Humanity’s Greatest Invention?

Face-to-face with Edward Glaeser,
author of Triumph of the City

Besides being one of today’s most influential urban
economists,
Harvard University’s Edward Glaeser is a
sought-after city strategist, a provocative thinker
who may get you questioning what you think you
know about cities. At this year’s Marburg Lecture
at Marquette University earlier this month, Glaeser
shared lessons from his book Triumph of the City,
arguing persuasively that cities make us smarter, richer
and greener. While on campus, he also sat down to 
converse about a few favorite topics, including the 
enduring value of in-person conversations, what 
we can learn from successful cities ranging from 
Chicago to Vancouver (and those such as Silicon Valley 
that may be undercutting their future), 
where Milwaukee is likely to find its best path
to urban success, and what’s truly green about
neighborhoods full of concrete, brick and glass?


In a one-week period earlier this month, Edward Glaeser’s schedule took him from a conference in Leeds, England, hosted by the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, to Stanford for an urban summit, to Milwaukee to speak at Marquette Business, home to Boston for a night, down to Washington to give a keynote address at a World Bank conference and finally off to Delhi for a two-day visit. What’s driving this demand for his views is not only his reputation as a top-notch urban economist, but his thoroughly researched message about our urbanizing world. Half of humanity now lives in urban areas, he reports, and by 2050, that figure will rise to three-quarters of humanity. In Glaeser’s eyes, this urbanization is a profoundly positive trend. Despite the challenges cities must learn to overcome — including crime, sanitation, services for the poor — they are sites of intense collaboration, innovation and opportunity.

“The part of cities that’s magical occurs in the chains and collaborative creativity that occur when smart people learn from one another,” Glaeser told an audience in the Weasler Auditorium this month. Examples extend as far back as Plato and Socrates “bickering on an Athenian street corner.” They occur as nearby as Chicago in the 1880s, when brilliant architects such as William LeBaron Jenney, Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan helped rebuild the city after the Great Fire and collectively gave the world “that quintessential urban thing, the skyscraper.”

Similar synergies, big and small, are currently at work in cities across the globe, in ways that impact broader regional economies. Consider this international finding, urges Glaeser: When you lump the countries of the world into two equal groups based on whether they are more or less urbanized, the more urbanized countries have incomes that are on average five times those of the less urbanized countries. And strikingly, they have infant mortality levels that are less than a third. Or consider this: the densest 10th of U.S. counties have average incomes that are 50 percent higher than the least dense half of U.S. counties. So there are good reasons to hear more from Glaeser about what makes cities tick and how he thinks we can get the most value from the urban places so many of us call home.

Interview by Steve Filmanowicz

Chicago at night; photo by Matt Hobbs

You describe cities as “the absence of physical space between people and companies.” What is it about this particular equation that drives things like economic vitality and educational achievement and leads you to call cities “humanity’s greatest invention?”

Density matters because we’re a social species geared to learn from people around us. We come out of the womb with this remarkable ability to pick up information from our parents, from our peers, from our siblings, even occasionally from our teachers. Cities enable that to happen. It’s remarkable when you think how the cyber seers and techno prophets 30 years ago predicted that all this technology we have would mean the death of distance, the death of face-to-face contact and the death of cities, yet that hasn’t come to pass.

I think they radically underestimated how much richer face-to-face contact is as a means of communication than, you know, Skyping. Skyping is great. I mean, if you’ve got to be on the other side of the world, it’s wonderful to be able to see your children and to say “Hi.” But it’s no comparison with actually being in the same room. And the more important an idea is, the more important it is to communicate it face to face. I mean, I’ve given plenty of talks long distance, but there’s no comparison in your ability to connect with an audience, to read an audience, and to inspire an audience, hopefully, than being in the same room with them.

Some of your most vivid examples of growth and innovation are from places such as New York, London and Tokyo. What do these examples say about the importance of population density and intense clustering of talent and economic activity?

