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Cities as Global Stars

Neal Peirce / Feb 18 2011

For Release Friday, February 18, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceMahatma Gandhi once wrote that “the true India is to be found not in its few cities, but its 700,000 villages.” Thomas Jefferson celebrated rural life, inveighing against cities as “sores” on the body politic.

Both men were wrong. That’s the message of Harvard economist Edward Glaeser in his new book, “Triumph of the City” (Penguin Books), its message telegraphed in the subtitle: “How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.”

From the dawn of history, Glaeser argues, the intensely social human species has advanced by doing things together. And it’s cities, which make it so easy to watch and listen and learn from so many other players, that enable the collaboration, the constant flow of new information and ideas to make humanity shine most brightly. Check every front from houses of commerce to universities to the arts, bright shopping streets to glistening architecture to great public places — and cities excel. Imagine, for example, this month’s Egyptian revolution without Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

And with their wealth of connections, cities naturally generate the most wealth. On average, Glaeser notes, as the share of a country’s population that’s urban goes up 10 percent, the entire country’s per capita output rises 30 percent. In the U.S., workers in metropolitan areas with big cities earn 20 percent more than workers outside metro areas. And the income gap, city versus country, is even stronger in poor countries.

Indeed, a better livelihood — some hope of escaping the grinding poverty of rural life — is the reason hundreds of millions are now pouring into the world’s developing country cities.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t great scourges of city life — disease, crime, congestion, social tensions. “For every Fifth Avenue,” Glaeser notes, “there’s a Mumbai slum; for every Sorbonne, there’s a D.C. high school guarded by metal detectors.” He’s candid about the need for farsighted city leadership to mobilize support for major infrastructure. A prime example: the safe water and sewage systems cities that New York and other cities began in the late 1800s, all but erasing waterborne disease and extending life expectancies — essential services still missing in many slums of the developing world.

Plus, he notes, all cities need to think and strategize smartly to come out of the deep declines shifting world economics sometimes deliver. The flight of auto industry jobs south and overseas has left Detroit largely bereft and its recovery path isn’t clear.

Though Detroit is not unique — industrial cities from Buffalo to Bremen, Cleveland to Glasgow, have also lost population, and need to find recovery strategies based on what Glaeser defines as the historic qualities that have always made cities prosper: competition, connection, and human capital, symbolized today by such globally connected present-day metropolises as London, New York, Bangalore, San Francisco and Singapore.

Cities’ concentrations of humans are also key, Glaeser argues, to a green planet, to taming harmful carbon emissions in this century, because per capita they emit so much less carbon. That means less driving, more walkable cities. U.S. tax policies, he suggests, need to be uprooted “to encourage people to live in modestly sized urban aeries” instead of widening suburban rings, and to “stop idolizing home ownership which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments.”

A new compactness imperative means, he insists, removing cities’ many restraints on high buildings, saving some historic buildings and places but allowing a rapid turnover of yesterday’s urban land for tall structures that can house thousands, not hundreds of people per square block.

If the U.S. does that, he suggests, it will be on firmer ground in urging India and China, with their immense populations and growing wealth, to build high, dense cities– not sprawl as we have. If the Chinese and Indian per capita carbon emissions should rise to American levels, Glaeser notes, the world’s total carbon consumption would soar 139 percent.

The compelling quality of Glaeser’s book is its connectedness: recognizing the parallels, common challenges, and the immense opportunities of cities across the globe. It points to the need for much more global urban dialogue on an amazing array of fronts, pushed forward by movement of people among metropolises and liberal immigration laws.

Yet strangely, one great urban asset goes unnoted: What strong and growing cities mean for world population. It’s true, the flood of new residents pouring into cities from rural areas carries staggering numbers. Goldman Sachs projects, for example, that 31 villagers will continue to pour into an Indian city every minute over the next 40 years.

But cities are poised to defuse the planet’s population explosion. As women move to cities, and especially as they gain employment and some education, they choose to have fewer children. It will take more decades for world population to stop its momentous rise. But as it peaks — at about 9.2 billion somewhere around mid-century — cities will be the key.

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  1. Posted February 19, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I would just like to point out that it’s a bit ridiculous to laud all the statistically obvious benefits of cities without taking into account the similarly obvious fact that it’s because of cities that the lion’s share of ecological problems have been made possible.

    Taking cities out of the equation would change human history, probably reverting the world to a comparative paradise in contrast to the largely ravished and perhaps irreparably degraded place it has become thanks to “advances” that would not have been possible without the catalytic power of the city.

    Suggesting that perhaps cities are only great in relation to a world where cities are a foregone conclusion, in which case they should probably be reexamined in relation to the greater context; evaluated fairly in terms of all the problems they’ve caused due to their “productive” power.

    Since most technology originating in cities has never been fully evaluated in terms of ecological impact over centuries it’s really impossible to say if cities themselves by extension are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Given that the ecosystem seems to be approaching cataclysm at relatively unparalleled speed, I would have to side with the urban detractors.

