Edward Glaeser: Should We All Be Living in Cities?

Edward Glaeser explains why he is overwhelmingly optimistic about urban growth.

A black and white portrait of Edward Glaeser




Cities are an integral part of Earth’s future: by 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population will be living in an urban area. Solutions to social problems, from climate change to poverty, will therefore be tied to the fates of cities. In this episode, Glimp professor of economics Edward Glaeser explains why he is overwhelmingly optimistic about urban growth. Cities, he says, are engines of innovation and economic activity that create opportunity. “Humans,” he explains, “are a social species that gets smart by being around other smart people.” When they do, their impact on the planet’s climate is lessened in surprising ways—and in surprising places across the United States.

Transcript (the following was prepared by a machine algorithm, and may not perfectly reflect the audio file of the interview):

Jonathan Shaw: Rome, Paris, London, Tokyo, New York, LA, great cities of the world. Welcome to the Harvard Magazine podcast, Ask a Harvard Professor. I'm Jonathan Shaw. We'll spend today's office hours talking about cities with Ed Glaeser, the Fred and Eleanor Glimp professor of economics and the instructor of the popular Harvard X course, “Cities X.”

Jonathan Shaw: Welcome Professor Glaeser.

Edward Glaeser: Thank you for having me on.

Jonathan Shaw: You've been writing about cities for a long time and what makes a city successful or not. Before we talk about that, could you tell us about the demographics of the modern city? What percentage of the global population lives in cities and what is the forecast for urban growth worldwide?

Edward Glaeser: So according to the United Nations, we are currently at a point in which 53% of the world's population is urban and that that will increase to 68% by 2050. Now, all of the UN's numbers are debatable in lots of different ways, but they capture sort of a fundamental reality of an increasingly urban planet.

Edward Glaeser: And I think, this is even more striking when we ask about the urbanization of a particular country. So if you go back to 1960 and ask what share of countries with per capita incomes below $1,000, in modern dollars, what share of them are more than one third urban? The answer is zero, not a one. Right?

Edward Glaeser: Today, more than 40% of the world's poorest countries are more than one third urban. And we see the rise of mega cities like Karachi and Kinshasa in places that are often poor and often sadly also, occasionally, we see the rise of cities like Karachi and Kinshasa and places that are poor and often sadly poorly governed as well. And this, I think, should remind us that while cities are places of remarkable opportunity, they're also places with tremendous challenges. There are demons that also come with density. And in some sense trying to make sure that the cities, particularly the cities of the developing world can live up to their promise is one of the great vocations to the 21st century.

Jonathan Shaw: Right? So there's a lot at stake. People have often thought, even in the United States, of cities as places of disease and crime and congestion, why is that no longer true in many places?

Edward Glaeser: So that didn't happen easily. A boy born in New York City could expect to live seven years less than a boy born in rural America in 1900. That's about the same life expectancy gap between Shakespeare's London and the rest of England. Today life expectancy is actually somewhere between two and three years longer in New York and elsewhere. That was not free or easy. And the most important thing that cities provide is clean water because there's no crime wave that kills more readily than a cholera epidemic. American cities and towns were spending as much on clean water and sewers at the start of the 20th century as the federal government was spending on everything, except for the post office and the army according to research by my colleague David Cutler.

Edward Glaeser: Enormous amount of money was spent on this infrastructure. And in some sense, the aqueduct may be the great urban technology of all time because it's just so important to bring the good stuff in and the filth out. But you know, infrastructure is never enough. As a kid, I was reared on this story, this tale of engineering triumphalism that New York was filthy until they built the Croton aqueduct and that enabled the clean water to come in and eventually the filth got taken out as well. But it's clear that that wasn't enough. It was necessary but not sufficient. The Croton aqueduct began its operations in 1842. They were still having cholera epidemics for another 25 years. In fact, an ancestor of mine died in the 1849 cholera epidemic in New York, seven years after it opened.

Edward Glaeser: The problem was exactly the same problem we've seen in sub Saharan Africa today, which is you build the water mains, you build the connections, but you don't provide a mechanism for ensuring that poor people connect. Either enough subsidies or penalties if you don't connect. And so poor people are trying to make ends meet, continue to use their shallow wells, continue to use their pit latrines, and they continue to die from waterborne diseases. And that's what happened in New York for 25 years until you had a public health system put in place that actually started fining tenement owners who actually didn't connect to the water and sewerage system.