What it doesn’t say is that you can only have successful cities that are that large and that vast. What it does say is that the good stuff about cities does tend to scale up with city size. Productivity per capita goes up about 15 percent when population size of a metropolitan area doubles — that’s just a statistical relationship. And you know, you can certainly feel that in these cities, the extraordinary density of innovation and energy and competition at the retail size. It has a tremendous buzz to it.

Of course for those cities to triumph, you need to deal with the downsides of that density, which are considerable. But the last thing I’d want is for the idea (to be suggested) that Milwaukee has to be New York or even Chicago in order to flourish. There are certainly plenty of thriving mid-size cities and the key is to work on the quality of life front and to work on the skills front. Skills are really the thing that differentiates the successful mid-size cities from those that are less successful.

At the same time, you say that sprawling places such as Houston or Silicon Valley can also benefit from some of these urban advantages? How is that the case?

These places both share in common that they are very much built around the car. Houston is a densifying car-built city with, at this point in time, a relatively diverse economy that thrives in no small part by providing enormously affordable housing to millions of middle income Americans. It’s remarkable in that the cities of the East and West coasts have failed to do that. And a lot of that is the fact that Houston makes it very easy to build. Houston also has plenty of economic energy, in part, because it has very pro-business policies.

New housing under construction in Austin, Texas: photo by Joey Parsons.

When I think about the Sun Belt, the areas that I think of being the superstars are the places that combine a Sun Belt pro-business orientation with lots of skills. So that means Charlotte; that means Austin and the Research Triangle in North Carolina. It’s a very powerful model of being both pro-business and pro-education. Much of old America tends to be either pro-business or pro-education, but not both.

Given how sprawling Houston is, are there signs that the things that make it popular are threatened by congestion, that kind of thing?

The thing is with the Houston model is that employment gets so decentralized. It’s just sort of endless sprawl. It’s not like everyone is trying to commute into downtown Shanghai. Instead, you just put up another suburban office park.

And what works and doesn’t work about Silicon Valley?

Now Silicon Valley is, of course, very successful. It is a place that typifies idea creation. And, I think, almost single-handedly makes the case that new technologies do not make face-to-face contact obsolete… Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, right? Instead of saying, “Go telecommute,” she says you’ve got to show up because face-to-face contact really matters. It has lots of examples — these famous stories of people in the early days of Silicon Valley exchanging ideas at Walker’s Wagon Wheel (restaurant) and all that’s great.


There are ways, however, in which Silicon Valley really differs from a traditional city… First, it’s not all that diverse as an urban economy. That’s one of the things that makes you wonder whether or not it can continue to be as innovative as it has been. There’s a question of whether it will manage to have the same level of idea flows that it had in the past, because it is so singularly focused.

Silicon Valley from the Mount Hamilton Grandview Restaurant by Peter Theony.

Second, the fact that they’ve made it so difficult to build means that these crappy starter homes are over $2 million. It’s insane. This means they are doing a very poor job of providing employment and economic possibilities for middle-income Americans.

Great cities of the past, be it Chicago or New York, when they got successful and they had an economic engine that was running, they built up around it, right? So think about the stockyards in Chicago. They built up around that thing and millions of people came to the city and found economic opportunity…

And the third point, which is related to this, is that the great cities of the past are archipelagos of neighborhoods. So when you think of what you can get in Chicago, for example, you can get living on the Gold Coast in a historic beautiful apartment building. You can live in a glass tower on the lake. You can live in a lower-density apartment area in Lincoln Park. You can get something within the city that feels like a suburban neighborhood. What that means is that as your life changes, and as your tastes change, you can have any number of urban options in which to live.

Silicon Valley kind of has one model. It has slightly higher-density single-family detached housing and slightly lower-density single-family housing… And I think this is what’s going on with the move to San Francisco, especially the ones that specialize in young, hip people. Their employees don’t want that. They don’t want the ranch house in the suburb. They actually want to live in the hip city…

In the book, you draw a contrast between New York with its resistance to tearing down buildings to build anew, and Chicago with its more pro-growth attitude toward new housing in the city. Can you describe how that’s taken place and the effect it’s had?

