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Why cities are mankind’s greatest invention

Marketplace Staff Feb 17, 2011
Shelf Life

Why cities are mankind’s greatest invention

Marketplace Staff Feb 17, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: Harvard University economist Ed Glaeser likes cities. He likes ’em so much, in fact, that he’s been known to wax poetic in describing them. Cities can be thought of, Glaeser says, as the absence of physical space between people and firms. And when that absence of space gets intense enough, amazing economic things happen. Ed Glaeser’s new book on the world’s urban centers is called “Triumph of the City.” Ed, welcome to the program.

Edward Glaeser: Wonderful to be here.

Ryssdal: Tell us where we’ve tracked you down today, would you?

Glaeser: I’m in the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, one of the busiest spots in town and I’m surrounded by the historic Guastavino tiles.

Ryssdal: Now did you have lunch at Oyster Bar today or you just hanging out?

Glaeser: I did not. I had a pastrami sandwich for lunch, which is awfully hard to get away from New York City. So I always try to take advantage of it when I’m here.

Ryssdal: But the topic today is not food, actually, it’s cities. And the fact that it’s really no accident that that restaurant that you’re in — the Oyster Bar — is on the concourse of one of the biggest train terminals in the country, isn’t it?

Glaeser: Everything that grew in the 19th century in New York grew up around the port and the rail yards. Its three largest industries were sugar refining, garment production, and printing and publishing. All three of which came out of connections with the transportation linkages in the city.

Ryssdal: The thesis in the book is that — and I think you use these words — cities are our greatest invention.

Glaeser: So much of what humankind has achieved over the past three millennia has come out of the remarkable collaborative creations that come out of cities. We are a social species. We come out of the womb with the ability to sop up information from people around us. It’s almost our defining characteristic as creatures. And cities play to that strength. Cities enable us to learn from other people. They enable us to become better, in a sense, by leveraging the talent of the crowds around us. When you think about all the great inventions that human beings have made — from Athenian philosophy to Henry Ford’s Model T’s, to Facebook — they were always collaborative. There was always situations in which one person borrowed an idea from someone else and then another idea was borrowed and then all of a sudden something absolutely magical occurred. Cities make all of that possible. And that’s why I think they’re are not only mankind’s greatest invention, but also our best hope for the future.

Ryssdal: All right. But I want you to do something for me. Look around Grand Central. Look out onto the concourse — that huge square there with the information booth there that so many people who are listening to this have been in so many times — and look and see if you can find people who are having meaningful conversations. They’re all just go, go, going. Cause life in a city is rough and tumble and hard, and you gotta keep on going or you’ll die.

Glaeser: You know, I’m looking. What I see right in front of me is a group of six people conversing with each other and connecting with each other and it’s hard to believe that connecting in cyberspace will ever manage to replace sharing a meal or a kiss or a smile. Certainly living in a city can be rough. Cities are places of competition, they’re places of innovation. You have to continue coming up with the new, new thing. That’s what makes them so productive.

Ryssdal: So you make the case that cities are good for industry. You also, though, make kind of the counterintuitive case — that they’re good for the environment as well.

Glaeser: Absolutely. So let me start with a story. So in 1844, a young Harvard graduate and his friend went fishing. And when they tried to cook the fish in a chowder, the wind flicked the flames, the flames spread, and by the time the great fiery inferno was over, they had burned down over 300 acres of prime, Concord Woodland. The young Harvard graduate who did this, of course, was Henry David Thoreau.

Now, there’s a moral to that story. We human are a destructive species. We tend to destroy stuff when we’re around it. And if you love nature, stay away from it. Now the statistical part of the book that addresses this reflects work that I’ve done with UCLA economist Matthew Kahn. We’ve tried to measure carbon emissions associated with living in different parts of the country and certainly we find that there’s substantially lower carbon emissions associated with living in big cities than outside of them and there are two major reasons for this. One of which is that people in cities just drive a lot less. And secondly they live in smaller homes, which require less home heating and less home cooling. And the place where this matters, of course, is in the great growing cities of Asia. If China adapts urbanization patterns that look like New York — that are tall buildings connected with public transportation, and better yet, pedestrian walkways — China’s going to end up being a whole lot greener.

So I think that’s one of the main reasons why I think we need to have this conversation is to try and push the places where urban form is incredibly fluid and the number of bodies is incredibly huge, and to try and at least get their urban planners to think about how different forms of cities are going to affect the environment in the long term.

Ryssdal: Ed Glaeser, he’s an economist at Harvard. He’s got a new book out about the cities in which we live. It’s called “Triumph of the City.” Ed, thanks a lot.

Glaeser: Thank you so much for having me.

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