‘The Triumph of the City’: the power of ideas, ambition and competitive energy

In the late 20th Century, as information technology made possible instantaneous communication around the world, some prognosticators revived a familiar chestnut of futurism: cities were no longer needed, they said, and would soon become obsolete.

They got it backwards, said Edward Glaeser, Professor of Economics at Harvard University and Director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. Globalization and new technologies reward intelligence and innovation. And those qualities increasingly gather in and permeate the great urban centers.

“The fact that cities, like universities, make people smart is at the heart of their success,” Glaeser said, in the keynote address at the University of Chicago’s Future of the City symposium on Tuesday, Feb. 1.

The symposium, sponsored by the Harris School of Public Policy Studies and the Office of Civic Engagement, brought together many of Chicago’s civic and intellectual leaders to examine what lies ahead. Glaeser began with a high-speed, high-energy tour of the history of cities in America.

Glaeser painted the picture of a virtuous cycle in which cities grow out of the massing of new ideas, ambition and competitive energy of people in close proximity; people who live in them then benefit from the knowledge and opportunities those cities offer.

With this in mind, Glaeser said future city investments shouldn't focus time and money solely on new building, road, or transportation projects. Instead they should address gaps in education and other forms of human capital that will lead to future innovation, he said.

Even urban ills such as poverty should not be seen as an automatic indictment of cities, he said — poor people have often moved to cities because of the opportunities cities provide to make a better life through jobs and services, and it is only when cities allow poverty to perpetuate itself for generation after generation that cities deserve the blame.

He said that moving forward, cities that establish themselves as centers of knowledge and innovation would increasingly separate themselves from other locations.

“Skilled people have increasingly chosen to be around each other,” he said.

And he acknowledged that even as an economist he was keenly attuned to the benefits of urban centers, which are hard to plot on a graph.

“One of the things that is so great about cities is that they are places of pleasure as well as productivity,” he said.

Glaeser is also director of the Rappaport Institute of Greater Boston at Harvard, which works to improve governance in the area by strengthening connections between scholars, students, and civic leaders. He has authored and coauthored several books on cities and urban issues, including The Triumph of the City, which Penguin Press will release Thursday, Feb. 10. On the cover, Chicago’s skyline glows.