City Limits: A Conversation With Edward Glaeser

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Edward Glaeser is high on cities. Very high, in fact. In “How Skyscrapers Can Save The City” (The Atlantic, February 2011) the Harvard economist puts the high-rise at the heart of a newly accessible, affordable, vital and sustainable metropolis. The city that doesn’t build up must build out, Glaeser points out, sucking up resources, lengthening commutes and putting pressure on undeveloped land. He sees densely populated, vertical cities not only as environmentally responsible, but as engines of innovation and prosperity — and the best hope for developing nations. Yet in cities around the world, Glaser’s lofty vision has bumped up against height limits and restrictive permitting. He spoke with The Atlantic from his home outside Boston about how measures aimed at saving cities may actually threaten their survival.

Edward Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard and Director of Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. His new book Triumph of the City (Penguin), will be released in February.

It’s pretty well understood that suburban/exurban sprawl sucks up natural resources. But how much more environmentally friendly are the high-rise residences you advocate?


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Living in an urban apartment is the least Malthusian thing we can do in the sense that it’s imposing the least cost on the overall environment. When you count the carbon emissions associated with high-density living, it’s substantially lower than living in exurban areas in the U.S. because people aren’t driving as much, and they’re living in substantially smaller units. One of the problems is that if you don’t build up, you build out. And that doesn’t help anyone, to have longer and longer commutes and to have more energy used in vast car trips. There’s a real sense in which if you love nature, it’s not a bad idea to stay away from it. We’re a fairly destructive species. Living in high densities is a very environmentally sensitive thing to do.

But does hyper-dense, vertical urban housing offer enough appeal over life in the suburbs to make a difference?

I believe that high-rise living should be available — more available than it is now — and that we should work against the things that make high-rise living difficult. But plenty of people aren’t going to want that. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no reason why any human being should ever be forced to live in a high-rise who actually wants to live in some other dwelling. My perspective on this is a very natural one for an economist, though it’s slightly different from the way urban planners and architects tend to look at things.

I’m not envisioning the whole world living in a Blade Runner-like density, or advocating that every human being should adopt a particular type of living space.

In your view, why do so few middle-income Americans aspire to high-rise, city living?

I think we’re used to thinking that skyscrapers are for a very specific demographic. Apart from the public-housing skyscrapers, which have not been particularly successful, we typically think of the people who live in them as fairly wealthy and short on family members. But it’s certainly possible to envision a high-rise world that’s more inclusive than that, both in terms of income and family structures. In cities like Chicago, which are more friendly towards building up, you do find a much more inclusive world of high-rise living.

Fear is not a good basis for urban policy. Care is, but fear is not.

One deterrent against middle-class high-rise living is that U.S. federal policy is strongly biased towards home-ownership. (I’m thinking here both of the home-ownership interest deduction and of the implicit subsidies through entities like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.) Given that more than 85% percent of detached houses are owner-occupied, and more than 85% of multi-family dwellings are rentals, the government is essentially bribing Americans to live in suburban, detached homes as opposed to multi-family dwellings or high-rise homes. That’s one reason why I think the United States should rethink its fascination with owner-occupied housing.

Another factor is that, despite heroic reform efforts, our urban schools continue to have significant problems. Until we figure out a way to handle urban schooling better—and there are lots of different ways to imagine doing that—it’s hard not to imagine that there will always be a push towards suburban living for families with kids.

You mention the poor track record of high-rise public housing for low-income residents in the U.S. I’m thinking of the Cabrini Green projects in Chicago—when I lived in Chicago we floored it when we drove by because of the occasional sniper fire. Wouldn’t that seem to suggest a limitation to the high-rise model?

The combination of height and social disorder can be very, very bad. New York and Chicago built many of those projects, and they proved very unsuccessful. They concentrated large amounts of poor people on very small amounts of land, which made it difficult to create law and order. It’s a warning against thinking that it’s easy to do public housing—that it’s easy to enforce safety. It’s true that high-rise housing certainly didn’t make things better for that group. The old working-class neighbourhoods unquestionably functioned better.

But it’s a mistake to infer, from the experience of Chicago, something about the attractiveness of high-rise dwellings for upper-middle class, middle-class, or comfortable, solid working-class people.

Does America’s high-rise demographic differ from that of other countries, and if so, why?

As I mentioned earlier, U.S. policies towards home ownership and schooling are one major reason why we see relatively few middle-income families living in high-rises. By contrast, you don’t have to leave Paris to get a great education in France. Many of the world’s finest high schools are actually in Paris. They’re state-supported. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about cities for schooling.

Another reason why you see more middle-income people in high-rises around the world is that government policies in some of those cities specifically help make it happen. Singapore, for example, has high-rise housing that’s far-flung throughout the city-state and connected through a very well functioning mass-transit system. The Singapore model also challenges our view that the high-rise model can’t work for public housing. You need to put in place a set of tools —whether it’s more police, or doormen, or other factors—that keep the streets safe, and Singapore is remarkably good at creating order and making sure that rules are followed.

In Brazil, my understanding is that middle and upper income people live in the high-rise areas of large cites such as São Paolo. The classic areas for poor people in São Paolo are low-rise favelas, which we think of as being relatively crime-ridden. You could certainly make an argument that it’s easier to secure an apartment than a favela. The Brazilian example shows that low-rise living is no guarantee of safety.

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Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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