovation: Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, the Fisher Brothers. But eventually the big automakers got too big to have an entrepreneurial culture. And that has affected Detroit. A big auto plant like Ford’s River Rouge Plant is too much a world unto itself, cut off from the city in which it is (should be) rooted, to be much of a crucible of innovation.

Glaeser took on Jane Jacobs, as he has done in his new book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Whereas Jacobs tended to prefer low-rise buildings and noted that older, lower structures tended to be cheaper than skyscrapers, Glaeser is an unabashed advocate of building up - because it increases the number of dwellings that can be built and helps keep housing more affordable. Jacobs didn’t apply the law of supply and demand quite right on this one, he argued. It isn’t hard to believe that Glaeser grew up in New York, because he talks pretty fast. And it’s a good thing he does, because he might not otherwise have been able to get through his analysis of the “bright urban future.” He’s a conservative economist but also a strong advocate of cities.

In closing, he flagged three policy issues that continue to need attention:

1. Is it smart to keep subsidizing homeownership the way we do?

2. Is is smart to keep subsidizing highways the way we do?

3. What are we going to do about urban schools?


Increasingly, many of the

Increasingly, many of the answers to our problems will be addressed by urbanism. All one has to do is evaluate last year's Brookings Institute "U.S. Economic Prosperity Driven by Metropolitan Areas" report to see the economic utility in resetting the focus on our metro areas. Creating conditions and designs for these areas to thrive are the immediate steps needed for us to emerge from the Great Recession.


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