Boston reinvented itself when its manufacturing industries declined. Should cities that don’t manage this be abandoned?by James Crabtree / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Boston rising: the city reinvented itself when its manufacturing industries declined. Should cities that don’t manage this be abandoned?
Few recent proposals to boost growth have gone down as badly as shutting Sunderland. Yet in 2008, the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange was condemned for a publication that appeared to say just that. The idea of encouraging struggling towns to decline further might seem crazy. But behind it lies the work of the American economist Edward Glaeser, whose controversial thinking holds important clues about how to restart Britain’s faltering economy.
Those trying to cobble together a growth plan for the coalition are unlikely to have Policy Exchange’s report high on their reading list, but its argument is more reasonable than it at first appears. Much public money is spent propping up fading towns and cities, like Sunderland or Liverpool. Much better, the report argued, to push development in places where people and businesses actually want to move to or set up shop, like Cambridge or Leeds.
The conclusion angered both sides: the growth areas feared over-development, while Policy Exchange’s director still has an angry letter from Sunderland council framed on his desk. Glaeser himself won similar opprobrium in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for arguing against spending billions to rebuild New Orleans—a corrupt city with a grim track record of providing for its poorer residents—in favour of giving flood victims a generous grant to relocate elsewhere. The first loyalty of the state, he said, should be to people, not places.
Yet for someone happy to see cities decline, Glaeser’s research is actually something of an academic love letter to the “magic” of urbanism; a paean now condensed into his first book, Triumph of the City, published in March. Tall, dense, chaotic urban centres, he says, are more innovative, vibrant and environmentally friendly than rural or suburban communities. Even slums are a side effect of urban success, and generally far better for their inhabitants than the squalid villages they left behind.
An intimidatingly clever 43-year-old professor, Glaeser won a place at Harvard’s prestigious economics faculty in his mid-twenties. His research has since attracted widespread academic admiration; George Akerlof, an economics Nobel winner, has described him as “a genius.” But rather than developing abstruse theoretical macroeconomic models, Glaeser’s insights stem from his fascination with the humdrum problems of American urban living; its suburbs and exurbs, traffic and sprawl.
Some cities, such as…