Edward Glaeser on Urban Renewal in Shrinking Cities

Source: Min Li Chan

“The hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies. With all that supply of structure and so little demand, it makes no sense to use public money to build more supply. The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren’t structures; cities are people ...

“Ultimately, the job of urban government isn’t to fund buildings or rail lines that can’t possibly cover their costs, but to care for the city’s citizens. A mayor who can better educate a city’s children so that they can find opportunity on the other side of the globe is succeeding, even if his city is getting smaller.”

— Edward Glaeser in “Triumph of the City,” 2010

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

+ share


  1. As someone who admires cities so deeply and has written many eloquent works in their support, Mr. Glaeser surprises me with this comment. Clearly, a city is not just a backdrop whose success is preferred but which can be viewed as distinct from the factors that allow for its citizens' success. If Detroit were to pool all its available resources into its public schools system with the hope that its citizens would then leave, how would students get to work on a failing bus system, how would they engage in afterschool activities when abandoned houses on every corner and disappearing street lights make coming home after dark a dangerous activity, and how would students understand the importance of their curriculum without meaningful cultural institutions available in their city?

    A more appropriate attack would be on the merit of projects in shrinking cities that wouldn't work anywhere--the infamous urban renewal efforts focused on temporal structures like convention centers that are just as likely to fail in Detroit as in Los Angeles. But to separate urban regeneration altogether, even when well practiced, from the potential success of its citizens seems simplistic to me.

    Even poor regeneration projects shouldn't be written off if they can generate addition revenue needed to support essentials in struggling cities--the problem of course is that many of the most popular means of doing this rarely do. The People Mover, for example? A project that doesn't benefit Detroiters either through its existence or its revenue. But if a Woodward Avenue Light Rail has a real shot of encouraging enough economic development that Detroit will experience a net gain--and this ought to be studied carefully--then it's a worthwhile project. I wouldn't have supported that project 20 years ago, but even as parts of Detroit continue to shrink its center appears to be growing again, and additional tax revenue that can pay for the city's services is desperately needed.

  2. I understand from this quote that Mr. Glaeser actually refers to taking care of citizens in the sense of building the infrastructure they need and the providing basic services they're entitled to. What he seems to be criticizing is the tendency of many city governments to build infrastructure before it is actually needed, without the due demographic research and consultation to the citizens.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.