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Harvard Economist Details the Positive Impact of Cities at Annual Brody Lecture

A sizable crowd filled the seats in Weissberg Commons on the evening of May 2 to hear Harvard Economics Professor Dr. Edward Glaeser discuss the importance of cities at the annual Alexander Brody Memorial Lecture.

Citing economic and historical data, Prof. Edward Glaeser makes the case for the expansion of cities.

Delivering a fact-filled and fast-paced address accompanied by detailed slides of graphs and pictures, Glaeser’s lecture, titled “Triumph of the City: Why Cities Are Our Best Hope for the Future,” offered selections of his research as found in his recently published and similarly titled book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, ­Greener, Healthier, and Happier (2011, The Penguin Press).

Using a host of economic data along with historical and personal anecdotes, Glaeser delved deeply into an explanation of how cities help move humanity forward in beneficial ways.

He began by showcasing how at the turn of the 21st century, more than half of humanity lived in cities. Additionally, countries that have large cities are far more prosperous. Commenting on this, he mentioned how he sees no reason to be saddened by the demise of diminishing country life. “Some people will mourn a bucolic lost world,” he said. “But they have never been to rural India with its unending cycles of poverty and disease.”

The reason for success following the growth of cities might at first seem puzzling since urban centers originally sprung up to serve a very specific need of easing transportation concerns. This is why cities like New York and Boston grew around rivers and ocean harbors, because transporting goods by water proved significantly easier than doing so over land, he explained.

“Nowadays, cities are a paradox because the Internet has made proximity obsolete,” said Glaeser. “So why don’t we all just live in rural Montana and leave the congestion of cities behind?”

To answer this question, he offered the examples of Detroit and Seattle in the 1970s. Both northern cities suffered massive job losses in that decade because of factories moving to warmer climates or out of the country, and both suffered large population declines. Yet Seattle has bounced back while Detroit still suffers. The reason for this is because Seattle had a more educated workforce with many more bachelor degrees while Detroit’s workforce was less so. So Seattle fostered an entrepreneurial atmosphere from which came Starbucks, Microsoft and Costco, reviving the city, according to Glaeser.

To further illustrate this example, he discussed how artistic innovation was nourished in the area around Florence during the Renaissance and how the development of the first skyscrapers in Chicago in the late 19th century was a truly collaborative effort.

Through his study, Glaeser has concluded that for cities to truly flourish, “human capital is more important than physical capital”—meaning creating an educated and inquisitive population is more important to the success of a city than tall buildings and cutting-edge transportation infrastructure.

He closed by describing how the future of the planet depends on the proper growth of cities across the world, saying if China and India—with their increased urbanization—do not build cities vertically with proper public transportation, then the resulting rise in gas prices and carbon emissions could be calamitous for the planet. In essence, the future of our world depends on the proper growth of cities.

“The lecture was very informative,” said Yoni Bardash, an economics major at Yeshiva College. “It gave a very detailed description of the role of the city in relationship to the development of the country and the world economy.”

The Alexander Brody Memorial Lecture is held in memory of YU’s first economics professor, who was well-respected for his scholarship in both secular and biblical studies.