Jonathan Shaw: How do cities make their inhabitants more efficient? Why has enhanced communication technology led to more face to face interactions of the kind that cities facilitate?

Edward Glaeser: So cities create what economists call agglomeration economies, which is just saying that we become more productive when were cast into a maelstrom of economic activity. All of this, in some sense, all of the advantages that come from proximity and there are literally scores of studies documenting that people become more productive in urban areas. All of them ultimately come from a reduction in transportation costs. Reduction in transportation costs for goods, enabling the movement of goods over short distances. Reducing the transportation costs for people. So enabling people to buy and sell from each other, to provide services to each other and reducing the transportation costs for ideas. That sort of magical thing that the great English economist Alfred Marshall was talking about when he wrote 130 years ago that in dense clusters, the mysteries of the trade become no mystery but are as it were in the air.

Edward Glaeser: And that's still something we feel very much about ourselves in cities. The fact that there are ideas for us to learn from and that in some sense cities are at their most central to the human story when they're enabling those collaborative chains of creativity that have been responsible for humanities greatest hits from Athenian philosophy to Facebook.

Edward Glaeser: Why has communication technology not made this role for cities obsolete? And that's this is fascinating question. And when I started getting involved in studying cities in the late 1980s it really seemed that the new information technology was going to do to the idea oriented city, what the older forms of transportation technology had done to the manufacturing city. So remember in the 1970s all of America's older, colder cities felt as if they were headed for the trash heap of history.

Edward Glaeser: Boston was no better off than Buffalo, New York was no better off than Detroit. Seattle was no stronger than Saint Louis. All of these felt as if they were, you know, their time had come and gone because they had once been manufacturing centers and a reduction in transportation costs meant you no longer needed the factories in these expensive cities that were next to transportation hubs, you can move them, move the factories to right to work states in the south where wages were cheaper, move them across the oceans, to places where it was cheaper to hire labor more generally. And so it seemed in the 1980s that further changes in communication technology was going to make cities even more obsolete. That we were all gonna just evacuate urban areas, move to electronic cottages and enjoy whatever sylvan splendors, our love of nature appealed to us.

Edward Glaeser: But that didn't happen. And cities have come back in lots of ways and there are lots of causes for that. But over the past 25 years, I think the most important cause is that what's happened is there's been a rise in returns to human capital. A rise in returns to skill, a rise in returns to innovation, a rise in returns to being smart. And at our heart we are a social species that gets smart by being around other smart people. That is incidentally how universities work too. In some sense, a university is a highly curated city of ideas. But this rise in returns to skill, which came about of course, ultimately from globalization, from the fact that if you have a new idea, you can source it on the other side of the planet. You can sell it on the other side of the planet.

Edward Glaeser: It came about from increasing technological sophistication from an increasingly complex world. You know, the more complicated an idea is, the easier it is for that idea to get lost in translation. Anyone who's ever taught knows the hardest part about teaching is not knowing your subject material. It's knowing whether or not anything you're saying is getting through. And we have these wonderful cues as human beings for communicating comprehension or confusion to people who are next to us.

Edward Glaeser: But those are lost when we're trying to deal with each other electronically. So I can tell whether you're getting what I'm saying or not. I have no idea about the listeners of this podcast, whether or not what I'm saying is making any sense to them whatsoever. And that's just incredibly valuable. And the more complicated the idea is the more valuable it is to be face to face. And so far from making face to face contact obsolete, technological change, globalization, has actually made face to face contact more valuable and has made the cities that exist to facilitate that face to face interaction more valuable as well.

Jonathan Shaw: Aren't cities also the scene of gross inequality between rich and poor? How should we understand that?

Edward Glaeser: Absolutely. You know, Plato wrote that any city of whatever size is in reality, two cities. One a city of the rich and one a city of the poor and they're perpetually at war with each other. So this is a 2,400 year old phenomenon. The first thing though is while there are huge issues relating to these inequalities, we shouldn't actually blame cities for inequality. Cities have rich and poor people because cities are relatively good places to be rich and they're not so terrible places to be poor because you have a better functioning safety net, because you have ethnic enclaves that offer some form of protection, because you have the ability to get around without a car for every adult, which is unfortunately, a necessity in many American suburbs.