Chicago has had very strong mayors, under both Richard Daleys. And typically if you want to overcome the powerful forces of NIMBYism (not-in-my-back-yard opposition) that are natural to developed cities, you typically need someone who is strong and represents a wide range of interests, who understands that the neighbors aren’t the only thing that matters. What matters is what impact this housing will have on the whole city.

Every time you say no to a new development, you are saying no to new families who want to live in the city. You are making sure that housing is more expensive for everyone else. A strong mayor has the capacity at least to internalize that. And Daley was a very strong mayor.

Now Mayor Blomberg? Very strong mayor and very effective at upzoning parts of Manhattan, but still, you know, he wasn’t going to overrule the Historic Preservation Commission. And in the outer boroughs, (his planning director) Amanda Burden favored this thing called contextual zoning, which was essentially downzoning the outer boroughs.

You do open the New York Times magazine and see more and more of these elite towers that have won approval?

I somewhat regret the fact that those things get so much publicity. That’s the last thing I’d want as the poster child for what new construction can be. What I want is sort of large-scale projects that are providing decent homes for ordinary people…

What about Vancouver as a model for smart planning that accommodates growth in high-rise neighborhoods that are vibrant and livable?

Vancouver is a great model, sure. This is the doctrine of Sullivanism, right? They had this amazing mayor, Mayor Sullivan. He was a quadriplegic, had an accident early on. Through this amazing personal journey, he brought himself back, joined the city council and became mayor. He was a real hero. He certainly was one of the guys who really supported the idea of Vancouver embracing height, embracing density and doing so in a way that is beautiful and compatible with nature. It just makes Vancouver a spectacular city. And Vancouver has this asset of being very smart in their immigration policy. So a lot of smart Asians help make the city hum.

Brady Street in Milwaukee; photo by Stephen Filmanowicz

Milwaukee seems caught in the middle between successful Midwest cities such as Minneapolis and struggling Rust Belt cities such as Detroit or Cleveland. The city population is stable and downtown housing has been a bright spot, while poor neighborhoods and segregation abound. College attainment on the metro level is above average but entrepreneurial activity isn’t high. How unusual is this situation and what are the prospects for success here?

I don’t think Milwaukee is in an unusual situation at all. You said it; it’s sort of in the middle of the Rust Belt. It’s doing reasonably well given where it could be and where it’s been. It’s had some remarkable leaders like Mayor Norquist. And there are other factors. This city was visionary in terms of its embrace of sewer socialism. There are a lot of interesting things about Milwaukee, which are great.

I think there’s room to move a little more towards Minneapolis, particularly on the education front. I wish I had gotten off the plane and heard more discussion about how we can fix the charter school initiative that was started during the Norquist years, and a little less about the arena, right? Or for that matter, light rail … The difference between a Minneapolis and a Detroit is the skills of the population. It’s not the train. How useful is the monorail in Detroit?

The need to invest in skills, to invest in children — the beauty of having better schools is that it pays off for the kids and for the adults, who are more willing to live in the city. So I really think that’s where I would be focused primarily. What can be done better to upskill the kids growing up in Milwaukee?

Milwaukee ranks about 50th in highway congestion and there hasn’t been traffic growth in a half-dozen years, but the Department of Transportation is expanding highway lanes all over southeast Wisconsin and spending close to $5 billion on these projects. How well spent is that money or could it be better spend on education or other priorities?

There’s something called the fundamental law of highway traffic which is (the number of miles driven on highways) increase roughly one-for-one with highway miles built. If you build it, they will drive it. Now if you can build extra lanes paid for by users, i.e., put in new lanes and make them tolled so they are high-speed lanes during peak hours, and you can pay for them that way, then God bless them. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But if we’re talking about using general tax revenues to subsidize people to drive more, I’m not so enthusiastic about that.

I think probably the low-hanging fruit in transportation policy in Milwaukee is the buses. There’s an old line that 40 years of transportation economics at Harvard can be boiled down to four words: “Bus good, train bad.” So it shouldn’t be seen as being an intrinsic problem that you don’t have a train system. Buses are flexible. They’re cost effective. They in principle can be socially programmed… But we tend to see buses as the ugly stepchild of American transportation. That’s really unfortunate.

