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July 27th, 2011 BRENT WALTH | Hot Seat
 

Hotseat: Edward Glaeser

A Harvard economist says what we think about urban life may be wrong.

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Go ahead, keep on thinking the world’s big cities are dangerous and unhealthy, that they increase alienation and poverty. Edward Glaeser wants you to know the truth.

Glaeser, a Harvard economist, says cities—more than suburban and rural areas—foster innovation, protect the environment and create healthier, smarter people. More than half the Earth’s population is urban, and more people crowd into cities every year. His book Triumph of the City argues governments often make the wrong choices for urban living with the incentives they create.

Glaeser visits Portland later this week as keynoter of the Urban Land Institute’s Young Leaders Cascadia Regional Conference. WW asked him about what is most misunderstood about urban living and what Portland can still learn.


WW: You cite research that—contrary to what many people think—urban living makes people healthier, and that goes for old and young.

Edward Glaeser: That’s right. While a boy born in New York City in 1900 could expect to live seven years less than the national average, people growing up and living in New York today have longer life expectancy than those people outside the city. That’s true for many of our larger urban areas. We don’t entirely know why older urbanites tend to be healthier. Some people credit more walking in cities, others people credit the social connections. There’s some possibility it also has to do with less healthy people leaving, but when I’ve looked at that, I haven’t found big evidence of that self-selection.

Among younger people it’s pretty clear why cities are healthier. It’s the lower rate of suicide and motor vehicles accidents which are the two leading causes of death for younger Americans. Taking the bus or subway after a few drinks is a whole lot safer than driving drunk. Suicide is a little more puzzling. One explanation is that among young people gun availability is a big predictor of teen suicide. And hunting licenses are a big predictor of teen suicide. Gun culture and hunting culture tend to go together. Cities have a bit less of that, which may be why cities have a lower levels of suicides among the young.

 

You also challenge the notion that cities foster poverty.

The large amount of poverty in our big cities reflects the choices of the poor. Cities don’t make people poor. They attract poor people. That’s something about cities which should be appreciated and even celebrated rather than denigrated. Cities attract the poor with the promise of economic opportunity and with better social services and with the ability to get around without a car for every adult.

One of the pieces of research that I discuss in my book show that poverty rates go up close to new subway stops. That’s not a sign there’s anything wrong with subways. That’s a sign they are doing exactly what they should be doing, which is providing a means of transportation for Americans with less money. And by the same token, the fact that poor Americans don’t live in many affluent suburbs—the fact (the suburbs) have not made space—that they have not figured out a way to accommodate those people with less means—is not something to celebrate about those areas.


How do cities help get people out of poverty?

This differs a lot between cities. When cities work, they provide opportunities essentially for partnerships, between the entrepreneurs  who create new jobs, who have new ideas, who find new niches in the market to exploit, and workers who are going to be part of their enterprises. This provides an opportunity for economic mobility, for acquiring the skills that enable poor people to move up. One of the most important things cities do is enable the free flow of knowledge and ideas…. This ability to learn in cities has been one of the things that has enabled poor people to move up for millennia.


In cities what are some the factors that have inhibited upward income mobility?

Take for example a city like Detroit, which was once practically synonymous with economic opportunity for less well-educated Americans. What could be a better example of an entrepreneur providing a way up and out than Henry Ford’s $5 day, which he instituted in 1914. Very high wages were available to workers with very little formal education.

Throughout the ’50s and even the ’60s, Detroit was still providing this economic opportunity. But of course as the automobile industry declined, Detroit was unable to reinvent itself. This both reflects the relatively low skill level of the city—right now about 12 percent of city of Detroit residents have a college degree, which is a very low number. And also the fact that the large automobile industry had to a certain extent crowded out other forms of entrepreneurship. The car companies were so successful that this older Detroit tradition of having lots of scrappy startups had been pushed away. So when the car industry faltered, there was nothing left to provide new jobs for Detroit. So Detroit continues to attract poor people, but it mostly attracts them with just incredibly cheap housing. But it doesn’t do a good job of providing the new jobs and valuable skills that are a way forward.

If you are looking for the variables which predict urban success and not just at the high end, but also in terms of increasing earnings, skills would really be the most important factors. People’s wages go up by about 8 percent as the share of people with college degrees in a metropolitan area goes up by 10 percent. Having skilled neighbors is incredibly valuable. That’s true for skilled and unskilled alike. Skilled neighbors are potential employers and potential co-workers, and they’re part of the transfer of knowledge in a healthy city.


Economists in recent years have been especially interested in measuring happiness. You write that people report being happier in cities than those who live outside of cities

 That’s true in most of the countries for which we have happiness data, particularly in the developing world. And it’s true across countries that urbanization is related to higher levels of self-reported happiness. It’s not actually true within the U.S. I make that fairly clear in the book, that in the U.S., happiness is relatively unrelated to cities. Some cities are famous for people being unwilling to say they are actually happy. It’s certainly not part of New York’s culture to admit to surveyors that you’re feeling great about the world. 

 

You write about the “death of distance”—how technology has allowed us to live anywhere we choose. Yet more people are moving toward urban areas.

