Why Cities Rock (Ep. 22)

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Photo: Snorpey Is the city truly the “greatest human invention”?

Why Cities Rock: Could it be that cities are “our greatest invention” – that, despite their reputation as soot-spewing engines of doom, they in fact make us richer, smarter, happier and (gulp) greener?

This week’s Freakonomics Radio podcast is a bit unusual in that, instead of featuring a variety of guests, it has only one. But I think you’ll understand why once you’ve listened to it. The guest is Ed Glaeser, author of the compelling and provocative (and empirical!) new book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.

Plainly put, Glaeser’s ideas are so large and bountiful that they required a podcast of their own. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, read the transcript, or listen via the box above.)

Glaeser is an economist at Harvard whose research touches on everything from obesity and crime to innovation and urban policy. Here’s a 2006 Times Magazine profile of him by Jon Gertner; here are Glaeser’s posts from the Economix blog.


Louise Kennedy Converse Ed Glaeser


Glaeser previewed his book with a guest post on this blog a few days ago. The podcast delivers the full monty. For instance, Glaeser’s argument that cities are in fact greener than the countryside:





We’re a destructive species; it’s one of our defining characteristics, right? We make a big mess when we’re around stuff. And if you love nature, stay away from it, right? We’re much more likely to harm nature as the road did when we live surrounded by the woods than if we live in tall urban apartments by ourselves.

Now, there’s a statistical partner to that, which is that together with Matthew Kahn, I’ve assembled data on carbon emissions associated with living in different parts of the country. And there are two facts, which I think are important, to come out of that. One of which is that people who live in cities do tend to emit significantly less carbon than people who live in the country, and this is controlling for income and controlling for family size. That’s coming mainly from driving, from the fact that there’s just a lot fewer carbon emissions associated with dense living. It’s not just the move to public transportation; it’s also the drivers within cities — they’re just driving much shorter distances. And then, of course, it’s because of much smaller homes.

The higher price of urban space means that people are living in smaller homes, even with the same family size. And that leads to lower electricity usage, lower home heating usage — and those are the facts that I think make cities seem, at least to my eyes, significantly greener.

Here’s Glaeser on one of the many ways that the federal government has long upheld anti-city policies:

The home-mortgage interest deduction essentially acts as a push away from urban apartments and into suburban homes. And let’s just go through this — more than 85 percent of single-family detached houses in this country are owner occupied. More than 85 percent of multi-unit dwellings are rented.

There’s a good reason for this. If you rent out single-family detached housing, they depreciate on average, more than 1 percent a year, according to some studies. And that’s quite easy to understand: renters don’t do the maintenance that homeowners do, to keep taking care of their homes. On the other hand, anyone who has ever dealt with a co-op board knows that having a ton of owners under a single roof can be like herding cats, so there’s a good reason why larger buildings are essentially rented. Well, if high-density dwellings are typically rented and low-density dwellings are typically owned, then if you’re going to have a huge public push where hundreds of billions of dollars are going to be thrown at promoting home ownership, you’re basically telling cities to go drop dead, right?

You’re basically pushing people out of urban apartments and into suburban homes, and I think that’s a mistake. And I’m glad that President Obama‘s budget came out favoring, at least, a reduction and a cap of the home-mortgage interest deduction.

And why cities produce better restaurants than they do schools:

Certainly for anyone who’s a parent, like myself, the suburban school districts offer huge enticement to leave cities. And this is really a question of how we’ve decided to structure our schools. So I want you to just imagine, if, for example, instead of having a New York restaurant scene that was dominated by private entrepreneurs, who competed wildly with each other, trying to come up with new, new things and, you know, the bad restaurants collapsed, the good restaurants go on to cooking show fame, and you have these powerful forces of competition and innovation working. Imagine instead if there was a food superintendent, who operated a system of canteens, where the menus were decided at the local level, and every New Yorker had to eat in these canteens. Well, the food will be awful, and that’s kind of what we’ve decided to do with schooling. That instead of harnessing the urban ability to provide innovation, competition, new entry, we’ve put together a system where we turned all that system off. And we’ve allowed a huge advantage for a local, public monopoly. It’s very, very difficult to fix this.

