How To Save Dying Cities

They don’t need light rail, downtown stadiums, or flashy new museums. They need smart people.

I don’t know if Edward Glaeser, whose father was born in Berlin, had Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film in mind when he titled his book Triumph of the City, but his stirring subtitle, “How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier,” suggests that he may. Glaeser’s thesis is simple: The chief role of cities is to magnify human strengths. This is true in commerce, science, technology, and the arts; indeed, it is easy to argue, as Jane Jacobs did, that civilization and cities are synonymous.

“To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively,” Glaeser writes. The Harvard economist uses the insight that human capital is a key ingredient to a city’s success to explain why some old industrial cities like Detroit have continued to decline, while others like Boston have rebounded. From its founding, Boston emphasized education, which helped the city reinvent itself several times: as a trading port with the West Indies and Europe in the 17th century; as a manufacturing center in the 1850s; and as a financial, biotechnology, and hi-tech center a century later. New York is another example of a city that has recently made a successful transition based on human capital, replacing shipping, manufacturing, and the garment industry with global finance.

While urban failure is dismally similar—high poverty rates, abandoned buildings, decaying infrastructure—success takes many forms, which is why Los Angeles, London, and Singapore are physically so different. In fact, some of the most creative urbanized areas in the United States—Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128—don’t look like traditional cities at all. Neither does Houston (the nation’s fourth-largest city) which, Glaeser compellingly argues, offers middle-income Americans something missing in more glamorous cities: jobs and affordable housing.

Glaeser defines the city as a “mass of connected humanity.” His emphasis on human capital is important because politicians and planners tend to overvalue the physical environment. They encourage cities to look for the Next New Thing, whether it’s pedestrian malls, downtown stadiums, iconic museums, or light rail. It is as if 13th-century European cities, envious of Venice’s great commercial success, had said “Oh, that’s the trick—we just have to turn our streets into canals.” The conflict between people and places is currently playing out in the plans to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Glaeser questions the wisdom of this strategy. “It never made sense to spend more than $100 billion putting infrastructure in a place that lost its economic rationale long ago,” he writes. It would be better, he argues, to simply distribute the money directly to the people affected in the form of checks or housing and school vouchers, and let them decide how—and where—to spend it.

Human capital does not always benefit cities. While successful cities attract smart people, sometimes smart people institute not-so-smart policies. Glaeser is critical of thriving cities that impose arcane building regulations, complex zoning, and restrictive conservation rules to limit new construction. Curtailing the building supply simply raises real-estate prices and drives growth into surrounding suburbs, as it has done in New York, San Francisco, and Paris. Also in Mumbai, which surprisingly has some of the most expensive urban real estate on the planet. What is the alternative? Encourage cities to densify. Glaeser proposes replacing the current regulatory maze with a sort of congestion tax: developer fees on the negative effects of new construction such as increased traffic, blocked views, and so on. According to him, a straightforward tax would not only be more transparent—and more speedy—it would also benefit the community directly. He also proposes limiting the powers of historic preservation boards and community groups to block new building. Such an immodest proposal would take a triumph of the will, indeed.

Full disclosure: Glaeser provided an endorsement for my latest book.