Edward Glaeser: So cities don't make people poor. Cities typically attract poor people. So cities shouldn't really apologize for the inequality. But what you really have to worry about is are cities turning poor people into rich people. Because if that's happening, and if cities are a perpetual upward escalator, then it's no problem that they're attracting poor people, that they have rich and poor together. If they are attracting poor people and then leaving them trapped in poverty, then we've got a huge problem.

Edward Glaeser: And I think one of the things that's come out of my colleagues, Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren and John Friedman's work on economic opportunity is that cities, in fact, particularly for children born between 78 and 83, which is their cohort, cities did not do a great job of facilitating opportunity. And that the kids who grew up in denser metropolitan areas, the kids who grew up in denser neighborhoods within those metropolitan areas, the kids who grew up closer to the city center and the kids who live just over the border in a central city school district as opposed to just over the border in a suburban school district, all four of those measures suggests that kids who grew up in these urban areas had worse outcomes as adults.

Edward Glaeser: And we know this, I mean, we know so many American parents feel like they have to leave central cities to get better opportunities for their kids, to move into the suburbs to get control over their lives. Some part of this failure is about the way we structure public schooling in this country. I mean, there certainly is no Frenchman who feels like they need to leave Paris to get better schools for their kids. There certainly is no Englishman who feels that good education means leaving London. This is a uniquely American aspect to how we've set up our education system and some part of this is other challenges about cities. Our cities can far too often be places of tremendous racial and income segregation. And if you come to a city and you are, particularly, as a kid growing up in a neighborhood where you don't actually mix with a tremendous diversity of people living in the city, that you live overwhelmingly with people who are poor and have limited economic advantages.

Edward Glaeser: That means that many of the upsides of cities are lost for them. And of course the last problem which shows up quite clearly is that cities enable all sorts of activities and not all those activities are benign. And in the case of 14 or 15 year olds, it can be getting involved in dealing drugs. It can be doing things which provide short term benefits perhaps, but longterm costs that can be dreadful.

Jonathan Shaw: Let's talk a little bit more about education and cities. What happens when educated people congregate in cities?

Edward Glaeser: So if you're going to ask yourself what are the really strong predictors of urban success? Human capital is the bedrock on which urban, individual, national success. Education is a very, very powerful predictor of earnings within cities and with the employment growth of cities.

Edward Glaeser: The economic phrase for this is human capital externalities and a typical estimate is as the share of adults in a metropolitan area with a college degree goes up by 10%. Your wages also go up by 10%, holding your years of schooling constant. So it's really valuable to have skilled people around you because you can sell to them. You can buy from them, you can work for them, and you can learn from them. And all of those things come from educated cities. And if you want to make this tangible, I had mentioned Seattle looking the same as Detroit in 1975 and to make this even more clear, in 1971, two jokers put up a billboard on the highway leaving Seattle, asking the last person to leave the city to please turn out the lights.

Edward Glaeser: Because just as no one could imagine a Detroit with a smaller General Motors, no one could imagine a Seattle with a smaller Boeing and Boeing had been cutting back on its jobs.

Edward Glaeser: Now, of course Seattle has come back. It's come back with Amazon, with Microsoft, with Costco, with Starbucks, with a series of companies that barely existed in 1971. But ultimately the success is not really from the companies, so much as the educational workforce of Seattle. More than one half of the adults in the city of Seattle have college degrees, whereas that share for Detroit's more like 13, 14%. So it's a huge gap in the educational base and that just makes a huge difference. And that education base is what attracts employers like Amazon to come to the city. I often say the right economic development strategy at the local level is to attract and train smart people and then more or less get out of their way. And I think there's a lot of truth to that. That in fact making sure your children are better educated, making sure that you attract, you have the right quality of life to attract well educated adults as sort of a central part of any sensible local development strategy.

Jonathan Shaw: You know, the other major predictor of a city growth, I know you've talked about in the past, has to do with the temperature in January. Is that right?

Edward Glaeser: Indeed, it is. No. I would be remiss ... not of higher wages, but absolutely, if you want to just look at straight population growth, there's no variable that beats January temperature in the 20th century for predicting population growth across America's metropolitan areas.