If the comments on his earlier blog post are any indication, many readers will push back against Glaeser’s ideas — especially those readers who don’t live in cities. Even though Glaeser’s arguments are generally empirical, this is the sort of topic — the triumph of cities, indeed! — that most of us think about as much with our emotions as with the more logical quadrants of our being. For that matter, it’s important to note that Glaeser himself grew up in Manhattan and has lived in Chicago and Boston, which might make one wonder whether his appreciation for urbanity might have an emotional component as well.

At the end of the podcast, I ask Glaeser to name his favorite city.

“I’m selling a book!” he said. “I can’t possibly pick favorites.”

But he did.

Scott Millar

In my opinion...language is by FAR a much more significant invention than the city.


If I had had children, I would have raised them in a city.

This is based on my experience as a college professor. While there were a few exceptions, my urban students tended to be more knowledgeable and intellectually curious than my suburban students, who tended to be ignorant of and uninterested in anything that wasn't in the current pop culture. The suburban students may have gone through schools with superb facilities and curricula, but it was clear that the curricula hadn't gone through them.

After a few years, I began making tentative guesses about whether the individual students in each new class were urban or suburban and then checking my guesses using the student directory. I was almost always right.


I take issue with the anecdotal story used as an assertion that the 300 acres burned to the ground, by Henry David Thoreau was some sort of environmental catastrophe. Grass fires tend not to burn standing live timber "to the ground" it may kill trees. Fire killed trees can create specific habit for many different species of insects, birds, and animals. Man has traditionally tried to remove fire from the landscape, but is now used as a restorative tool by land managers. A burned area generally regenerates; a parking lot, apartment building, or other development will be around for a lot longer. Large cities tend to be built in and near river deltas New York, Boston, New Orleans, Hong Kong, and London to name a few. These cities almost always convert wetlands into developments and have lasting impacts. Rural communities provide the raw inputs such as food, petroleum products, and timber that make it possible to live in cities. It is very common for people in cities to not understand those that don't live in cities, and vice versa. We are all deeply intertwined economically and environmentally that separating groups impacts cannot account for all variables. This type of argument only serves to deepen a cultural divide. I truly enjoy the fact that Freakonomics provides a venue that challenges people to think, using empirical data. By design it is only a snap shot and not a 360 degree view. Challenge the premise and question the results.



There are advantages to both, both socially and evniromentally, but both are necessary, the best way to us this info is to force cities to NOT destroy greenspace, but instead redevelop existings urbanized space, if a building has been empty abandoned for X time, say three years, and has not been maintained, it's should either get taxed at a higher rate or raized and redeveloped. The larger urban area around me is slowly expanding it's urban areas, but has not made it convient for urban living. As well there is a massive space of blighted single family homes that should be raized and high density combo buildings should be built in place. This will preserve existing greenspace outside of the urban area and increase urban values.


Some proponents of cities have suggested land value taxes, rather than property taxes as a solution to your problem. Currently, abandoned or vacant buildings pay less taxes because they are considered less valuable, also low density development, like a big box store with a huge parking lot pays less taxes that a big multi-storey building with no parking. This creates a disincentive of sorts towards making a property more valuable/denser. Switching to a land value tax can help encourage property owners in investing in making their property more valuable since doing so won't cause their taxes to go up.


You're simply making the point that using the motor car in cities isn't really effective. The point is that far fewer people in cities use the car, precisely for the reasons of inconvenience that you highlight. The fact that far fewer use the car is what makes cities greener, not the fact that the ones who still use the car are having some difficulties.


Tsk tsk. Ed Glaeser is the latest in a long ling of gray economists who fail to recognize that the economy is a subsidiary of the environment. It follows that cities are utterly dependent upon a healthy functioning environment to support them. Unfortunately, by ignoring system dynamics and ecological principles Glaeser trumps up the differences between cities and suburbs (an exercise in splitting hairs) without acknowledging that both modes of living are DEEPLY unsustainable.

The fact is that studies of urban metabolism show that increases in density result in INCREASED throughput of energy and resources, not less. Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with density. It’s good for many of the reasons Glaeser cities. But he shades the environmental externalities to a criminal degree!

