Urban areas have traditionally been engines of prosperity and social mobility.
But the technologies driving changes in urban structure and the ways in which government responds to these changes has evolved over time. Edward L. Glaeser prepared the Presidential Address for the Eastern Economic Association on "Urbanization and Its Discontents" (Eastern Economic Journal, April 2020, 46:191–21). It's also available as NBER Working Paper # 26839. (Both links require a subscription, which most academic libraries will have.)
Glaeser offers a brief reminder of past urban patterns:
Urban fortunes are shaped by technological change. During some periods, technological shifts are largely centripetal, meaning that they pull people toward cities. During other eras, technological trends are centrifugal, meaning that they push people away from dense urban cores.
The nineteenth century was predominantly a centripetal century, marked by series of innovations, including steam engines, streetcars and skyscrapers, that abetted urban growth. The first 60 years of the twentieth century was largely a centrifugal era, largely because technological change reduced the tyranny of distance. Cheaper shipping costs, from highways, cheaper railroads and containerization,
allowed far-flung people to participate more fully in the global economy (Glaeser and Kolhase 2004). Radio and television enabled the rural population to enjoy previously entertainment.
These lower costs reduced the need to locate production near the urban ports and railroads that once anchored all of America’s cities. The mass-produced automobile enabled low density mobility and the rise of car-oriented suburbs (Baum-Snow 2007). These centrifugal technologies first slowed the rise of American cities and then enabled a mass exodus from urban America. The air conditioner made America’s warmer places far more appealing than they had been before World War II, and a move to sun accompanied the move to sprawl. Urban social problems, especially weak schools and crime, were exacerbated by suburbanization and then further encouraged the move to the suburbs and to lower density Sunbelt cities.
However, the last four decades or so have seen a resurgence of many urban areas, based in large part on a rise in the economic importance of proximity. Glaeser explains:
The industrial jobs that had once been the backbone of urban economies did not return. Instead, human capital-intensive business services became the new export industries for urban areas. Financial services expanded enormously in urban America from 1980 to 2007. At its height in 2007, finance and insurance generated over forty percent of the total payroll on the island of Manhattan. The urban edge in transferring knowledge is particularly valuable in finance, because a bit of extra information can make millions for a trader in minutes.
Face-to-face contact is often part of the delivery mechanism for urban services. Clients like to meet their accountants, bankers, lawyers and management consultants in person. Face-to-face contact is even more imperative for barbers and manicurists. Urban interactions enable young workers to become more skilled. ...
Why didn’t improvements in electronic communication make face-to-face contact obsolete? While e-mail is possible almost everywhere, face-to-face interactions generate a richer information flow that includes body language, intonation and facial expression. As the world became more complex, the value of intense communication also increases. Physical immersion in an informationally intense environment, such as trading floor or an academic seminar, generates a rush of information that is hard to duplicate online. Moreover, dense environments facilitate random personal interactions that can create serendipitous flows of knowledge and collaborative creativity. The knowledge-intensive nature of the urban resurgence helps to explain why educated cities have done much better than uneducated cities. ..
While highly educated workers moved into professional and business services, successful cities also generated employment for less skilled workers in other parts of the service economy. Many workers switched from manufacturing to wholesale and retail trade during the 1990s. Hospitality and food services also expanded dramatically after 1980. Employment in these service industries depends on the demand generated by the success of more export-oriented services, like finance. In areas that lack viable export industries, the dominant sector is typically healthcare and social assistance, where demand is maintained by Federal transfers.
Cities also came back as places of consumption as well as places of production (Glaeser et al. 2001), which partially reflects the rise in returns to skill. As Americans became better educated and as educated people came to earn more, they spent more on higher-end urban pleasures, such as fine dining, art galleries and expensive retail. Young people increasingly lived in cities, even as they worked in suburbs. Prices rose dramatically in urban cores and remained flat in the suburbs.
This description also helps to what is being lost by the pandemic-induced recession. Yes, some workers can do many basic parts of their jobs from home, and students can do some work with online courses. But the "richer information flow" of "face-to-face interactions" in both production and consumption is being lost for a time, and while the network of such interactions can certainly be rebuilt, it doesn't flip on and off like a light switch.
The resurgence of many cities has also brought with it a new group of problems, as Glaeser details.
One change is that cities do not seem to be functioning as ladders of opportunity. It may be that the extent of social and ethnic segregation--in terms of who you have significant interactions with on a typical day--can be higher in urban areas. Schools in urban core areas have often not recovered from their declines back in the 1970s. Glaeser writes: "It is a great paradox that cities appear to be forges of human capital for adults, but places where children seem to learn less productive knowledge."
Cities are also places of growing income inequality. Skilled workers in a large city or a downtown typically earn more than workers of similar skill outside those locations, but unskilled workers often do not have a similar pay boost from working in a city or downtown area.
Part of the issue may be government regulation of lower-skilled entrepreneurs. As Glaeser trenchantly notes:
Somewhat oddly, much of America appears to regulate low human capital entrepreneurship much more tightly than it regulates high human capital entrepreneurs. When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in his Harvard College dormitory, he faced few regulatory hurdles. If he had been trying to start a bodega that sold milk products three miles away, he would have needed more than ten permits. One question is whether the inequality that persists in America’s system is exacerbated by the legal and regulatory system.
And of course, the extremely high cost of housing in a number of economically strong urban areas makes it very hard for the middle-class, let alone those with lower skill levels, to pay the rent. Glaeser says:
For much of the post-war period, many urbanites could find housing that cost substantially less than construction costs even in successful cities (Glaeser and Gyourko 2005a). Housing depreciates, like cars and clothing, and so poorer urbanites could find older apartments in less fashionable neighborhoods that cost less. Filtering models predict that neighborhoods go through transitions, and that the rich would live in a newer, nicer areas but the poor occupy older, more dilapidated areas. The rich vacate areas as they depreciate and then move to a new area that had been built with higher-quality housing. Apparently, this model appears to have broken down after 1970, probably because of regulation and increased neighborhood opposition to redevelopment.
There is a persistent theme in American culture of moving to the big city, finding a low-level job, and working your way up. But US cities have become places where it's more costly to move in because the rent looks unthinkably high, and harder to find that low-skilled job, and then harder to move up unless you develop a high skill level. Add traffic congestion, and concerns about poor schools and crime, and moving to the big city doesn't look so attractive.
Glaeser argues that today's urban problems often reflect poor performance by local governments, who when it comes to housing markets, labor issues, schools, and other areas, have in recent decades often focused on blocking change or supporting insider groups. He writes:
Why has urban success been accompanied by so much discontent? The most natural explanation is that the success of private enterprise in cities has not been accompanied by sufficient development of public capacity. The public sector has often focused on limiting urban change, rather than working to improve the urban experience. In many cases, this focus reflects the political priorities of empowered insiders. ... There are many good things about citizen empowerment, but the most empowered citizens tend to be longer-term residents with more resources. Those citizens do not internalize the interests of people who live elsewhere and would want to come to the city. Consequently, their political actions are more likely to exclude than to embrace.
A version of this article first appeared here.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.