2011 National Planning Conference: Closing Keynote Address

Edward Glaeser

By Meghan Stromberg
Senior Editor, Planning magazine

Thanks to advances in technology, people can work effortlessly from almost anywhere. Despite that absence of a need for a specific space in which to work, people they still overwhelmingly cluster together by choice, making cities more robust than ever. That's a central paradox of our times, economist Edward Glaeser told a full house at the closing session of the 2011 National Planning Conference in Boston.

Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard University and serves as the director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. He's also the author of a new book, Triumph of the City, which explores how cities make us richer, smarter, happier, greener, and healthier.

Glaeser — who said that "for too long, economists have ignored place" — described a "chain of genius," in which entrepreneurs gravitate toward one another to share knowledge. As they have for centuries, those creative people, living and working in close proximity, "riff" on one another's great ideas to improve their own businesses and build an atmosphere of innovation.

Access to knowledge is more important than personal space. "That's why cities are growing," he explained. He gave a small-scale example: Highly paid stock traders huddle together in open, wall-free bullpens rather than hide themselves away in well-appointed offices because they need the constant and rapid flow of information and because they thrive on the energy of the space. (Similarly, he noted, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — who made his fortune in finance and information technology — rearranged areas of City Hall into bullpens intended to speed the transfer of information among staffers.)

Proximity not only facilitates the flow of ideas, it also greatly improves productivity, according to Glaeser. "If the whole country were as productive as the New York metro area, our GDP would go up by 43 percent." He said that such productivity and creativity isn't just found in the business community; arts, culture, and entertainment flourish along with density. "The proximity that makes cities productive also makes them pleasure centers."

One clear downside of the movement of people to cities is the lack of housing options, particularly affordable ones. He cited Manhattan, San Francisco, and other dense cities as examples. There are obviously other problems in cities, including concentrations of poverty, inadequate transportation, and often deplorable schools, he noted.

In the end, leveling the playing field for cities — from a federal policy standpoint — is crucial for building vibrant cities. He said that three major changes were needed: getting rid of the "national fetish for home ownership" that pushes people away from a largely rental urban housing model to single family homes in the suburbs; restructuring our transportation policies to better support cities; and, most important, reforming education. "The local schooling problem is the thorniest. It's very hard to fix," because people feel they need to leave the city to give their kids a good education.

The role of planners is to help shape cities, helping to supply the necessary infrastructure.

"The whole world is moving to cities and these places are woefully behind in providing what people need. That's the need for planners and planning."

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