You might have thought the ability to telecommute across the world would have led people to disperse themselves to live in any sylvan spot that appeals to their love for nature. That’s what people were predicting 20 years ago. That’s what people like Alvin Toffler were saying, that we were all going to move into electronic cottages and become even more dispersed. Amazingly, that hasn’t happened. Cities are both in the US and throughout the world are more successful, more vibrant, more thriving than ever. Far from dispersing people, new technologies have brought people together. What globalization and new technology have increased the returns of new ideas. It increases the returns of being smart.

We get skills partially in colleges, but we also get skills in cities. Our greatest talent as a species is our ability to learn from people around us. We come out of the womb with this remarkable ability to soak up information from our parents, from our peers, from our siblings, from our neighbors. Cities cater to that. Cities are places where you come and you learn and you become more productive. That’s become more valuable over time.

One of the pieces of evidence that I cite in the book that supports this the notion is that it shouldn’t be a surprise—although you might have thought it wouldn’t be so—that the industry that has the best assets for long distance communication—computers and software—also is the industry that’s the most famous example of a geographic cluster in the world today, Silicon Valley.

Think about the successful entrepreneurs to come out of Seattle over the past 30 years that have reinvented that city: Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, Starbucks. The ones that are the most technologically savvy, Microsoft and Amazon, the most technologically intensive, are the ones that actually have the largest employment in that city, in the cluster….


A lot of what you say about cities seems to be true for people who are younger still looking for spouse career and identity. There seems to come a point where cities begin test residents. Cities can be appealing to young people but lose their appeal as we age—especially when we look at schools for our children. You note urban schools in general are lacking. In your book, you write about your decision to move your family out of Cambridge and into the Boston suburbs.

I don’t think I’ve had a single good idea since I moved out. [Laughs.] That’s not literally true. Lives like mine are semi-urban, in the sense that I go to work in a city every day and have a tremendous amount of intellectual interchanges with people around me. But then I do go home at night to be surrounded by trees. There are two big costs of that. I lose the advantages of having urban exchanges after 5 pm. That is unquestionably a loss. 

The other thing of course is that I’m doing much more damage to the environment than I was when I was living in Cambridge. We’ve set up a system within the U.S where there’s a tremendous set of incentives for pushing people out to suburban living. We subsidize cars on the highway and we don’t charge people for leaving an environmental footprint. We subsidize home ownership, which so often means living in a single-family detached house rather than living in a high-density dwelling. 

Most importantly, we’ve set up a school system that has very strong incentives for people to leave urban areas. These are things, however, which are not natural to cities. It’s not as if you can’t have great schools. In France, cities typically have better schools than many suburban areas. It’s the way we set things up in the U.S. which has pushed people out.


What are some of the lessons for cities if they want to keep people in urban settings?

The housing policy issues are federal, and the subsidization of highways is federal. Even though I’m a big believer that we DO have important infrastructure investments to make, I’d quite honestly would like to get the federal government entirely out of it. Just the nature of the [Congress] you have investments in infrastructure that go through the federal government, they are inevitably stacked toward lower density areas. 

President Obama is some sense the most urban president we’ve had since Teddy Roosevelt. Yet the infrastructure phase of the recovery act doled dollars on a per capita basis that were twice as high in our least dense states than our most dense states. I don’t see how you avoid that. I think cities and states are fully capable of figuring out which investments make sense and which ones don’t without Washington getting in the middle. Those are areas, housing and transportation, where primarily I’d like to see the federal government do less.

In the case of schools, this is an area which has got to be a local issue. The most hopeful thing we’ve seen in last 10 years has been the charter school movement, which introduces more choice, more entrepreneurship, more competition into our big city school districts. This is not a particularly ideological point. There are lots of ways of getting better schools. The French do it with a top-down approach. You just press like hell on all of your schools everywhere and make sure there are enough opportunities for everybody to get great schools, no matter where they live.

 

Portland is held up as an example of an urban success. Why do you think that is?

People have been talking about Portland’s lure, what I call a “consumer city,” a place where people want to live. People seem to be willing to come there even when they don’t have a job. That’s part of the fun and the ingenuity of the place.

On some basic level the real secret of Portland is its skill base. Census data tells us that four in 10 adults in the city of Portland have college degrees as opposed to 27.5 percent for the country as a whole. Those skills are not just about productivity. They’re part of what makes the city more fun in terms of its nightlife and restaurant scene and so forth. These things come together to create a cocktail of excitement.


Does Portland have lessons for other cities?

The largest lesson for urban economics is that you want to attract and train smart people and then more or less get out of their way. You need to make sure you’re focused on providing the amenities that skilled people want, and that’s partially about things that the government is responsible for, and that includes parks systems and decent transportation systems and safe streets.


Portland is a bit smug because of the fact it’s held up as a model of success around the world. Where can a city like ours go wrong and wreck what we have going for us?

Every time you say no to new [housing] development, you say no to a new family that would like to come live in Portland. If you do too much of that, your city will turn into a boutique town that’s available only to the wealthy and unavailable to the young people you’re trying to attract.

 
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