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.


Pushback is right... as someone who has lived in both suburban and urban areas, it appears he is only accounting for a portion of the differences between the two.

Suburban areas have far more trees and plants and gardens in the area which can help swallow those carbon emissions. City driving may be shorter, but sitting in traffic for extended periods of time negates that effect. People in suburban areas also don't have to spend time looking for parking. For example, when I'm in the suburbs of Cleveland or Baltimore, I've never spent more than 30 seconds getting a spot. In Queens, where I live, I spend 15-30 minutes finding parking all the time, circling all around to do so. In general, I spend far more time in my car in NYC than I ever would in the other areas, and I don't drive a car to work.

Finally, urban areas surely could change this, but simply do not: Due to the compact nature of the areas, stores and businesses are open much later and consumer far more energy, while the same in suburban areas will often shut their doors and lights anywhere from 5 to 10pm.

I'd love to see the actual carbon footprint data for various areas broken out and then given a per-capita number to see which is actually true.



It seems too coincidental that studies touting the merits of city life are almost exclusively written by those living in cities.


The rise of the suburbs at the expense of cities must have a lot more going on than just the mortgage interest tax deduction. Canada doesn't have such a thing and I see no substantial differences between the nature of the suburban/city split in Canada compared to the US. It seems to me like a direct comparison of northern US and Canadian cities would be a baseline test of a theory based on the mortgage credit.


Perhaps this article would create less animosity if instead of starting with "We're a destructive species," a sweeping, inaccurate generalization, he instead provided some of the data that supports his argument.


@Alex: Yes, if you do research that convincingly shows the merits of city life then you would naturally want to follow the recommendations of your own research and live in one.


I see the merits of Glaeser's points, but some of them are absolutist. Also, he does not seem to understand environmental issues in a big-picture sense.

"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".

That is a huge generalization. And by the way, I do live in the city. I don't get to choose 99 percent of the environmental policies of our neighborhood. For example, our city put in new sidewalks which killed every old tree on the street, some which had been there for decades.

Friends of mine who own adjacent properties have started a land trust. Now, not every land owner will be as responsible, but that's by choice. Paved-over areas destroy ecosystems for good - there's no way to expand cities and say they are in any way, green.

So far as energy uses goes, hopefully those living in rural areas will have better access to high-speed rails, and cheaper solar panels. Again - if cities implemented more green space, not less, then a combination of urban and rural would be ideal.



This study has changed the way i look at things for enviromental impact. All along big cities and factories were to blame. More driving in the busy cities produce more emissions is false. This just makes sense in the long run. Less driving, shorter distances.


It makes sense that cities are less polluted than rural areas. In big cities there is less damage t land because there is the most minimal amount of space for the largest amount of people. Also most people that live in cities dont even drive and that limits the amount of toxins in the air. When living in a rural area it is necessary to drive large distances just to get what you need to survive. Also in rural areas often there are not many people that are living in large areas. When there are not a lot of people in a large area that means that they are off building even more houses when they could just fill in the space.


"And if you love nature, stay away from it, right?"

But we can't, because we ARE nature. We can't exist apart from it, and even the attempt warps bodies and minds in ways that can be lumped under the catchphrase "nature deficit disorder".

Nor can we keep from having an adverse effect on the natural world by crowding ourselves into the human versions of cattle feedlots and battery chicken factories, because all the adverse effects (but few of the good) happen in the absence of a human population. The city is a weight on the rubber sheet of the world. For its benefit, prairies become factory farms, forests become plywood, mountains are strip-mined for their minerals... And in an urbanized world, this happens all the easier because it's out of sight, out of mind. There's no one living on the land to see it happen, or to protest.