I (suggest) actually embracing a pro-bus agenda to make buses cool. Spend modest amounts upgrading the buses. You don’t necessarily put in streetcars, just paint your buses to make them look better, figure out how to put in a little more personnel so they feel more safe, figure out if you can do social programming — chat rooms in buses. Run trivia contests for the kids, just purely experimental, low-cost interventions that attempt to make the buses exciting. That’s a cheap public transport agenda that could potentially yield big returns — for a lot less than $5 billion or whatever they are spending on highways. My guess is $5 million would go pretty far with buses.

Civic leaders here have identified a cluster of companies specializing in water technology…

There’s that sewer socialism again rearing its head.

So they’ve come together to foster a network of people working in that area, focused in a physical place in a particular neighborhood, the Global Water Center. Universities are involved, seeding research in this area. They’re encouraging the face-to-face interactions that you’ve identified as important. Based on what you’ve seen, how well can these kinds of efforts work as a way for a region to grow economically?

Working on removing contaminants from water with electrocoagulation, Dr. Brooke Mayer of Marquette’s Opus College of Engineering with a student assistant.

Let me give you two different ways of looking at this. One thing we’ve seen was that after the Bayh-Dole Act legalized the use of research funded by federal dollars for commercial purposes — this was in 1980 — there was an explosion of related business activity near the universities that specialized in things with commercial value. If you take that lens to it, you say, well, Milwaukee has all of this water-related knowledge in its learning institutions; let that be leveraged. Let’s make sure that happens.

The other lens is that cities are really bad at playing venture capitalist. And most assuredly, most of the examples of trying to create clusters of a variety of forms have ended in failure. So you probably don’t want to be in the business of having a public official say, “This is our industrial future. We’re about X.” But you do want, if there is a body of knowledge in an area, you want to make sure that there aren’t barriers to turning that into jobs.

When I asked about the benefits of cities, I didn’t mention the environmental benefits, which are turning out to be important as well. How do cities make a difference as greener places to live?

So Matthew Kahn and I have estimated the carbon footprint associated with different parts of the U.S., holding income and family size constant … you see significant differences between urban and suburban living in the U.S. in energy use. And that’s from two primary sources, one of which is transport patterns. Living in the city means you’re driving much shorter distances. In the U.S. statistically, the big (bump) is not about public transportation, outside of New York City, because in fact most urbanites in the U.S. still drive. But the difference is that they’re driving three miles instead of 30, which is a big deal in terms of gasoline usage. The second, of course, is just the size of the housing unit. Apartment buildings are not intrinsically greener than houses are, but they are almost always smaller. The fact that you’ve got a little bit of excess energy in some aspects of the apartment gets dissipated by the fact that you’re typically living in a much smaller unit than you are in a suburban house.

So city living reduces individual carbon footprints, but footprints also vary as you move around the country?

Now this is less of a good thing for Milwaukee: The differences within cities are smaller than the differences across metropolitan areas. The places that are intrinsically green are the places with very benign climates. Coastal California is intrinsically greener than the American Midwest, which tends to require both cooling in the summer and heating in the winter. I think the implication that I’ve drawn from this is that’s why California environmentalists should be incredibly gung ho about building more high rises in coastal California, which is of course the last thing in the world they’re actually in favor of doing.

One last point about this: It’s not that the U.S. changing is going to make some huge difference in terms of carbon emissions, but if the great growing economies of India and China see their per capita carbon emissions rise to that seen in the sprawling United States, global carbon emissions go up by about 130 percent. If they stop at the level of wealthy but hyper-dense Hong Kong, they go up by less than 30 percent. That’s a huge difference.


Whether you’re worried about climate change or the price of gas at the pump, we’ve all got a lot to gain by China and India growing up rather than out.

— Edward Glaeser

Image of traffic in Hyderabad, India by Charlton Clemens.


So if we’re hoping for greener development in China and India, it’s important that the United States set a similar example here?

