Friday, July 15, 2011

Our Urban Future: Edward Glaeser explains why our future prosperity lies in our cities

Americans have a love-hate relationship with the city. They love the access to jobs, shopping, cultural and sporting events, but don’t regard it as a great place to live. We have now learned about the lower carbon footprints of city dwellers, but still the choice to live in the city is seen as impractical, a sacrifice made by the young and the eccentric. This attitude is more prevalent among older Americans. Having recently moved to New York City, my husband and I have encountered it from our parents. They implicitly regard this as a temporary move, assuming that we will ultimately come to our senses and buy a house in the suburbs. My mother’s face registered visceral dismay when she learned that we would be living in less than 1000 square feet, in a one-bedroom apartment to boot. The notion persists that the free-standing house with a yard is still the grown-up ideal. Your twenties are for getting the experience of urban living out of your system; your thirties are for settling in the more sedate suburbs, where you’ll pursue a more substantive happiness.

Edward Glaeser's recent book, The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, explains the upside of our choice to forgo private space for the sake of urban life. Glaeser provides a counter-narrative to the hackneyed version of the American dream where prosperity and happiness are found in suburbia. When asked about this by Jon Stewart, he replied “That’s a major reason why I wrote this book...I really hoped that we could move beyond thinking that the only American dream is a white picket fence in the suburbs.” Many of the advantages of the city are things long known and written about by urbanists, but this book has the potential to convey those ideas to a broader audience. Glaeser presents an economist’s view of the reasons that the city has persevered and flowered, along with an economist’s analysis of why sprawl has occurred.

Glaeser describes why density is a good thing, rather than a problem to be solved, as much of the policy and development for the last 50 years would lead one to believe. He shows us how density allows cities to be engines of creativity: people in close proximity to one another can share ideas more easily, ideas which build on each other and lead to breakthroughs. The great “chains of innovation,” as Glaeser calls them, all happened in cities, whether in the arts or in engineering. But the city is not just a great move for our careers. Glaeser also demonstrates some less obvious benefits of city life: the fact that it makes us happier and healthier. The latter, especially, will strike many as counter-intuitive. People move to the suburbs to keep their children safer. We are used to cities as crowded, dirty, noisy places. How could that possibly be more beneficial to our health than the free-standing house on a quiet, tree-lined street? There are a number of reasons, including less sedentary lifestyles and fewer automobile-related injuries and deaths, but a child born in New York City today can expect to live two years longer than a child born in America as a whole. This is a remarkable reversal of the situation of a century ago, and remarkable testimony to what humans can achieve when they cooperate to overcome major challenges. This is an important point. Glaeser reminds us that these great places to work, live and play didn’t just happen. There had to be major public investment in infrastructure - mainly the provision of safe drinking water - to lay the groundwork for the development of the London and New York City of today. This investment has yet to happen in many of the fast-growing cities of the developing world.

One of most important points the book makes is to debunk a common perception that sprawl has occurred in response to the demands of the market. It would be natural to assume that it exists because it’s what consumers want, and it certainly is what some people want. However, as Glaeser explains, it is also the result of government policy that favors low-density development. Two federal policies that contribute to sprawl are the mortgage interest tax deduction, which favors ownership over renting, and the bias toward highway building with federal transportation funding. The first policy is a government subsidy for a lifestyle choice - home ownership - that is distinctly anti-urban, as the homes available to be owned are predominantly outside urban areas. The argument against using gas tax-funded transportation funds to build (mostly) more roads seems obvious when Glaeser spells it out, but I must admit that it had never occurred to me that it was anything other than unfair to urban dwellers. It is also rewarding the very behavior that it is meant to be discouraging. The gas tax is an attempt to get motorists to pay for some of the negative externalities they create by driving, e.g. congestion, pollution and traffic accidents. By using the funds from this tax to build more highways, the government encourages more driving, not less.

It is when Glaeser takes on the role of historic preservation in stunting denser development that I think he takes the argument to an absurd extreme. He argues that historic preservation keeps neighborhoods short and prices high. The preservationists, he says, “can be the great enemies of change...building taller, newer structures would reduce the pressure to tear down other, older monuments.” Here I think he misses precisely what makes historic neighborhoods attractive not just to preservationists, but to their residents and visitors. Often it is not “monuments” that makes these places special. We cherish the harmonious and pleasing streetscape created by the concentration of similar buildings, none of which is an architectural masterpiece in its own right. Glaeser cites the brownstones in his childhood neighborhood on the upper east side as an example of buildings that could be replaced with high-rises to “allow many other children to experience, as [he] did, the wonders of growing up in New York City.” But the high premiums that people pay to live in the brownstone neighborhoods of New York do not simply reflect the scarcity of available space, as Glaeser implies, but the value people place on such low-rise, human-scaled places. Replacing brownstones with high-rises does not provide more supply of desirable space; most would agree that this would fundamentally change precisely what people value about such neighborhoods. Furthermore, at almost 71,000 people per square mile, Manhattan is already one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Arguing for more density there doesn’t make a lot of sense when there is so much well-situated and transit-served land nearby - in northern New Jersey, and in the outer boroughs - that could easily stand to add more density. With so much low-hanging fruit for increased density, we’re a very long way off from even having to discuss building skyscrapers in Manhattan’s protected historic neighborhoods.

The block of the upper east side where Edward Glaeser grew up. He would replace these brownstones with high-rise apartment buildings if it would “make it possible for many other children to experience, as [he] did, the wonders of growing up in New York City.” (photo from Google Maps Street View)

Triumph of the City is a passionate and well-reasoned account of the virtues of city life, beyond the oft-touted ecological benefits. Glaeser’s fascination with the city’s many incarnations - from New York to Singapore to São Paulo - comes through clearly, giving life to the underlying economic arguments. This is an important book that shows us why America’s urban centers - many of which have been hollowed out by more than a generation of car-dependent sprawl - are not only still relevant, but vital to the country’s future economic competitiveness and influence. While the trend towards suburbanization is starting to reverse, as more young people choose a more compact, urban environment over classic suburbia, there is much work to be done in making cities hospitable to more than just the ultra-rich, the young and the childless. As Glaeser concludes, no less than “our culture, our prosperity, and our freedom” are at stake. We need to continue to improve upon the strengths of our cities, and address their weaknesses - affordability and education - so that more people can access the benefits of mankind’s “greatest invention.”

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