The research of Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt show that larger cities need more energy and resources per capita than smaller ones because their average citizen owns, produces, consumes, and wastes more than their less urbane counterparts. In effect, when cities densify, they become more consumptive, which offsets any infrastructural efficiencies they might enjoy.

For those interested in these topics, I invite you to take a look at my urban planning blog, which focuses on the sustainability of our urban places in light of resource depletion. I just did a podcast last week, which I invite you to compare to this.




Loved this podcast when it first came out. Since then I've started reading the postings of Chuck Marohn of http://www.strongtowns.org/

That'd be a good follow-up to this show. Chuck is leading a movement against the bad investments of public infrastructure money that has no chance of paying for itself and was featured on an episode of Econtalk http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2014/05/charles_marohn.html


If anyone is still reading this... first of all, there is the question of whether we're arguing about a) dense cities vs suburbs or b) metropolitan areas vs rural.

Edward Glaeser is I think mostly arguing a). He says that he can see the appeal of suburbs, but from an environmental point of view dense cities are better than suburbs. It seems like Glaeser has decided that he is not willing to sacrifice the yards and better schools of the suburbs to life in the cities with a smaller footprint though? (and he's saying we can make that choice but there shouldn't be subsidies encouraging choosing the suburbs?)

b) This is more complicated... All things equal, the way things are today, the average person in Manhattan probably has a smaller environmental footprint than someone living in rural Arkansas. The thing to keep in mind though is that most American cities are a reflection of the automobile era, and if not, the transit era, with almost nothing from the pre-transit "walking era", unlike in other parts of the world. There are many big differences between these from an environmental point of view, but the vast majority of Americans here has probably only lived in "automobile era" neighbourhoods or maybe transit era for some.

Automobile era neighbourhoods (aka typical suburbs) aren't that great from and environmental perspective compared to rural communities. Walking era cities are much better, but that's like 0.0001% of US cities, which are probably about 30% transit era, 70% auto era. Transportation is a huge part of the environmental problem, whether in terms of CO2 emissions, issues related to oil extraction to fuel them (ex oil sands), all the pavement for roads, driveways, parking lots... And then on top of that, dense walkable cities tend to need less infrastructure per capita compared to auto-oriented suburbs. They also take up less space. We don't really need more space for cities in America, if we built our cities at a density level comparable to European city centres (so not even Manhattan/Hong Kong), America could probably accommodate the world's entire population within the existing footprint of its cities. Since we're only talking about housing at most 100-200 million more people in American cities in the next century, American cities clearly don't need to take up more land if built denser.

Now personally, I would prefer if the world's population stabilized as soon as possible, and if you had fertility rates a bit below 2.1 and population slowly declined that might not be a bad thing. There is not that much that can be done about that, no sane person would propose culling people, and even if everyone in the world had 2 kids from this point on, the population would still grow due to increasing life expectancies in the developing world and the way the population pyramid is (a lot more people around child-rearing age than dying-of-old-age age). HOWEVER... cities do seem to be tied to people having fewer children, probably for a variety of reasons, so they're not a bad thing from that POV. And indeed, as the world's population is urbanizing, fertility rates are rapidly dropping, especially in South and Southeast Asia and Latin America.

OK, so America is going to have a certain population, and what that population will be is mostly outside of the control of city advocates, but we still need to figure out where they should live. Should they live in rural areas? Well we only need so many farmers, ranchers, lumberjacks, miners and park rangers... in fact rural occupations are probably only about 2-3% of all jobs in America. So what do we get the construction workers, retail clerks, factory workers, doctors, salesmen, engineers, plumbers, etc to live in rural areas? If people with "rural jobs" live in rural areas, that's one thing, but if they don't have rural jobs, putting them in rural areas will just mean higher per capita transportation costs and infrastructure costs.

Spreading out the nation's population across rural areas might dilute the environmental impacts across a larger area. In some ways this has some benefits for people (though more costly), but few benefits to the environment, because per capita and therefore total environmental impacts will be higher. Sometimes it feels like there's a belief that cities create people so preventing cities from growing will solve the problems associated with too many people. I don't really see how that makes sense... People create people, not cities.