What cities are
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.
| February 17, 2011; 9:01 AM ET
Categories: Urban Policy
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