Jonathan Shaw: I see. So that's just a proxy for population.

Edward Glaeser: It's a very strong predictor of it. And when you try and decompose this and figure out what's going on here, it turns out it's not just about the weather. It's also about the fact that warmer areas have had relatively more pro business policies after World War II. So the work of Tom Holmes shows that on state borders, those counties that were in right to work states attracted far more manufacturing after World War II than those states that were not in right to work states and those right to work states tended to be warmer, tended to be southern. 

Edward Glaeser: It's also true that the southern parts of this country, the warmer parts of this country are places that have been much more favorable to large scale mass production of housing. You cannot understand why Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, each added about a million people as metropolitan areas between 2000 and 2010 without also realizing that these places just make it vastly easier to produce housing on a massive scale in a way that sort of unimaginable in Boston or San Francisco. And that abundance of inexpensive, quite reasonably high quality housing is one part of their magic. But of course I would be remiss if I did not also admit that in fact Americans do appear to like warmer winters. And as a New Englander, I have to say at this point, that I think it shows a real lack of character.

Jonathan Shaw: Well, I agree. How do city's support culture?

Edward Glaeser: Well, we talked about these collaborative chains of creativity and often the way that we see cities doing their magic is by watching ideas move from one artist to another. So let me take a particular example, which is Renaissance Florence, as magical a city as you could possibly think of. And this is a place that is now, of course, known for it's amazing artistic outpouring. But of course, it's a city that was built on wool and built on banking. But at the start of the Renaissance Brunelleschi figures out the basic mathematics of linear perspective. There's that famous picture of him outside the Duomo with the mirror sketching the baptistry. And he basically figures out this math.

Edward Glaeser: He passes it along to his friend, it's someone who has been connected to him by the density of Florence, Donatello, and they travel together through Rome. They learn from one another, they come up with artistic ideas, presumably together. Donatello then puts it in low relief sculpture. So that's where you see the first really great pieces of art that actually use this perspective to make two dimensional surfaces appear three dimensional ... vanishing points and so forth. Then Donnatello then passes it along to Masaccio, who puts it on the wall of the Brancacci Chapel, a marvelous painting of Saint Peter finding a silver coin in the belly of a fish. Then passes it along to Fra' Filippo Lippi, passes it along to Bottacelli and so forth. A chain of genius. Each person learning from someone else, someone who was right next to them, someone who's paintings they got to sit at, look at, be part of, and this is how ideas get created and this is how culture gets changed.

Edward Glaeser: We can tell a similar story about hip hop in New York and in Philadelphia in the 1970s, it's still happening around us all the time that people are very sensitive to those people who are near us. We are machines for interacting with each other. It's, one of our greatest talents. And proximity continues to really matter, in part because we go through life with the people who are next to us, in part because we have fun with people who are usually with us, and with us really, not just in cyberspace. So I think that if you think about the track record of the past 3000 years of cities enabling cultural change, it's really quite miraculous and it's still going on around us.

Jonathan Shaw: So Grandmaster Flash and The Fat Boys owe something to each other.

Edward Glaeser: I will say that I knew a little bit more about, when I started doing research on these things, I knew a little bit more about 15th Century Florence than I did about Grand Master Flash. But I have done my best to become educated on both.

Jonathan Shaw: What do you think of skyscrapers, particularly those that are self contained with their own movie theaters, grocery stores, gyms, restaurants, offices, the kind that residents might never need to leave?

Edward Glaeser: That's a great idea. That's a great question. In general, so three points about skyscrapers, one of which is they are yet another example of exactly what we're talking about. We think about the cluster of architectural genius that came together in Chicago in the 1880s that starts in some sense with William LeBaron Jenney figuring out how to use a steel frame to carry two walls of a taller building. And then people who worked in his offices, like for example, both Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham. Then taking the idea further in different ways. Adler, Root, the great fireproofing engineer, Peter B. White. It's again, all of these characters connected by Chicago learning from each other, collaboratively creating something, that really transformed the city.

Edward Glaeser: Second point skyscrapers remain a very innovative way of getting a lot of land area into a narrow amount of space. I think too often cities are afraid of height and I constantly worry that by making it difficult to deliver space, we are zoning out opportunity. We're making it difficult for families to find affordable spaces within cities. And it's not that I think that everyone should live in a skyscraper, by any of the imagination. I'm an economist, I believe in choice, but I do think that it should be easier to deliver space by moving upwards to ordinary citizens.

