Edward L. Glaeser: Triumph of the City

June 26th, 2014

Triumph_of_the_city_200x130Despite the bad rap cities get for being dirty, poor, unhealthy, crime ridden, expensive and environmentally unfriendly, Edward L. Glaeser is keen to prove that they are actually the healthiest, greenest, and richest (in cultural and economic terms) places to live.

In his latest book, Glaeser,  a professor at Harvard who studies the economics of cities in particular, says the city is humanity’s greatest invention and our best hope for the future. New Yorkers, he points out for instance, live longer than other Americans and have lower heart disease and cancer rates than the nation as a whole. More than half of the United State’s income is generated in 22 metropolitan areas. And on average, city dwellers use 40% less energy than suburbanites.

Glaeser says even the worst cities like Kinshasa, Kolkata and Lagos bestow benefits on the people who crowd them, including better health and more jobs than the rural areas they left behind. In a chapter called “What’s good about slums?” he says it’s not that the people in slums are poor, it’s that cities attract people who want to stop being poor.

Urban poverty a sign of strength?

In a recent interview on CNN with Rafeeq Zakaria, Glaeser said urban poverty is actually more of a sign of urban strength than weakness. As cities don’t make people poor,  most of the time at least, we’re missing the alternative when we look down on slums, he said.

“We are missing the fact that while we would never want to spend a week or a month of our lives in these slums, the people who come there are not fools. They are moving from places that are far worse,” said Glaeser. “Slums are giving them opportunity, the ability to find a brighter future. Yes, they’re hellish by the standards that we’re used to, but they are not hellish relative to rural northeast of Brazil. And there’s far more future in the city than there is in the dispersed and unproductive farmland of much of the world.”

Glaeser compares the similar history of Bangalore and Silicon Valley to prove how essential education is to urban success and how new technology actually encourages people to congregate physically. He tells us why Detroit is dying while other old industrial cities — Chicago, Boston, New York — thrive.

Marks of success

Drawing on the wonders of a city, Glaeser makes a case for nurturing our cities to avoid facing consequences that will hurt us all regardless of where we live. He warns us that cities require management and that even though slums are places of opportunity they are also places of public failure. The challenge of the 21st century is to make our megacities livable and humane.

He says three things — smart people, small firms and connections to the outside world — are what makes cities successful in this century. Smart people are able to use the density and learn from one another. Small firms talk to each other and connect with each other within and outside their cities. And connections to the outside world are what cities are all about. Especially Cities of Migration like Aachen in Germany.

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