  2. Ken Patton
    Posted February 20, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    (Edward Glaeser’s book) is remarkable, but welcome to those of us who 45 years ago through the HUB Council and then CUED asserted this then unpopular message that cities were the future to see it newsworthy today. Speaking as John Lindsay’s founding head of economic development, we made an even more prescient and provocative case then that cities to succeed should be “fun”. — Ken Patton

  3. Neal Peirce
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Ken Patton’s reaction to Ed Glaeser’s book brings back memories of some 40 years ago, when New York City was going through its darkest days, subject to derision across much of Middle America. Interviewing then for my book series on the 50 states, I met with Ken Patron and in our discussion he made an observation that deeply impressed my own vision of cities. “Urban economies,” Patton told me, “are the only places that do what America is supposed to care about–the resurrection of people who’ve been left out, and newcomers who have yet to get in, and are not admitted to other places. Cities are successful in their ability to take people from some point of entry and elevate them to some higher level in the economic order of things. Suburbs look successful, but they are not. They just preserve and contain a certain amount of achieved success. They are not creative. Cities look unsuccessful, but by definition they are not. … It’s an outrage that the country looks at New York and other cities as down and out. They are the only thing that holds the country together.”

  4. Richard Wakeford
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Industrialisation demands settlements of scale; trades in services still require aggregations of people; both have resulted in relative GDP growth in cities. But a cities versus rural argument is unwise. Try building a wall round the city and let no goods in and out. That’s when the value of rurally provided essentials of life would become apparent – quality food, clean drinking water, removal of city waste, forests to lock up the carbon emissions the cities generate, clean air and open space for recreation. Arguably we don’t put enough value on those things compared with city created products. But the real point is that we should be aiming for good living standards in both cities and rural areas – and (I agree with the author) suburbs are the worst of both worlds that the majority of mankind seems to strive for!

  5. Neal Peirce
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    I very much agree with Richard Wakeford’s point about cities’ reliance on rural areas, for so many resources, and their many mutual interests. One reason we urbanites celebrate cities is because they’ve often been so maligned or distrusted.

  6. Neal Peirce
    Posted February 27, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Comments received from
    Donald J. DeSalvo – Washington state:

    No mention about that most powerful human element that keeps people apart from and a part of each other–the Internet. I’ve worked in China off and on for over 30 years. I can tell you that in Hong Kong (for nearly a hundred years) people lived on top of each other and when they couldn’t find a filthy coup like apartment they lived in squalor on the waters of the ocean and the rivers. This wasn’t for pure commerce but was for sleeping room (at least the plumbing was efficient). China and India have no reason to feel as though the US is urging them to get out of the villages and towns and move to the vertical cities in those countries. They know better. With a combined population of nearly 3 billion souls, these countries have no alternatives but to go vertical. In the US, we have space. When we trash one place, no need to clean it up, we can move to another place. “Trashing” in this context is trashing the job base so that there is no reason to stay and run out of money and become dependent. That happens to those who are challenged either by age, youth or lack of education. We can think big cities all we want but unless we have jobs in these cities to give the residents a better environment, the teaching and learning is from these disenfranchised folk to teach others to get better at being disenfranchised. So, as India and China expand on the base that they are building, the US will continue to dis-integrate until we are able to see the folly of the last 40 years when we studied hard the lesson of ALICE IN WONDERLAND where the children raced in a circle until they fell down out of breath and energy. One little girl asked “who won the race” and the answer was “…everybody won and everybody gets a prize…”. So, Cities can’t be the answer in the US until we are able to economically live in them. Jobs will again breed education and with that the understanding of what you write.

  7. Terry Lawhead
    Posted February 28, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    The fairly recent universal accolades (among urban elites, anyway, in wonderful towers) about cities is getting pretty obvious to those of us still believing in rural life: you guys are shrinking the problems to fit your capacity to address them. Good plan, always, and feasibility of success is an important metric. But can you at least be honest about it? I know columns have to be short and you cannot cover everything. But much of the content I see in observations raving about cities has a narrow band width of what global and long term issues are. I cannot dispute nor would I care to try the successes of cities and the importance of services and opportunities they deliver. Long live cities! But the rural bashing has never been more brutal or self-congratulatory. Not that I expect intellectuals to ever change their perspectives.

  8. Posted March 3, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    I applaud the celebration of urban and rural life. They can both be very productive and very satisfying. It is suburban life, intended to capture the best of both worlds, that has perhaps captured the worst of both worlds. More importantly, suburbs have destroyed much more farmland than have cities.
    The article notes that changes in tax policy are key. One change that is overdue is the reform of the mortgage interest deduction (MID). Although called the “middle class tax break,” it is anything but that. The more affluent you are and the more expensive your home, the larger the subsidy. Also, the vast majority of middle class people do not itemize their deductions — therefore the preponderance of the subsidy goes to the very affluent. Transforming the MID into a credit or eliminating it altogether would help make housing more affordable and provide resources to help those in need, rather than fueling rich folks’ demand for mansions.