Edward Glaeser: And the third point is you specifically sketched the completely self contained skyscraper. Which again, I, you know, if people want it, I'm enough of an economist to believe that they should, ... and they're willing to pay for it, that they should be able to pay for it. But the fully self contained does seem to miss what is most special about cities, which is interacting with things in a non controlled fashion, experiencing the chaos of city streets around us, of the creativity that isn't entirely curated.

Edward Glaeser: And so while as an economist, I would never think that they should be barred from living this way if they wanted to in an entirely self contained skyscraper, just like I don't think that gated communities should be banned in any sense. It does make me a little bit sad because in fact, real cities are interactive and involve interactions with lots of people in ways that can't possibly be predicted.

Jonathan Shaw: Why would an enlightened environmentalist want to support the development of cities?

Edward Glaeser: Well, two answers there. Both of which come out of my work with Matthew Kahn, who is a Johns Hopkins environmental economist. So one is about urban versus non urban living and we attempted to estimate carbon emissions associated with living in different parts of the country. And what we basically found is the places that look green or brown and the places that look brown or green. And the reason for that is primarily about personal transportation. So just driving much longer distances in the suburbs and house size. And this is controlling for income and family size, but people who live in dense urban cores are much more likely to live in small apartments and people who live in, even controlling, again for how many kids you have, and people in the suburbs are more likely to live in large sprawling houses.

Edward Glaeser: Again, as an economist, I'm not trying to denigrate the suburban style at all. People have a right to choose where they want to. I woke up in my drafty suburban home this morning and people have a right to choose, but if you're asking yourself what's good for the environment, living surrounded by a lot of trees is not necessarily a good way to be good to those trees. And in terms of driving, it's a little bit about public transportation, but in fact in the US it's really about the length of drive, that in fact, most Americans, whether or not they're living in urban cores or suburbs are driving, but they're driving three miles in the urban core and they're driving 30 miles in the sprawling suburbs. So that's the real difference. Now, there's also a second coda on this, which is, it's not just that there's a city suburb difference.

Edward Glaeser: It's that some parts of America are intrinsically much greener than others. By far the most intrinsically green parts of America are the cities of coastal California. And this is not because of any particular environmental regulation. It's because of, again, the weather. It's because the things that differ vastly across metropolitan areas are the amount of energy that you use to heat your home and the amount of energy that you use to cool it through electricity. Home heating is associated with January temperature. Home cooling is associated with July temperature. California has quite moderate July's and quite moderate January's, as well. And consequently, if you were an environmentalist who wanted to reduce American's carbon footprint then what you should be arguing for is as much tall building connected to rail stations in the San Francisco Bay as possible. That in fact, that's the clearly the environmentalists' charge should be to encourage as much development in Los Angeles, in the San Francisco region as possible because those areas are just vastly greener.

Edward Glaeser: And when you turn off development there, when you say no to development outside of San Francisco, it doesn't mean that you're not going to get homes built in America. It means instead those homes will be built outside of Houston, outside of Oklahoma City, outside of Las Vegas, in places where the climate is much less conducive towards human comfort. And consequently places that use a lot more energy to either heat or cool their homes.

Jonathan Shaw: So if urban density is a good, what are the forces that work against it?

Edward Glaeser: So sure. There are couple of things to emphasize. So locally, it's the regulations that make it difficult for property owners to deliver height, to deliver density. Absolutely. And I certainly understand every neighbor who doesn't want to live near a construction zone or doesn't want a tall building, but there is no free lunch from this.

Edward Glaeser: I mean, we can't say no to development and not expect our cities to become unaffordable. So at the local level, this is a huge deal. The national level, I point to three different things. National policy. So the home mortgage interest deduction is a strong subsidy to home ownership rather than renting. Now, it's not that you can't own a condo in the city, but more than 85% of single family detached houses are owner occupied, more than 85% of multiunit dwellings of a large enough scale are rented. So basically, when you say the American dream involves homeownership, you're basically pushing people out of their urban apartments that are rented into their suburban homes that are owned. So this becomes a form of social engineering that is twisted against cities. Secondly, we have a transportation policy that strongly encourages people, essentially subsidizes people to drive long distances.

