“Europe’s secret to success lies in its cities”. Interview with Edward Glaeser, Harvard University

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Edward Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard, where he also serves as Director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. He is an expert on the economics of cities and on how diversity can foster innovation and growth. He wrote about this topic in its latest book, « The Triumph of cities: how our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier ». UNITEE contacted him to discuss how European cities can contribute to the continent’s growth.

In your book, ‘The Triumph of Cities’, you state that cities are man’s best invention. Why?

Because it is through collaboration that all other inventions take place. I think the theme of the book is that humankind’s best asset is the ability to learn from one another, sometimes through consultation, sometimes through explicit collaboration.

We can do miraculous things when we are connected one another. This is essentially what cities are about and have always been about. Look at the Cultural Revolution in Europe: XV Century’s Florence is the perfect example of a city that provides light to the whole century, essentially because Brunelleschi knew Donatello and they both knew Masaccio, and that created a chain of geniuses where innovative people met each other.

Nevertheless, not all cities are the same: for every London there is a city, like Detroit in the US, in steep decline. What are the main reasons for these differences among cities?

The success of cities is very much tied to the skills of their population, both at the individual and at the country level. In Europe, the income level of cities is closely tied to the rate of college degrees. So, skill base is crucial.

This skill base does not come only from the ability of a city to educate its citizens, but also from its attractiveness of skilled people, which comes from a combination of the overall environment, whether or not it is a place where you can find an exciting future, and the physical layout of the city. Think about the place of European cities in the global urban environment: there is so much beauty in those cities, it is a tremendous asset!

Another aspect that you show in the book as fundamental for a city’s success is diversity, in all its aspects: not only in its people, but also in its production of goods and services.

Yes, indeed: reinvention brings resilience. There are many aspects involved in this. One of the factors of having multiple industries is simply a portfolio fact which implies that if you are depending on one industry, then in negative quarters you are in trouble.

A second advantage of multiple industries is that they help attract people who are not sure on what they want to do yet. If you moved to Detroit in the 1970s you pretty much knew that you were going to make cars. That limits your appeal with certain types of persons, whereas a more variegate city with a lot of different industries attracts people who don’t know what they want to do yet.

But the most important thing about multiple industries is that new ideas are made by combining old ideas and the best innovation occurs in diverse industries, in which people can easily move from one sector to another.

As a continent, Europe has a huge tradition of urban culture. All main European innovations have been developed in cities. Can this urban tradition still be an asset for Europe in competing on the global economy?

There are many ways in which Europe’s urban tradition can be very helpful. One is Europe’s urban path in technology. For example, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and a portion of the city went underwater, New York took inspiration from the Dutch, whose urban civilization has been fighting with sea levels for centuries quite successfully.

Another point of that is resilient strength deriving from long-established assets: look at the fashion designers of Milan, who made a centuries-old city the European capital of design.

A third point of advantage is urban management. Now if you think about the developing world, it is becoming urban, but these cities are not pleasant. That can be in part because those countries are poor, in part because they don’t have an efficient public sector. On the other hand, Europe really led the way to deliver livable cities.

A final thing on this topic is that even people who get rich elsewhere move to European cities, thanks to its cultural history and high quality of life. And that is a final asset: if you can provide a livable place, the wealthiest will also come, and Europe is on the frontline on that.

What is the single best piece of advice you would like to give to urban planners and policymakers wanting to improve their cities?

Cities require good management. The first and most important thing to have a livable city is clean water. Once clean water is assured, we move up the hierarchy to crime and personal safety; then we move up to congestion: dealing with the difficulty of having too many cars and not enough streets. I think the solution for more European cities lies in emulating the likes of London, Singapore and Stockholm and in relieving congestion in the streets.

But the main problem that many European cities are fighting with is the one of affordability: the high cost of living in cities. This is simply economic: when a huge number of individuals competes for a limited supply of space, prices rise. Allowing new constructions seems to be the best and most feasible solution to tackle this problem.

The great challenge to create a Europe with more inclusive, more diverse and more affordable cities is to have a right balance between past and future: European cities have to respect and use the resources they have, such as the good infrastructures and their great beauty, but at the same time permit significantly more new constructions. It is only with new buildings that cities become diverse, affordable and dynamic; otherwise, they become boutiques or museums.

 

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