More than 50 percent of the world’s population now live in cities – and there is no end of urbanization in sight. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser believes urbanization to be a solution to many unanswered problems: pollution, depression and a lack of creativity.
Mensel: As an economist, you have a very pragmatic approach to cities. Let’s begin with one of your thoughts: Cities help preserve the environment precisely because they keep people away from it.
Glaeser: That is right. It is somewhat counterintuitive but all that is leafy is not necessarily green – living around trees and living in low density areas may end being actually quite harmful for the environment, whereas living in high-rise buildings and urban core may end up being quite kind to the environment. Together with with Matthew Kahn of UCLA we looked at carbon emissions from home and transport energy use and found very significant differences, even when holding incumbent family size constant between low density and urban living.
Mensel: Counterintuitive indeed…
Glaeser: The basic point is that people who live in densities are much less likely to drive long distances than people who live in lower densities. And people who live in urban apartments all typically use less electricity at home and less energy at home heating than people who live in larger suburban or rural homes. A single family detached house uses on average 83% more electricity than urban apartments do within the United States.
Mensel: So, just by living closely together, people conserve energy?
Glaeser: What is really driving this is the cost of land: It makes people live in smaller apartments. Another way to think about is how in cities we often end up sharing space, like the space to eat in a restaurant or space in a café. From an energy point of view, that can be quite efficient.
Mensel: Small densities also affect city transport: In countries like the Netherlands or Denmark, city people are primarily moving by bike. But isn’t that kind of ecological benefit offset by cities like Los Angeles, where people mostly drive?
Glaeser: Well, the density even in Los Angeles does lead to shorter distances driven and switched with public transportation. Bike-riding in the US is still nowhere near as common as in the Netherlands but even within a nation of car drivers there is a big difference between people who live in denser cities and people who live in really sprawling suburbs. So even among the world of drivers, people drive much shorter distances and use less gasoline in cities.
Mensel: The subtitle of your book is a bold claim: ”How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier”. How are cities making us smarter?
Glaeser: I think the most important thing cities do today is to allow the creation of new ideas. Chains of collaborative brilliance have always been responsible for human kind’s greatest hits. We have seen this in cities for millennia – Socrates and Plato bickered on an Athenian street corner; we saw it again in Florence with the ideas that went from Brunelleschi to Donatello to Masaccio to Filippino Lippi and to the Florentine Renaissance. It helps us to know each other, learn from each other and to collectively create something great. In some sense, cities are making us more human.
Our greatest asset as a species is the ability to learn from the people around us. We come out of the womb with this remarkable ability to take in information from those people – parents, peers, teachers – that are near us. Cities enable us to get smart by being around other smart people. I think this explains why cities have not become obsolete over the past thirty years.
Mensel: What else?
Many people thought that globalization and new technologies would mean that we would no longer need to live next to one another, that we would all disperse off to our little electronic cottages somewhere. But that is not really the case. We have just crossed the half-way point where more than 50% of humanity lives in cities. In the West cities like Frankfurt or London or New York are healthier than ever; for the first decade since the 1870s Boston added population more quickly than the state of Massachusetts did. These facts are related to the role cities play today, a role very much tied to the generation of information. Globalization and new technologies did make the industrial city obsolete, at least in the West. But they also increased the idea of returns of human capital and innovation. You could sell something on the other side of the planet because you could produce it on the other side of the planet. By making knowledge more valuable, they made cities more important. That is why they continue to play the incredibly important role of connecting people, enabling them to learn from one another at close distances.
Mensel: Nevertheless, cities seem to have a bit of a PR problem. Their reputation is often that of an anonymous beast where people are lonely despite of living so closely together, right?
Glaeser: I understand why the politics have helped that image in the US but I don’t really understand so well why it is true in Europe. I think one of the problems that cities have is visualization. It is so easy to show what happens on a farm; we all see the wheat, milk and other good stuff being created. But we normally don’t see what creative types do in a city. We can’t really observe what the bankers in Frankfurt are creating and we may not even like what the artists in Berlin are creating. And yet, that is the backbone of the modern economy. In sum, the tangibility of rural life is helping the image of an anonymous city.
Mensel: One frequently hears the assumption that city people will end up suffering from peculiar civilization diseases resulting from a lack of movement.
