City Limits: A Conversation With Edward Glaeser

Why measures aimed at saving our cities may actually threaten their survival.


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.

What cities could most benefit from a high-rise residential model?

The key here is the level of demand for the city. If the city is experiencing high and rising prices, there might be barriers to building that you need to rethink. High and rising prices suggest that there are a lot of people who want to live there, and that they’re willing to pay a lot to live there. So you have to ask, Are we doing all we can to actually accommodate those people?

There are a lot of places in the U.S. where there’s high demand – especially in coastal cities, like Boston and San Francisco. Our focus shouldn’t just be on the U.S., though. London has imposed a huge cost on itself by keeping its height so low — far too low relative to what an incredibly exciting, great city it is. That city could be much more affordable than it is now, and much more inclusive. It has rigidly held to its Victorian building style, particularly for residential. They have allowed some commercial high-rises to go up, which is fairly typical — usually there’s more comfort with building up in commercial zones than there is in residential sectors.

One area where I think it’s really critical to imagine these high densities is in the developing cities of the world. Cities like Mumbai and Shanghai are the great, growing areas of the developing world, and they’re where the most important things are happening in urban development today. It’s places like these where I think it’s so important not to be afraid of heights. The land use policies that many developing cities use — particularly those in India, as opposed to China — have been draconian on heights. And the impact of that has been very, very negative. It’s created areas that are very expensive, hard to get around, and ultimately not fully taking advantage of the potential that cities have to turn India from a poor country into a rich country.

In your article, you point to La Défense, the high-rise district in outer Paris, as “an inspired solution” to “the need to balance preservation and growth.” And then you write: “Except for the distant view of the Arc [de Triomphe], administrative assistants drinking lattes in a Starbucks there could easily be in a bigger version of Crystal City, Virginia.” Do progress and population movements trump the expression of a city’s character — or a nation’s culture?

That’s a valid concern. The reason why I’m willing to make a strong argument for easing restrictions is because I think we’ve gone very, very far in the opposite direction. Certainly, urban planning involves a mix of preserving the old and allowing the new. If you go too far in one direction you lose the character, you lose the beauty, you lose the sense of history of a place. I don’t want that any more than any architect does. But on the other hand if you move too far in the direction of keeping things as they are, you create a museum rather than a living city. My favorite physical moments in cities are when old and new architecture have a dialogue with each other, where they’re connected with each other. I particularly love those places in Boston, for example, where you see something like the shimmering Hancock Building juxtaposed against the H. H. Richardson Church, which is right next it.

I’m wary of suggesting, though, that I know exactly what a place like Paris should do. The French have their own tastes, and I would feel uncomfortable suggesting that Paris should look like New York. I would just hope that somewhere within Parisian sensibilities they would find ways to provide more housing so that Paris doesn’t end up in effect as a gated community, affordable only for people with a lot of money.

“In the most desirable cities,” you write, “whether they’re on the Hudson River or the Arabian Sea, height is the best way to keep prices affordable and living standards high.” I’m paying a ridiculous amount to live in the boutique city of San Francisco — but to play devil’s advocate, why make these places accessible and inclusive? They’re desirable and expensive because they're exactly the way they are. Not everyone has to live there.

Great question. The way I would reframe it is: How do we know that the benefits of creating more buildings will offset the costs? Isn’t it possible that delivering a lot of housing to people who value the city would impose such a severe cost on its character that it will ruin it?

If you love nature, it’s not a bad idea to stay away from it... Living in high densities is a very environmentally sensitive thing to do.

The first time I tackled this was in a paper on land use regulation in New York City. We tried to go through what we thought were all the potential negative effects of allowing more buildings – looking at things like how the sight lines would change. And it was awfully hard to come up with a number in terms of the negative effects on New York that was significant, or even clearly negative. Remember, many of these buildings will actually generate more than enough tax revenue to pay for the additional city services that would be required. And it’s hard to think that New York’s character will be fundamentally changed by a couple more million people; remember, that’s what New York is all about — a lot of the excitement comes from having that abundance of people.

It’s appropriate to have some form of controls to make sure that we aren’t tearing up the architectural treasures of the city. It’s certainly true that many areas of Boston, or San Francisco, are beautiful and are worth protecting. But not every area in the city. There are lots of cases where the city could well be made better off by the addition of new structures that might be of a higher architectural level than the existing structures.

We have to be more careful in places like Paris. I do think that there would be benefits to allowing a bit more housing within city limits. As long as it’s not exactly on the Ile de La Cité, I think the benefits probably outweigh the costs. But I’m less confident about Paris than I am about New York, because the city does have such a special character that has brought so much joy to so many people over many decades. And that’s to a lesser degree true of London and many other European cities.

But I think it’s very hard to make that case about Mumbai. I just can’t see an argument where you’re looking at the giant slum of Dharavi and you’re saying, “My goodness, we need to preserve the low densities of this area in order to preserve its essential character.”

The larger point here is that we don’t have to change everything at once. If we change the rules and allow more permitting, we’ll see what happens. And that would give us information as we go forward. The lesson is not to be afraid of change. Urban change is a good thing. Living cities must change. They must adapt to new circumstances. They must allow new structures that allow brilliant young entrepreneurs to come to the city. They must be constantly evolving. That’s what gives them more architectural excitement and gives them more economic vitality. It’s what makes them more inclusive. It’s a terrible mistake to sit there and say, “Oh my goodness, something could be lost if we allow this utterly nondescript, five-story, glazed-brick building to be replaced by a thirty story, glistening tower.

Fear is not a good basis for urban policy. Care is, but fear is not. I think we can certainly be careful and still be wise towards our cities without being terrified of allowing more change than we currently do.