I think doing something that at least eradicated the barriers — some of the biases against cities would be helpful in making this case. That’s typically, all that I’m (advocating). I argue in my book for what I think are better aspects of urban governance that focus more on people than on structures, for deregulation of what I see as being unhelpful barriers to delivering density where it’s valued. But my basic view is that I’m an economist. I believe in choice. I believe in freedom. I believe cities are best when they give you lots of options about where to live. And the U.S. federal government has no business trying to tell people that they should live in one area or the other. Indeed, I’m not trying to tell people to live in cities or somewhere else. I think it’s great that people choose different areas.

But there are some policies that could change?

I believe we have some unfortunate biases against cities that are important to rethink. One set of this is exactly this transportation problem. Particularly during the current administration, we have aggressively used general tax revenues to subsidize highways. There is no reason that drivers shouldn’t be paying for the social costs of their actions, which basically means paying for their own bloody highways through gas taxes or other (user fees) … I mean, I commute by highway myself. There’s no reason that anyone should be subsidizing my drive in.
The second is our federal housing policy. By aggressively subsidizing home ownership through things like the mortgage interest deduction and through things like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, we are encouraging people to move out of urban apartments into suburban homes. There is such a strong correlation between structure type and ownership type. More than 85 percent of single-family detached houses are owner occupied. More than 85 percent of multi-family houses are rented. When we say the American Dream involves homeowning, we are telling cities to get lost — or we are pushing people out of at least high-rise cities.

Ed Glaeser at Marquette University (with Steve Filmanowicz); photo by Jesse Lee.

And the third thing, of course, is the terrible state of our urban school systems. That’s not something I’m blaming on the federal government. It’s hard particularly with populations that are poor to get city services functioning perfectly perhaps. But it’s so important. It’s such a critical challenge for our cities. Until we fix that, we are always going to have parents of children exiting cities even though they’d prefer an urban lifestyle.

Despite the challenges found in urban education, you also see potential in that cities are the kinds of places where you can cluster talent and create better choices?

For sure, this is why I think the (private-school choice) innovation that Norquist helped launch is so important. This is why I’m not a socialist, aside from my fondness for individual freedom. I believe very deeply in the virtues of competition and entrepreneurship and innovation. You see those in successful cities all of the time. You see great restaurants in New York and London because there’s all this innovation and competition. But think what would happen if instead of having all of these restaurants starting and folding and starting and folding, you had one urban canteen run by the city government that doled out food. It would be awful, but this is what we’ve done with our urban school system.

(The alternative is) freedom, choice, cities enabling entrepreneurship. If you look at London or Paris, these cities are not bad for education. Cities can be great for educating their children, it just happens that our U.S. system of public monopolies on education have proven to be a failure.

In the wake of your book coming out, how do you feel about the conversation that has resulted from it?

Oh, I’ve been thrilled that some people have liked the book and other people have at least wanted to argue about it. There is a funny thing about America that America is a country of urbanites, but so many of us don’t think of ourselves as being urban. That’s one of the things that is really interesting about this. If you live in a single-family house in Los Angeles, you are almost as urban as a human being can be. Yet the typical Los Angeleno consider himself almost a pioneering homesteader in their house. There’s a fascinating American thing that’s gone on since Thomas Jefferson, liking to think of ourselves as a non-urban nation, even when we are. I think that’s why it’s much easier to have these conversations in the UK, which embraces its urbanity or anywhere in Europe. The difference of course is that once you get to mainland Europe, by being a centrist in the American political distribution, I am of course a raging right-wing fanatic from the perspective of Europe. So saying nice about private competition, particularly among the group of people who like cities, is not considered to be normal.

What in your book provokes the most arguments?

Georgetown row house block; courtesy of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

I would say the people that typically hate me most have tended to be the historic preservationists within cities. And it’s not — look, my father is an architectural historian. I believe in preserving many, many buildings, but I don’t believe in preserving all buildings and I believe there are downsides to preserving too much. It’s particularly hard for groups who are used to seeing themselves as unfettered heroes, heroes without anything to say there’s a significant downside to what you’re doing. That’s where you get the most push back.

So a final question: where do you see yourself living after your kids are grown?

Oh, I’m moving into an apartment as soon as my youngest is out of high school. Nothing in the world will keep me in my suburban home.

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