Glaeser: Well, that is certainly not true in the US. I mean the US has high rates of obesity in the suburbs and in the cities. And people in the cities certainly walk much more in the cities than they do in the suburbs. Plenty of people prefer to take really long hikes in rural areas, that is true. But in terms of the business of everyday living, cities involve plenty of walking, certainly relative to the alternative of sort of car-based living which is usually the norm in low density areas. Here I think it is important to compare not sort of the vision of what low density living would be like. Maybe that vision involves a trip up the mountain every day to hang out with your goats. But in fact, in most parts of the developed world low density living means driving everywhere whereas in cities, people walk around cities. That is something to be cherished about them.
Mensel: In Berlin’s upcoming city council elections, many of the topics being discussed are related to city development – such as crime, gentrification or even health. You seem to be implying that many of these issues are not half as bad as they seem. What is your take on crime, for instance?
Glaeser: I don’t mean to sugarcoat the downsides of density. If two people are close enough to exchange an idea – face to face – they are also close enough to exchange a contagious disease. But these downsides have by and large been managed in the West. American cities were very dangerous when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s. They aren’t so dangerous today. That required huge investments. A child born in 1900 in New York could expect to live seven years less than the national average. Today, life expectancies in New York are two years longer than the national average. So cities have become much healthier. For old people, we don’t fully understand why cities appear to be healthier and why they have lower mortality rates. Some people credit walking, other people credit social connections. But for younger people it is really obvious why cities are healthier in the US: The two biggest causes of death are suicide and motor vehicle accidents. And there are just far fewer people driving drunk in big cities than there are in rural areas. It is just a lot safer to take the public transportation after a few beers than to get behind the wheels of a car. The suicide rate issue is more puzzling, but in the US there is a very strong connection between density levels and lower suicide rates. One hypothesis is that this has to do with the gun culture, which is more prevalent in low-density areas. There is, for instance, a strong connection between teen suicide rates and hunting licenses per capita across American counties. Overall, this did of course not happen by accident: The cities of the West became safe with massive investments in things like clean water and effective policing. There is not reasons that cities can’t be both safe and healthy; they just require management.
Mensel: Does that logic apply to cities around the globe? I am thinking of such sprawling metropolises as Lagos, Africa’s second biggest city, that people from the entire country are flocking to. Can such growth even be good for the inhabitants?
Glaeser: It is not clear that it is bad for them. The Lagos example, which I think is a good one, is an example of a city that has not managed to deal with the downsides of density. It is a classic example of a city where the government is just too weak to make the investments needed. In terms of problem-management, it is in the same place that our cities were in more than a century ago. And even though all those downsides are clear, people are choosing Lagos because it beats the alternatives. That is critical to keep that in mind when looking at the pain that is evident in the megacities of the developing world. Cities are much more visible than world poverty. Look at the crime-ridden favelas in Rio de Janeiro: Few people from Germany or the US would like to spend a day, yet a whole lifetime in one of them. But if you compare them with the even more severe problems that exist in the rural northeast of Brazil, such as the complete lack of social services or economic opportunity, you understand what cities are offering. I would say that even Lagos is moving Nigeria a little bit towards prosperity. I also want to emphasize that cities are often places of significant and often positive political change. One thing that those countries need is political change, which is much more likely to come out of an organized urban group than it is to come from a dispersed agricultural population.
Mensel: Could moving people into cities be a sustainable solution for emerging economies dealing with the issues resulting from growth?
Glaeser: From an environmental standpoint it seems very clear that it needs to be done. But you have got to do it in a way that makes sense: Part of the issue with African poverty is that as long as people remain rural, they will be whipsawed by every environmental hazard that comes along. By engaging in subsistence agriculture, there is no way to for them to take advantage of the global trading system. I want to make it clear that I am not an environmental expert, but some regions may end up losing as a result of changes of the environment and others regions may end up benefitting. Areas that now are cold may end up being easier to grow on just as areas that are hot now may end up being worse to grow on. If you are part of the global trading system, you will be able to take advantage of wheat grown in Canada or in Siberia. If you are not, if you are a subsistence agriculture country, then every famine that hits rural Nigeria will leave thousands dead. It is easy to see the benefit that comes from a transition out of agriculture towards a more urban future.
Mensel: How about the environment, though?
