A think tank report has been attacked for its scepticism about urban regeneration. But it is rightby Edward Glaeser / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Edward Glaeser is taking part in the Manchester Independent Economic Review this September-November
We urban policy scholars are usually thrilled when someone, anyone, reads our stuff. Like greying veterans of Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury, many urbanists look back nostalgically at the 1960s, not out of any particular fondness for Janis Joplin, but because in those years, scholars of cities, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jane Jacobs and Edward Banfield, made headlines and influenced policy. I am therefore thrilled at the media carnival unleashed by the think tank Policy Exchange’s report “Cities Unlimited.”
The report was controversial because it suggested that the urban giants of the industrial age, like Liverpool, will never reclaim their former glory, and that public policy should recognise that fact. Residents of Liverpool have taken this as a personal attack. Tory leader David Cameron, doubtless aware that there are voters in the northern industrial cities, has distanced himself from the report.
I do not agree with everything in the Policy Exchange report, but it does contain important insights. The economic forces that drive the rise and fall of cities are powerful and hard to reverse. Historically, most attempts at urban renewal have been expensive failures. In the US, I was sceptical about the idea of spending up to $200bn to rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I said that this money could be better used by giving displaced citizens vouchers to pay for housing, food and education.
My work on New Orleans was an (unsuccessful) attempt to make sure that government aid went to suffering people rather than politically connected contractors, but I received plenty of angry responses, similar to those directed at Policy Exchange. This reflects the tendency for people to think of their city like a sports team—go New Orleans, come o…