by Jason M. Barr September 12, 2018
[Author’s Note: This is Part II of a two-part Q&A Interview with Professor Edward Glaeser. Part I can be read here.]
Edward Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics at Harvard University. He one of the world’s leading experts on the economics of cities. He is the author of Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.
On Tall Buildings and Urban Livability
JB: There is a running debate about whether tall buildings are beneficial for cities. In CityLab.com, Richard Florida offers a more measured assessment. He writes:
Density is all the rage these days. Urban economists, some of whom could be heard extolling the praises of “sun, skills, and sprawl” just a few years ago, now see increasing density as the key to improving productivity and driving economic growth. In his story for The Atlantic, “How Skyscrapers Can Save the City,” Harvard University’s Edward Glaeser put it this way: “As America struggles to regain its economic footing, we would do well to remember that dense cities are also far more productive than suburbs, and offer better-paying jobs … tall buildings enable the human interactions that are at the heart of economic innovation, and of progress itself.” Well-intentioned planners and preservationists drive up prices when they stand in the way of taller and taller buildings, he argues. Overly restrictive height limitations not only impede economic progress, but make cities less, not more, liveable.
There can be no doubt that density has its advantages. In general, denser cities are more productive, more innovative, and more energy efficient. But only up to a point….
When buildings become so massive that street life disappears, they can damp down and limit just this sort of interaction, creating the same isolation that is more commonly associated with sprawl. As Jane Jacobs aptly put it: “in the absence of a pedestrian scale, density can be big trouble.” Skyscraper canyons of the sort that are found in many Asian mega-cities, and that are increasingly proposed in great American cities, risk becoming vertical suburbs, whose residents and occupants are less likely to engage frequently and widely with the hurly-burly of city life.
Would you like to offer your thoughts or a rebuttal to this?
EG: I don’t disagree with the spirit of this, but I see skyscrapers as a complement to street life rather than a substitute for street life. When high rise neighborhoods work well, then pedestrian life can be rich and full. Low rise dwelling, by contrast, leads to car-based living which is the antithesis of street life.
The larger point is that there is not one way to live. Some people like living in skyscrapers. Others prefer five story walkups. Some like low density dwellings. Great countries and great cities allow for a variety of different life styles. There is no reason why people shouldn’t have options, as long as they pay for the social costs of their options, including pollution and congestion costs as well as any externalities from building up.
On Urban Density versus Suburbia
JB: Relatedly, while urbanists see the benefits to density, such as lower transportation costs, more social interactions, and lower carbon footprints, the preference for suburban living in the U.S. remains strong. How does one promote density without denying people their preferences for the ownership of free-standing housing in the suburbs? Do we need to be concerned about issues like this?
EG: Following my last comment, the key is to induce people to internalize the social costs of their actions. Suburbanization is typically associated with congestion and pollution costs. We need some form of a carbon tax to internalize the environmental costs of low density living. We should charge drivers both for their congestion and for the costs of infrastructure. We should not be using general tax revenues to subsidize new highways in the U.S.
There is also a problem with the home mortgage interest deduction, and the Government Sponsored Enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that push people into homeownership. There is a strong link between ownership and living in a single family detached house. When the government subsidizes ownership, it is implicitly pushing people away from urban apartments (which are typically renter) to suburban homes (which are typically owned). There is no reason for the government to try to socially engineer suburbanization by subsidizing homeownership.
The final big handicap faced by urban living in the U.S. is our local school system, which pushes many parents to move to suburban school districts. There is nothing about cities that makes them bad for education. French families come to Paris for the schools. We need to improve our urban schooling options so that people don’t feel the need to exit.
But to emphasize, I don’t think that the national government should explicitly encourage or discourage urban living. Spatial neutrality is the right model. That neutrality, however, demands that the government undoes its current policies that artificially weigh against living in cities, especially for middle-income families with children.
On the Role of Economists in Informing Government Policy
JB: Today, the realities of governing a city means that, frequently, good economics makes bad politics, and good politics is bad economics. For example, if a mayor proposes a large upzoing of a particular area to increase density and housing affordability, it’s likely to be shot down. It seems to me that if academic economists want to have more say in the local, state, and regional policy process, they need to offer policy solutions that consider the challenging political realities that motivate mayors and local officials. It’s easy to generate a model that demonstrates restrictive zoning raises housing prices; but the policy implication of loosening zoning restrictions is not really helpful for a mayor worrying about re-election. What are your thoughts on this?
EG: I think it is actually the job of academic economists to say things that are politically unpalatable. We’re not running for re-election, and if we say what is right, long enough, we may actually sway a few voters.
The task of gaining public support for up-zoning is quite tricky, and I wouldn’t dare to tell mayors how to do their job. I do think that the environmental argument is important. We build up so we don’t have to build out. Cities are actually green, and upzoning is a fight for lower carbon emissions.
The other argument that has some bite is social justice. By blocking construction, cities risk turning themselves into boutique towns that are affordable only by the wealthy. Jane Jacobs’ efforts to freeze building in Greenwich Village has preserved a delighted slice of urban space, but townhouses start at $5 million. This is not what affordability looks like.
One large scale building can deliver real affordability, not the false affordability of a few subsidizing units that are handed out to a handful of the lucky. The mayor should prioritize the construction of middle-income rental units. New York built 100,000 units a year in the early 1920s, and the city remained affordable. Cities are the best hope for America’s economic future. It is crucial that this future is shared by all, and that can only happen if the city builds more.
Sometimes these arguments work. Sometimes they don’t. But they are the best ones that I have.
On the Future of Cities
JB: Finally, some big technological innovations are on the horizon that might fundamentally change of the nature of work itself, such as self-driving cars, computer automation for high-skilled workers, virtual reality for meetings, and much greater artificial intelligence. Thinking long term, what is your prognosis for the city, say in the next few decades?
EG: Over the dance of centuries, new technologies have continued to shape the nature of work. Broadly speaking, mechanization makes old forms of labor obsolete, and innovation introduces new tasks that are done by humans. Looking forward, it is hard to imagine many jobs in manufacturing in the 21st century, especially in the U.S. That means that services will continue to the best source of employment for middle income Americans.
Some services are tradable, but many are not. Consequently, to find jobs as service workers, poorer people need to live near richer people. Cities make this possible. I am optimistic about job creation in New York. I am less optimistic in West Virginia. These trends only increase the importance of allowing more building in our great urban areas.
[Continue reading Part I here.]