Glaeser: Concerning the environmental impact, it is clear that if everybody remains in rural poverty, there won’t be much going on in terms of carbon emissions. But I don’t think we can possibly hope for that. If you compare countries that are more than 50% urbanized with countries that are less than 50% urbanized, incomes are five times higher in the more urbanized countries and infant mortality rates are less than a third in the more urbanized countries. The path of rural poverty really is awful. But there are different paths and if for example the great growing economies of India and China see their carbon emission levels rise to the level seen in sprawling United States, global carbon emissions will go up by 120%. But if they stop at the level seen in hyper-dense but still prosperous Hong Kong, global carbon emissions go up by only 25%. So, density is a way of managing growth so that it involves less carbon emissions in the future.
Mensel: Just this morning on my way to work I saw a picture advertising life in the countryside. And there does appear to be a longing among people to occasionally leave cities and spend time in the countryside. What do you say to people who think that an economist does not understand what human nature is all about?
Glaeser: I do actually live around trees myself. I am part of a family and I don’t get to choose exactly where I would like to live myself. I am not entirely blind to that. But the point I am trying to make in the book, is that cities unjustly got a bad reputation. That is why I think people should be free to make choices without government policies that push them one way or the other. You want government policies that make people pay for the social cost of their action, including the environmental cost, but you also want people to make those choices themselves. Too many countries have raised low density living as being the only right way to live and depicted cities as being rather ugly and unattractive and not the real India, not the real America, not the real England. I think that is the mistake. People should be free to choose as long as they pay the social cost of their action. So that is really what I am arguing for. I am not trying to tell people that they should live in ways they find uncomfortable; I am just saying that we should have policies enabling people to make their choices correctly, which means taking into account the cost of their actions.
Mensel: While the US experience a push out to the suburbs, people are moving into a city like Berlin and push away low-income families. There is an element of market economics in this, should it be left unregulated?
Glaser: In many European cities you got part of this gentrification problem associated with the fact that it has become so difficult to build in these areas. And as a result if you have a city that is attractive, perhaps even economically dynamic and yet you have made it essentially impossible to add significant amounts of new housing, particularly attractive, high density housing close to the urban core. This results in higher prices and pushes out poor people. And that is a problem that needs to be thought about, because it fundamentally results from government regulation that makes it difficult to build. My father was an architectural historian so I learned to understand the beauty of human kind’s architectural past and why these decisions are difficult. But not every neighborhood, every older building is vital to preserve and there needs to be a balance between the past and the future.
Mensel: Are you advocating the construction of new cities? We often continue developing cities way past their prime, such as industrial cities in Eastern Europe…
Glaeser: Well, I think we should be open to them. Certainly, the more dysfunctional we think the existing cities are, the more the case there is for building new ones. New cities are being built all the time, particularly in the US, which is very fluid. The US has a lots of space and there are also different models of cities. Sometimes these cities are almost essentially private sector affairs like the Woodlands in Texas. Certainly, in the developing world, there is lots of room to think about building new cities creating these opportunities. In Europe it is more problematic because people tend to be more stuck in their existing places and their mobility rates are much lower. People like their older community. I think there is less opportunity for that in Europe than there is either in the US or in the developing world.
Mensel: How about failed cities that are dying out because people no longer want to live there. Should we just let them wither and go away?
Glaeser: Well, I think they need to be managed. But I think it is a general rule. You don’t need to have every city come back to what it once was. You need to be smart about investments and you need to make sure that these investments are yielding returns. And returns in making people’s lives better are high enough to justify enormous expenses. So my own view is that Germany has done too much in terms of propping up declining cities. That is not a heartless view. I think Germany does a great job of making sure that inequality is low and taking care of poor Germans. Bu that does not necessarily need to be a complete by-place-policy that props up every declining city.
Mensel: Cities often appear to change almost organically – how much control do you think is even possible?
Glaeser: There are some things where governments can exert an enormous control like not allowing new housing to be built. Lots of governments throughout the world have done that. There are other areas like new innovation that are practically impossible to control from the top. And for that reason the economic prosperity of a city is very difficult to ordain from on high. I mean I often say that the best economic development strategy is to attract and train smart people and then more or less get out of their way which suggests the limits of what you can do. In many senses the most important government policies are to focus on dealing with the downsides of density, dealing with the crime congestion, contagious disease – issues that just can kill a city rather than thinking that the government can be engaged in playing venture capitalist and choosing particular industries. So I think it is about important to have a little bit of humility in our recognition of what governments can do.
Mensel: So while cities might not be completely ideal in every respect, they certainly will be good alternatives?
Glaeser: They should be a valued part of the way a nation works, and therefore one perfectly good alternative for people to choose between.