The Triumph of the City

March 20, 2011

The Ed Glaeser roadshow has rolled out of town. Last week the great man spoke at LSE, ippr, Demos, Centre for Cities and Policy Exchange, also finding time for a Guardian podcast, CfC video and an FT op-ed. Phew! He didn’t even change blazer – here he is on the Daily Show wearing it again (at about 14:30).

Until now Glaeser has been a bit of an academic’s academic. With his new book, The Triumph of the City, he’s making a bid for public intellectual territory. Saskia Sassen, Peter Hall and Richard Florida have had this space to themselves for the past decade, so it’s good to see someone else step up.

 Here’s the podcast and video of his LSE lecture. Below, my quick notes.


 1) Cities still matter because they’re ideas engines. In a knowledge-driven economy, products and services are getting progressively more complex. Cities help manage this by bringing people face to face, helping ideas spread, and cross-pollinating new ones. As the returns to skills increase, cities help people get smarter.

This is actually a very old argument, dating back to Jane Jacobs (1970) and Alfred Marshall (1918). Glaeser brings it to life with some terrific examples of ‘urban ideas chains’ – such as the birth of Detroit’s auto industry from shipbuilding (engines) and carriage works (wheels and bodies), and the growth of financial services in NYC.

2) Technology is making cities more important, not less. Rather than killing distance, social media and the internet are producing more immersive, interactive urban environments. Again, plenty of evidence (Bill Mitchell, Castells) says that online and offline are complements, not substitutes. Glaeser rightly plugs this into the development of smart cities and the internet of things. Adam Greenfield’s incoming book will tie a lot of this together.

3) We need to build cities up, not out. Glaeser thinks Jane Jacobs was right about cities, but wrong about neighbourhoods. Long term, planning controls in urban cores tend to price poorer people out of the city. Similarly, high density cities tend to be greener, but if they restrict space, people relocate to lower-density, car-dependent communities. The answer is to allow denser development and more high-rises. 

4) In the West, urbanisation is basically done. The cities of the future are happening elsewhere. 50% of the planet now lives in cities – but the biggest urban transformations are happening in South and East Asia. This is also where the need for sustainable urban development is highest. LSE’s green cities project for UNEP echoes much of this.

5) Cities are good for poor people. But we shouldn’t save failing cities. Agglomeration economies benefit everyone. Like Stewart Brand, Glaeser sees slums as hives of enterprise – but where public infrastructure and planning has failed. Glaeser also argues that in declining cities, policy should focus making the population more skilled and mobile – rather than improving decaying urban environments. 


A few reflections. First, is there anything bad about cities? At LSE, Glaeser suggested diminishing returns don’t really matter. I’m not so sure. Above is a classic urban economics ‘net wage’ curve. Up to point B, agglomeration effects rise with city size. Diseconomies like congestion and pollution then start to kick in. At point C, in theory, everyone leaves. In practice, this doesn’t happen – but plenty of real world cities are probably between the two (Bangkok, Lagos, LA?).

Second, Glaeser’s prescription for struggling cities might be internally robust, but in the real world it’s a very hard sell – as he found out when encouraging the US Government to move people out of New Orleans post-Katrina. Glaeser’s right that declining places can’t be preserved forever. But as I’ve argued, it’s the job of elected city leaders to make these choices – not national government. 

Which brings me to devolution. Glaeser was surprisingly lukewarm on this. He argued that when central government is weak (e.g. in a failing state), then devolution is essential. But only central government can handle redistribution, or economies of scale in service provision. This chimes with my reading of the literature. Devolution doesn’t translate directly into economic growth – although it helps indirectly, by allowing city leaders more flexibility and room to innovate. As the Coalition pushes localism ever further, Ministers should keep these caveats in mind.

4 Responses to “The Triumph of the City”

  1. Will Davies Says:

    I saw him speak at the Demos event, and was very impressed. He’s a good performer, at any rate.

    My misgivings related to the fact that he treated too many things as obvious and common sense. As an economist, he assumes that people can basically be governed by changed incentives, but it’s not clear that this is necessarily true (certainly not always true, as behavioural economists make clear). Are cities really explicable purely in terms of the efficiency-gains associated with face-to-face contact? This would be thrown out by any sociologist as crazily reductionist and functionalist (which is why he isn’t a sociologist). Surely people move for quite complicated reasons, which need to be understood and possibly listened to; that at any rate would be the sociologial rejoinder. His depiction of human beings seemed to be lifted out of The Grapes of Wrath, which may describe certain aspects of reality, but is scarcely a transcendental explanatory principle.

    Secondly, his cities all seem to be changing incredibly rapidly. It all feels hugely dynamic (which at least blocks the usual critique of neo-classical economics). What about cities which aren’t getting bigger and better, or smaller and crapper? Surely the policy challenge for Britain is how to manage cities such as Belfast or Middlesborough seeking to cling on to what they’ve got, and not change too much in any direction. That may sound a little (small c) conservative or communitarian, but a steady-state urban economy sounds more politically realistic for many of our cities than either a) doing a ‘Chicago in the 1870s’ or b) doing a ‘Detroit in the 1980s’. These dramatic examples make for a great presentation, but must we draw all of our lessons from them? Maybe Glaeser is almost too exciting and provocative.

    • squareglasses Says:

      Good points. On Glaeser’s reductionism – I doubt he’d say this is how cities actually are, rather that he’s radically stripping down reality to show the key moving parts. When you apply this approach to specific aspects of city life it can work well – see his piece with Sacerdote on crime and cities, which also draws on a lot of sociological literature.

      On dynamic / ordinary cities, I agree with you – I think he’s mainly interested in the outliers rather than steady-state places. And ‘policy’ is usually a black box in his models; another missing part.

      Having said all that, what I like about Glaeser is that a) he’s a good public intellectual and b) he’s communicating 20 years of serious peer-reviewed work – rather than reheating a few correlations and a lot of hype, unlike some other pop thinkers we could mention …

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