5 questions for Ed Glaeser on the survival of cities

By James Pethokoukis and Ed Glaeser

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s major cities faced rising housing prices, congestion, and inequality. But since the outbreak of coronavirus, cities have been hit hard with an economic downturn and rise in violent crime – on top of the spread of a viral disease. Will cities survive? And how can we prepare for the next pandemic? Edward Glaeser appeared on a recent podcast episode to discuss these questions and more.

Ed is the Chairman of the Department of Economics at Harvard University and co-author with David Cutler of Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation.

Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. You can read our full discussion here. You can also subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, or download the podcast on Ricochet.

Pethokoukis: Could you walk us through the history of what happens to urban areas that are hit by plagues, going back to ancient Athens?

Glaeser: Athens is a place of unbelievable creativity where dense urban streets bring together people of unbelievable talent. There are these chains of collaborative creativity that can happen in cities, and I can’t think of any place that does that better than fifth century Athens.

Starting in 431BC, the Peloponnesian war begins. Pericles, the canny leader of Athens’ democracy, has a plan. He’s going to summon all the Athenians behind the city walls, which he’s going to trust to protect the city from the Spartan hoplites. The walls hold up well against the hoplites, but the walls can’t keep out the disease that comes in through the port of Piraeus, and the disease wreaks absolute havoc, perhaps killing a quarter of Athens’ population.

And this highlights two great weaknesses that cities have when it comes to disease, which is still true in 2020. Cities are the nodes on the global lattice of trade and travel. They’re always the ports of entry for goods, for people, for ideas, and for diseases. Secondly, diseases spread more quickly when people are close to one another.

The economy has become more dependent on face to face interactions. How has that played into the economic effects of this pandemic?

It’s reminds us of just how economically vulnerable we are to this kind of pandemic. If I take you back to the Black Deaths, 1350 in Europe, the human catastrophe was absolutely devastating. But the survivors ended up being richer because in an agricultural economy having a higher ratio of land relative to people means wages go up. The influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 was a short, sharp shock to the economy, but it wasn’t all that devastating. It didn’t last in part because the demand for the industrial products that were the heart of this economy wouldn’t disappear just because there was a plague.

Women wear goggles as they work in the welding department of Lincoln Motor Co., Detroit, Michigan, circa 1914-1918. REUTERS/Library of Congress/Handout via Reuters

hundred years later, however, those industrial jobs have disappeared and been
replaced by urban service sector jobs. And what happened was for millions and
millions of American workers, the ability to provide service with a smile
provided an employment safe haven when the factory jobs disappeared. And yet
that smile turns into a source of peril rather than pleasure in a time of
pandemic. And those jobs can disappear in a heartbeat, which is exactly what we

How do we make our cities and our society more resilient
to the next pandemic?

I think this is something that the city governments can’t do. In order to
pandemic-proof our world, we really need national and international action. And
the idea that my co-author David Cutler, who is a health economist, and I
pushed forward is something that we call “NATO for health,” with the idea that
this really requires global cooperation and global investments in things like
preemptive vaccines, global surveillance.

you’ve got to worry that the low level of sanitary infrastructure in many
developing world cities is making possible the rise of antibiotic-resistant
superbugs. Now, one way to deal with that is to invest more in pipes, to invest
more in sewers, to invest more in aqueducts. And the West can fund some of
that. It wouldn’t be a huge amount of spending. But there should be a quid pro
quo, which is that if they’re going to be part of this, then they need to agree
to surveillance. They need to make sure that new diseases that are popping up
are being dealt with. And on top of that, they have to agree to more sanitary rules,
separation between humans and animals for example, wild animals in particular.

Setting aside pandemics, urban areas are facing a host of challenges like rising housing costs. How should cities grapple with that?

think there is an easy policy fix for the high cost of housing and the
gentrification battles, which is just to allow more housing to be built, right?
If you go back to the 1960s, if you owned a plot of land, you were pretty much
allowed to put up anything reasonable on it. 50 years later, in lots of parts
of coastal America pretty much all your neighbors have veto rights over
anything you might want to do with that property.

New York stayed affordable in the 1920s because it built 100,000 units a year, because it was a city that still catered to outsiders. Now we have cities that cater only to insiders, which may mean rich homeowners. But this change in thinking, which is that we’re going to protect people from any harm, also means that if you’re in a neighborhood, you’re losing out because your rents are going up. And we really need to remember that cities are at their best when they are providing opportunity for outsiders, for people who are coming there without anything. Real affordability means that anyone can come to the city and rent an apartment at a reasonable price.

What do current trends suggest about the future of cities?

Well, there are two things that are going on right now that are important in cities, one of which is the increased mobility made possible by Zoom. That’s not going to replace the office, but perhaps for some of the most successful firms, it makes it easier to imagine moving away. On top of that, you have the threat of illness, and of course, the fact that some cities seem like they’re on the verge of being taken over by progressive leadership who think that policing is a thing of the past and totally unnecessary, who think that we should again be taxing the rich in order to deal with the problems of the poor. Now, I believe very strongly that cities can do a better job with their policing. I believe very strongly that cities can do a better job of making sure that they are places of opportunity and upward mobility. But if they decide that they’re going to ignore the ability of the talented to exit, none of that’s going to happen.

James Pethokoukis is the Dewitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes and edits the AEIdeas blog and hosts a weekly podcast, “Political Economy with James Pethokoukis.” Ed Glaeser is the Chairman of the Department of Economics at Harvard University.

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