Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Why and how cities succeed

For economic success, cities need to track and train smart people, and then get out of their way, according to Havard University's Edward Glaeser

Mumbai: Edward Glaeser’s best-selling book Triumph of the City is an ideal starting point for anyone interested in learning about urbanization. The book examines cities across the world and describes why and how “urban spaces make us human". An economics professor at Harvard University, Glaeser was in New Delhi to speak at the London School of Economics’s Urban Age Conference. On the sidelines of the conference, he spoke about how cities succeed.

“I think triumphant is empowering the citizens to make their own choices, enabling them to find economic success and have freedom. Different cities have different dimensions. Singapore is mind-bogglingly well-run, but it can also be a little sterile, and certainly it does not enjoy perfect freedom from every dimension. Rio is a magnificent city but certainly not particularly well-run; it has huge problems of crime. Many Northern European cities are glorious in terms of their combination of prosperity and equality, but they are also not necessarily great at being inclusive to new residents, and can be very expensive. So, I don’t see one triumphant city," Glaeser explains.

“I just attempted to take readers to a tour of the present and past cities. Explaining why we have come to an urban age, and to also understand the pitfalls of urbanization, the problems of building too much, the problems of building too little, the difficulties in urban inequality. I certainly believe that cities shouldn’t apologize for their urban inequality or for their poverty for that matter. Cities don’t make people poor, they attract people who are poor," he says.

Although the US is a “country of urbanized", Glaeser feels “there is a sense in which America has never really been entirely comfortable in its urbanity. We are still the country that has wildly pro-suburban policies in both transportation and housing. That’s another reason I wrote the book, it’s time since we push back against the idea of a bias so built into US policies".

An economist view on cities

One of the most appealing aspects of Glaeser’s work is that he presents economics and public policy in a user-friendly way. “I think after spending 20-odd years studying cities, writing largely for an academic audience, I thought I have reached a point in my life where like I want to speak to a larger group of people," he says, adding, “I also was thinking of the economist point of view. I think that’s a valuable voice to have in the world. There are three-four ways in which an economist views cities differently than the other people.

“The first is our approach to social sciences. It is fundamentally different from that of architects, planners, but also often different from many types of sociologists. It begins with very formal models, we like math because it imposes clarity on our thinking. And then a lot of emphasis on testing those models with a lot of data. The current place where economics is that it has a particular focus on randomized control trials and doing a variety of hard data. That’s the social sciences side.

“The second thing that I think is important about economics is that obviously we start with a very healthy respect for markets and wariness about the government, it is inbred in us. We are the children of Adam Smith. You shouldn’t interpret this as a suggestion that somehow free markets are going to handle everything. Far from it.

“The recent economics of cities has been very focused on cities as places of idea transmission. For example, why are there jobs in cities? What is it about cities that brings people together? Does it make them more productive, through reducing transportation cost?

“The way we view public policy, here I think, particularly it’s clear the difference between the architects and the economists. Architects try to think about the right way for someone to live, the right building, it’s very idealistic. Whereas, the economist’s view is, sort of, the ideal is, for people have choices and liberties, they have freedom. And it’s not that there is one right way; cities ideally are like those neighbourhoods that have lots of different options. And that’s a very different perspective."

Path to urban success

Glaeser is clear about the factors that drive urban success, saying, “For economic success, cities need to track and train smart people. And then, by and large, get out of their way. To me at least, education is required of what cities do and what’s most important about that city. Of course, attracting smart people also involves creating livable cities, and that has to do with taming the demons of bad cities.

“The three that are most important, for me, are contagious disease, crime and congestion. Depending upon which developing city we are talking about, any one of those may be more problematic at a given point of time. Contagious disease is the most important and to deal with that, one has to handle sewage and water. Some try through public-private partnership. Often, the best strategy is not to rely on a private provider but to rely on independent public provider.

“Crime is enormously challenging in Latin America. There, you often need almost quasi-dictatorial powers in the police for making things work and the problem is that the police often end up being more of a problem. The question of reaching a balance between authority and anarchy is so difficult.

“In congestion, you start by laying down a grid and you protect that grid. And in terms of investing in public transportation beyond a grid, I believe that 40 years of transportation economics can be summed up in four words: bus good and train bad? That is the view of 40 years of transportation economics. There’s a lot to like about buses," he professes.

Cities and city governments as corporations

Glaeser pushes back against comparisons of cities with corporations. “The city as a whole has very little to do with corporations, because it’s (in) no sense got any shared objective. A city of 10 million people has 10 million different things that are going on in its head. There is no sense in which those people need to be marching together. They are connected with the fabric of city life but they’re on their own paths," he points out.

“The city government has something in common with the corporate. It is trying to solve a number of very tangible urban problems. But the ultimate aim of that city government is to power the freedom of those 10 million people within it. So, in search of efficiency, it ends up reducing the ability to make choices, be autonomous. And it’s really important about when we think about what cities do.

“Good city government is about social engineering and not about hard engineering. That’s really critical and important for the functioning of a city. Maybe the most productive things they can do with regular buses is to install chat rooms and approach people to talk to each other. Take the example of urban policing. Effective urban policing is, the police do as much about connecting the life of the neighbourhood and getting the neighbourhood to protect itself as improving the level of technology."

Urban autonomy

Glaeser is also unequivocal about the benefits of autonomy for metropolitan India. “I think in many cases, Delhi clearly has experienced a significant improvement in the structure of urban life over the last 20 years. Partly because it has more autonomy than I think any other urban region does. It’s an example of what can happen when city governments are more empowered. Whereas, Mumbai has historically felt like it was a minor appendage of the Maharashtra state government. It’s not always in control, so I think, one model is moving towards more urban autonomy in ways that are independent of state governments.

“And then, the question is, what could you do if you were re-imagining Mumbai, to make the streets work more effectively, deal with land-use problems. A point recently emphasized by Paul Romer in particular; the asserting of public control over common spaces and protecting, in some cases, from squatting, in some areas losing streets, but also the issue of congestion. You need to actually charge people to drive on city roads.

“In the long run, it’s education that will transform the hierarchy of society. It is a fact. As India becomes more widely educated, this will flatten those distinctions. It is hard; it is true that the quality of city governments typically depends on the education levels of the citizens living in it. And it makes sense to understand that and to not have expectations that are too high.

“So, to me at least, this speaks towards very narrow governmental aims that are then pursued obsessively. So, rather than trying to fix every social problem, what I am going to try is to make sure that the roads work, if we focus on that, we focus on the sewers, water supply. Those are going to be the things that I work on. We are not going to try and say that we are going to fix everything," he concludes, adding on a positive note, “Many Indian cities are very human, just incredibly dominated by personal connections that are so obviously very strong, in the sense of cities being vibrant living human organisms." A quality that governments must build on, if our cities, and thus our economy, are to succeed.

This is the second in a six-part series. For more stories on the Urban Thinkers series, read here: Who owns the city?