In a nutshell, it’s ‘economic urbanism’. We bring together last two decades of work by economists and economic geographers on urban issues, and distill some high-level lessons for policymakers. We look at trends in city growth and change, spatial disparities and urban housing/labour markets, as well as evaluating a range of urban policies.
The book began as a kind of greatest hits compilation for SERC, but has morphed into a broader attempt to show what economists (and economic geographers like me) can bring to cities and urban analysis.
Economics’ influence on urban policy has historically been very limited: urban thinking has been dominated by architects, planners and governance types.
In part, this is because economists haven’t been very interested in space until recently. As Paul pointed out at the book’s launch, economics 101 classes mention the three factors of production – capital, labour and land – after which land is rarely (if ever) discussed again. That has only really begun to change in the last decade or so, with the very obvious death of ‘death of distance’ arguments, and people like Paul Krugman and Ed Glaeser making their influence felt in the profession. (Ed kindly wrote the foreword for our book.)
It’s also because spatial economic concepts and techniques are fiddly and difficult to explain. Dealing with spatial autocorrelation is rarely as glamorous or compelling as iconic buildings or big political personalities. Evan Davies did economic geographers everywhere a great service with the Mind the Gap series, which did a bravura job of distilling agglomeration, knowledge spillovers and path-dependence into everyday language.
And of course lessons from spatial economics aren’t always ones policymakers want to hear. Urban systems tend to build in spatial differences, and these inequalities are self-reinforcing and hard for policy to reverse. Many urban policies are effective, but many popular ones – such as Enterprise Zones or cluster programmes – often don’t have much impact.
In turn, that highlights both the advantages and limitations in the economic urbanist’s approach. City leaders should take economic ideas and analysis seriously, especially when making decisions about housing, planning or development. The book is an attempt to put economic thinking back in the room. But we can’t reduce cities to purely economic processes: as objects or systems, they are too complex and chaotic for that. And as Max Weber says:
… The explanation of everything by economic causes alone is never exhaustive in any sense whatsoever, not in even in the … economic sphere itself. In principle, a banking history of a nation which adduces only economic motives for explanatory purposes is naturally just as unacceptable as an explanation of the Sistine Madonna as a consequence of the social-economic basis of the culture of the epoch in which it was created.
That logic also applies to policy choices. In practice we often have to trade off economic, social and environmental goals – when planning new roads or houses, for instance. Citizens’ welfare is rather wider than economic welfare, and we should avoid collapsing the first into the second.
Given those complexities, economists need to be mindful of real-world priorities and politics when giving policy advice. (As do others – Richard Rogers’ reductionist readings of Jane Jacobs have not been very helpful in the UK, for example.) The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, which I’m helping to run, is one attempt to translate quantitative academic analysis from a range of fields into feasible, pragmatic policy ideas.
As an economic geographer, co-authoring a book with two economists proper is a rewarding experience – and a challenging one. The three of us didn’t agree on everything: as you can imagine, my views on regeneration, brownfield development and place-based policies are more optimistic than some of my co-authors. In the book we carefully flag who led on each chapter, and which work is genuinely joint.
I hope all that’s encouraged you to take a further look. The hardback is painfully expensive, as academic books always are. The ebook edition is quite a lot cheaper. Either way, order it from the EE website and use the code CHES35 to get yourselves a 35% discount. Happy reading!