Edward Glaeser: We increasingly, over the last 12 years, have used general tax revenues to subsidize the maintenance and construction of highways. Highways tend to be non urban things. The work of Nathaniel Baum-Snow, now at the University of Toronto, finds that each new highway that cut into a metropolitan core after World War II reduced the central cities population by about 18% relative to the metropolitan area as a whole. So that's the second policy. So home mortgage interest deduction, a subsidization of highways. And the third is the way that we structure schooling. And I think for so many parents that is in fact, the most important one. That in fact, leaving the city is seen as being the only way to get economic opportunity for their kids. And that's a great American tragedy. And you can tell me stories about fighting it in different ways.

Edward Glaeser: If you happen to be a fan of free markets and competition, you might want something like charter schools that anyone can go to anywhere, or you can, it doesn't matter where you can live, you can go to the suburban school district and basically, gives freedom, maximal freedom that detaches things. Or if you are a dirigiste French, top down person, you can say that what we want is completely centralized control over schooling to make sure that the schooling quality product is not only good but uniform everywhere. Either one would eliminate this spatial distortion, but the current system which so closely ties school quality to where you live has acted so strongly to the detriment of America's urban cores.

Jonathan Shaw: So how would you go about persuading a suburbanite to move into a city?

Edward Glaeser: I'm an economist. That's not my job.

Edward Glaeser: My job is absolutely not to do that. Look, I can't even get that to work with my wife. How am I going to convince anyone else to move into a city? My job is, and I think you just heard it, is to try and get policies that are better, that are more respectful of letting people make their own choices without policies that nudge them towards suburbs or in other cases, making sure that we have policies that make our cities more livable or that induce people to pay for the social costs of their actions, be it pollution or congestion.

Edward Glaeser: So if we had policies that let's say, charge people for the driving congestion that they create as Singapore has done since 1975 and London has done for many years, we presumably would induce people to want to locate closer to the city so they don't have to pay for those congestion charges.

Edward Glaeser: So those are also policies that I strongly support. But at the individual level, No. I want people to follow their hearts. And I think it's also true within cities. The great cities should not look like one thing. They should be archipelagos of neighborhood that give people variety. And it is a great thing that America has suburbs and rural areas and cities and people get to choose among them. And that's a tremendous asset in America.

Jonathan Shaw: Last question. If you could design the perfect city, what would it look like? I think I already know where you would site it. That would be coastal California.

Edward Glaeser: Well, no, because we've already discussed the need for character building ... so. It's a question of perfect. Perfect for who and perfect for what? If you wanted to ask me what I think is the best managed city in the world, it's hard not to think that Singapore fits that bill, but personally, as much as I admire Singapore and I do so deeply, I prefer a little more chaos in my city.

Edward Glaeser: I think, particularly, in the old days in Hong Kong when it was a bit more chaotic and felt like it was in a less difficult political situation. Hong Kong was incredibly exciting at the time. But, I grew up in New York City. I continue to love New York. I've lived here for 27 years. I love Boston. Chicago is wonderful place. I can't possibly think of one thing, but I think ultimately what we really want is cities that enable people to come, people without resources and to make their lives better, to cities of empowerment, cities of opportunities, cities where people can come and find a brighter future. And so it's not so much about the architecture that's purely physical, it's about the architecture that's social and it's ensuring that a child can come, and I'm thinking particularly, in sub Saharan Africa or in India and there'll be some opportunity to find people to work with, people to connect with, people to learn from and to build themselves a wonderful future.

Jonathan Shaw: So Singapore's number one ranking in education is not a coincidence, probably.

Edward Glaeser: It's not a coincidence. Right. Good cities invest hard in their education as well. Obviously, the economic miracle of Singapore is pretty great. And that's part of it, right? I mean, part of effective cities and part of thinking that we want cities to enable children to make better lives for themselves is making sure that they have the right educational institutions, but it's also about public health issues. It's also about making sure that disease doesn't stalk. It's also about making sure that crime isn't a very appealing lifestyle. And a variety of things that great cities give to their citizens and to their children.

Jonathan Shaw: Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time.

Edward Glaeser: Thank you so much for having me.

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