Great Antidote Archive: Ed Glaeser on the Unseen Beauty of Cities

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May 3, 2023

Glaeser contends that cities allow us to be more human, because of what we might phrase as, on this site, a natural propensity to share, borrow, and collaborate with one another. 
Jane Jacobs’ birthday (May 4, 1916) is a great time to revisit an early episode of The Great Antidote podcast with Ed Glaeser on the Unseen Beauty of Cities.

The debate between city and country has is as old as cities and persists even as both city and country life have been transformed. Your gut reaction to Glaeser’s definition of cities as the absence of physical space between people probably defines on which side you fall. 

But Adam Smith claimed that “The inhabitants of the town and those of the country are mutually the servants of one another”. He reminds us that (for the foreseeable future, anyway) we need people who choose both cities and the country.

Today, urbanization is associated with healthier populations. But for centuries cities were “killing fields” because of contagious disease. The Plague of Justinian set urbanization back for close to a millennium, says Glaeser (podcast time 38:55). But as late as 1900, “a boy born in New York could expect to live six years less than a boy born in rural America.” (12:29) 

Yet people still came to cities. 

Adam Smith observed that people in cities arrived at “liberty and independency” earlier than people in the country. Related, and maybe more important, was that cities, at their best, are “forges of human capital” (8:09) that provide opportunities for people to move themselves up the socioeconomic ladder. 

Glaeser contends that cities allow us to be more human, because of what we might phrase as, on this site, a natural propensity to share, borrow, and collaborate with one another. The physical closeness of cities allows ideas and the people who have them to interact and drive innovation, creation, and production—from the art of Renaissance Florence to Motor City Detroit at the turn of the 20th century to Silicon Valley at the turn of the 21st. Even when individuals or firms are in competition (as between the Detroit automakers), the end result is innovation and improvement that benefits the city as a whole. 

This isn’t just good for the people in cities. Smith details the ways in which cities are tied to the “progress of opulence” in a nation in Book III of Wealth of Nations: Cities expanded the scope of the market for the country, allowing for more complete division of labour and encouraging more development of the rural country. Cities provided profit-minded people (rather than the landed aristocracy) to become landowners more devoted to improving the productivity of land. And cities provided the commerce and manufactures that brought 

order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country, who had before lived almost in a continual state of war with their neighbours and servile dependency upon their superiors. This, though it has been the least observed, is by far the most important of all their effects. [Shout out to David Hume.] (III.iv.4.)

The ability of people to connect through the Internet led to some to predict as early as the 1980s that cities would recede in importance (15:00). It took a global pandemic (and forty years of advancement in communications technology) for people to take up remote work on a mass scale. But even as more of us than ever work from home and the demand for office space falls, the cost of housing in many cities has continued climbing. The proximity cities provide to people isn’t only about work. People provide more (and more specialized) services, friendships, society, and entertainment. These things can contribute a lot to quality of life.

There will always be challenges for cities. Jane Jacobs would tell us that that’s exactly why we need cities, and I think Ed Glaeser would agree. They provide an environment through which people together pursue “The uniform, constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition”, which, after all, “ is the principle from which publick and national, as well as private opulence is originally derived.” (TMS III.ii.1)