"And why cities produce better restaurants than they do schools:"---
Is this some kind of throw away line? He makes this statement, then goes on to talk about restaurants. I know first hand. I went to school in NYC until 8th grade, then in CT through high school. The NYC school was much bigger, and therefore was able to fill its classes with more of every kind of student. Add a little academic tracking, and you have classes for the smart kids, classes for the dumb kids, classes for the blue collar kids and classes for the average kids, that don't cost any extra to run, because they are all full. In the suburbs, they acted like they were doing us a tremendous favor by having classes for us, then left us to our own devises, because "there are so many other kids who need more help." For many years, the public schools weren't well run, but now, parents are clamoring to get their kids into public schools in New York. All it takes is professional management. I left my suburban high school unable to perform up to the level that the college that accepted me thought I could, while half the graduating class from the Bronx High School of Science which also attended the school went on to fabulous and important careers. Sorry, I can't agree that just because a school is in the suburbs it's better than one in the city.
First hand.



While I concur with much of Dr.Gleaser's ideas, I must take issue with the analogy between school choices and restaurant choices. The fundamental difference is that schooling requires a long term investment with potentially life long consequences. Whereas if I get food poisoning at one restaurant, I can go to a different one the next day. Therefor fairness issues and consumer protections are much more necessary as compared to the arena of food catering.

That unfettered private operators will abuse a school voucher system (the restaurant analogue) is amply demonstrated by the current crop of unscrupulous for profit schools who saddle their student with loans while providing basically useless trainings. This is what would likely happen in a full schoool voucher system leading to inadequate eductaion for at least a portion of our children. In contrast, I do support charter schools which can experiment with the support of the community and parents. Hopefully, their successful and proven ideas will then be incorprated into the main stream school system.


Wade Riddick

Has it occurred to you that allowing restaurants to compete on taste and by offering large portions of cheap, high calorie food may be one reason we have such high rates of obesity and chronic illness? Your analysis fails to take into account long run opportunity cost. By offering consumers what they want in the moment, the processed food industry can adversely affect the long run health of these same consumers. This can require government intervention to fix, as New York City has tried to do recently with trans fats and sweetened sodas.

If you don't want to properly price the negative externalities, then people have to be educated to eat for nutrition and their long run economic health instead succumbing to short-term market forces in the food processing industry's race to the bottom line. Foods that taste good, release dopamine in the brain, stimulate our hunger to eat more and are cheap to process, ship and store are not healthy staples of any human diet in large quantities, yet that's where market competition has driven the food industry. That's where your untempered love of free market restaurants has driven us.

Similarly, sometimes schools simply have a job to do with educating new citizens. As Fish has pointed out in his columns, measuring economic returns to individual students and pursuing perceived "market efficiency" may, in fact, lead to long term depreciation of the common good and a loss of overall economic growth potential. Forcing students to study the constitution or evolution may not directly affect their ability to get a higher paying job but it does make for better educated voters.


jason ward

Here is more reading on some further "green" aspects of city living. Things like shared heat gain moving up a high rise building and other such "hmm I never thought of that" bits are well-stated in this readable New Yorker article (I know, I know, these city slickers are so biased).


The one thing in Glaeser's bit I had a hard time with is the market analogy on schooling. Schools are not restaurants, they aren't even close. It's simply a bad analogy. What has "competition" done for health care results in the US? Produced middling results at an astonishingly high cost. It is not a panacea for all things and being taught is certainly not being served a plate of food. It's acquiring critical thinking skills and instilling a basic moral compass in future citizens. It is not being done terribly well of late, but this is mostly due to problems that transcend schooling, namely poverty and other large societal problems. Here is an article I forwarded to you some weeks ago Steve D, which critiques both the alleged substance and the outsized influence of the proponents of school "choice, competition" etc.


J. Ward



"And why cities produce better restaurants..."

Now there's an example of the (distorted, IMO) mindset that allows people like Glaeser to create artificial metrics, such as restaurant quality, that (circularly) quantify city/suburb as better than rural life. Cities get points for having more/better restaurants, but don't lose points for forcing people into a mode of life where restaurant eating is the norm.

It'd be interesting to try to measure the various impacts - environmental, social, financial, waistline - of restaurants. I suspect that they're buried down in the iceberg-like mass of urban impacts that're invisible to Glaeser and his ilk.


@Wade - I was going to save this for the Freakonomics most recent post on obesity, but since you mention it......

A researcher in Birmingham found that the rise in obesity may not be much related to the American diet, but rather to a decline in the bacteria in our guts that extract calories from food. Also BPA and lack of sleep may be factors.

