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John Petro

Leaving Cities Hanging

"Sometimes I really love Ed Glaeser." Most urbanists, city lovers, and urban policy wonks would probably agree with this recent tweet by blogger Ryan Avent, but with a heavy emphasis on the "sometimes." Ed Glaeser, urban economist, Harvard professor, and writer for the conservative City Journal, can be very perplexing to those of us who want to make cities a better and more practical place for Americans to live.

For example, take this op-ed authored by Glaeser in the Boston Globe last Friday, "Why the Anti-urban Bias?" Here, Glaeser chides the federal government for its policies that favor suburban development, often at the expense of central cities.

Over the past 60 years, cities have been hit by a painful policy trifecta: subsidization of highways, subsidization of homeownership, and a school system that creates strong incentives for many parents to leave city borders.

Glaser argues that federal investments should be focused on central cities because cities are the nation's economic engines.

Obama needs to fight for cities, not just as a matter of justice, but because cities, and the creativity that comes when humans connect and learn from each other in dense areas, are the best hope for the country.

Hooray! Good one, Professor Glaeser! High five!

Well, actually, I might have to leave you hanging. Just four days later, writing for the New York Times' Economix blog, Glaeser seemingly has an about-face.

In his post "Betting on Atlanta," Glaeser charts the rise of the Atlanta metropolitan region. Frustratingly, he pegs Atlanta's dominance in the Southeast to unrestricted suburban development, the very same thing that he lambasted the federal government for subsidizing.

Housing supply, not quality of life, has been the crucial helpmate of economic convergence. Atlanta has kept housing prices low, despite a vast increase in its size, because there are few natural or legislative limits to new construction... The dominant political players have long been pro-growth, and as a result, much of suburban Atlanta is a paradise for builders. The resulting low home prices have helped bring millions to the region.

But the result of this suburban builder's paradise is a sprawling, traffic-choked region that, if it continues on the current development pattern, will ultimately become unaffordable due to transportation costs.

And what about "the creativity that comes when humans connect and learn from each other in dense areas"? And what about the region's unsustainable use of resources like gasoline, electricity, and water?

And even more frustratingly, Glaeser argues that the city's "business-friendly politics" will allow Atlanta to quickly recover form the housing crisis and the recession. The only "business-friendly" policy that he talks about are union-busing right-to-work laws that Glaeser contends, "Had a deep impact on manufacturing growth." But with only about eight percent of Atlanta's workforce employed in manufacturing, this hardly seems relevant. What is relevant, however, is the fact that 27 percent of all Atlanta families with children live below the poverty line. Given the fact that "pro-business" usually equates to low service sector wages, Atlanta's pro-business policies will turn out to be a millstone around the region's neck.

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Posted at 1:04 PM, Mar 10, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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