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Posted at 9:01 AM ET, 02/17/2011

What cities are

By Ezra Klein


I haven't read Ed Glaeser's "Triumph of the City" yet, but this bit from Jon Gertner's 2006 profile of the Harvard economist makes me want to buy a copy, and quick:

Cities, Glaeser often says, should be thought of as "the absence of physical space between people and firms." This sounds like a poetic definition of urbanism, but it is actually more than that. To Glaeser, the concentration of people and business puts us close enough to share one another's company, culture and ideas. That goes not only for a densely packed place like Manhattan but also for car-based areas like Silicon Valley. As David Cutler points out, almost all of Glaeser's work is about social interaction and space, about seeing cities as places where all kinds of important transactions occur in "the union of everything."

It is not a coincidence that one of Glaeser's great heroes is the writer Jane Jacobs, a keen, street-level observer of cities who celebrated the freedom and vitality of urban neighborhoods; he keeps an autographed copy of her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" on his bookshelf. In economic jargon, city living creates what Glaeser calls "spillovers." Some urban spillovers are not so good, like the pollution and congestion from so many people and cars. But others are the very essence of civilized life -- the decency of community, the spread of ideas, the possibility of sublime inspiration. If there is a common theme to his work, Glaeser says, it is that "people are changed by the people around them." And it is the absence of physical distance, more than anything else, that makes that happen.

Photo credit: Richard Drew.

By Ezra Klein  | February 17, 2011; 9:01 AM ET
Categories:  Urban Policy  
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It's rather ironic that the photo chosen illustrates the deep need for a connection to nature that even city dwellers feel, and is also the reason why many of us can't live in a concentrated urban area.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | February 17, 2011 9:48 AM | Report abuse

"people are changed by the people around them;" and thus the problem with the believe anything, no matter how outrageous about the government in general and obama specifically crowd. they have become so insular their paranoia seems reasonable, with the exception of the media who gleefully reports on all their send me money rants.

if a large portion of the american electorate only and exclusively watches one cable network and reads only one-sided blogs, and both of the these sources are unreliable at best and downright lies at worst, how can one set of facts and one history be discussed in any adult way for the benefit of all?

Posted by: sbvpav | February 17, 2011 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I would really recommend listening to Radiolab's podcast on cities. They address the question of whether or not a city residents are, on average, "greener" then their suburban brethren. They argue that while cities are much more efficient, with efficiency comes greater and greater consumption.

You can download the podcast for free on iTunes

Posted by: Trevin2 | February 17, 2011 11:06 AM | Report abuse

almost all of Glaeser's work is about social interaction
Please, when you do read the book, unlike some other commentators, share with us the hard evidence that supports his conjectures about this conjectured, new, _positive_ externality to congestion. It would be interesting to understand the factual basis, even as major cities impose "congestion taxes".

As we know, there are people in NYC who have lived near each other for years, who don't talk or know each other, precisely because they are forced to be "close".

But, I have an open hive-mind to listening to what he has to say about the benefits of living in a high-rise condo, like a bee in a cell of the matrix.

Posted by: Amphigory | February 17, 2011 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Unlike Reihan, keep this alternative thesis in the back of your mind, as your read it, too: large cities are a function of the factors of production, nothing more.

If your economy does not rely on manufacturing and sweatshops, then you don't "need" large cities.

Therefore, look at the past, at the past structures of the factors of production, is but a loose guide, hardly an imperative for current policy.

Put another way, does Glaeser's thesis also explain the death of cities, either as we have witnessed them or in general?

Posted by: Amphigory | February 17, 2011 11:53 AM | Report abuse

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