22 other species have gained weight over the decades as well.

"they report that in 23 of the 24-eight species, 20,000-plus animals-the percentage of obese individuals has risen since the 1940s (or since the oldest records they found). The odds of that happening by chance are 8 million to 1."



I don't see how cities make people healthier. Asthma and allergies occur with much higher frequency in people who live in cities. The countryside is our natural habitat (we're all descended from hunter-gatherers who didn't live in concrete jungles). Cities are a very recent phenomenon in human history and our DNA is not adapted to it.

Wade Riddick

I am well aware of the literature on autoimmunity since I am myself autoimmune. Urbanization, in fact, is associated with autoimmune disease, allergy and asthma since city folk are less likely to be exposed to the intestinal worms necessary for self-tolerance. The water is, in this respect, overpurified (though it's probably also extra laden with undigested SSRIs, statins and other toxins). In skyscraper canyons, it's also harder to get access to direct UV light for vitamin D synthesis - another factor.

While antibiotics are a problem, I believe the obesity factor is more directly linked to the loss of fiber in the diet and, as you mentioned, circadian problems (for instance, evolution may not have adapted us for consuming fructose all year long; fruits didn't used to be available in winter). The animals gaining weight that you mention are not routinely exposed to antibiotics the way obese humans are so they have no problem with the immune dysregulation this produces. On the other hand, by scavenging in our garbage these animals do eat the same trans fat-rich, sugar-rich, fiber-poor processed foods that we do. This evidence would tend to discount the antibiotic hypothesis in favor of dietary factors.

The sugars and trans fats cause inflammation and boost cholesterol. Healthy fats, like the omega-3's, often aren't stable very long at room temperature and hence are left out of processed foods - along with other antiinflammatory micronutrients like zinc, which is lost when wheat is refined. When you reduce fiber in the diet, you strip out crucial nutrients for gut bacteria (e.g., inulin) used to synthesize butyrate, which in turn acts on GLP-1 and AMPK, two targets of antidiabetic medications. Loss of fiber also accelerates sugar uptake into the blood, further worsening insulin resistance problems.

Our diet is also rich in red meat, which is rich in iron, which in turn impairs gut integrity (via HIF-1alpha, if you're interested). That's not helping in a gut that has already lost butyrate production since butyrate is also necessary for GI integrity.

Finally, high sugar intake can break down vitamin D further, as can the aryl hydrocarbons in air pollution. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with greater risk of obesity and diabetes.

Oh, by the way - fluoride is an antibiotic. That's why it's added to the water - to kill bacteria in our mouths that are feeding on the sugar. Ever wonder if that's wise in the GI tract?



As a person who did grow up in Hong Kong, then NYC. I can see the advantages of living in urban sectors. Hong Kong is a great example due to the amount of high rise cramp into a small area, while being able to keep a huge portion of land remains green. However, the current HK government has been trying to expand and trying to build suburban areas.


@Wade - great point about inulin, and gut bacteria in general. I imagine scientists would have a hard time indeed isolating all of these factors, but the final lesson should be that we cannot oversimplify this issue.

We don't have fluoride in our water supply, fortunately, but our neighboring town does. And the residents applaud it because they are told it keeps their kid's teeth clean. I guess people are now too lazy to teach kids what a toothbrush is. It can also harm the thyroid gland, from what I've read. Big trouble.

Re: dumpster diving species; I'm saying this from memory, but I believe some of the species studied were lab animals whose diets were controlled most of their lives. (ps I also made a mistake on my numbers in my original comment - apologies).

Getting back to cities, I think one could argue that the plug here would allow big corporations to raid all the abandoned rural property and resources - environmental harm caused by city living will take a long time to understand and I for one do not plan to stay in this overpopulated dungeon for any longer than I have to.


Ravi DVR

In India, people from the smaller towns are rapidly moving into cities, driven by rapid economic growth and promise of a better life.

Cities like Bangalore,Delhi and mumbai, for example - are headed for rapid expansion simply because there is no longer any room left in most areas for development.