The Korea Herald


How and why urban centers are good for us: Glaeser

By 이다영

Published : July 1, 2011 - 20:29

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American urban economist visits Seoul for Korean publication of his book

Though convenient and efficient, city life isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Yet for American urban economist Edward Glaeser, cities are “the forges of human capital” and even “what make us more human.”

“From Seoul to San Francisco to St. Petersburg, cities are more vibrant and productive than ever,” Glaeser told reporters during a press conference in Seoul promoting the recently published Korean edition of his book, “Triumph of the City.”
▲The cover of the Korean edition of “Triumph of the City,” written by Edward Glaeser.  (Hainaim Publishing) ▲The cover of the Korean edition of “Triumph of the City,” written by Edward Glaeser.  (Hainaim Publishing)

“While cities can’t work miracles, they can enable the creation of chains of collaborative creativity that are responsible for human kind’s greatest hits, from philosophy to Renaissance painting to Facebook.”

The book, “Triumph of the City,” is a thought-provoking account of how and why living in urban centers is good for us ― in almost every possible way. Eloquent and passionate, Glaeser, who currently teaches economics at Harvard University, tried to deliver his message with much enthusiasm to the Korean audience.

“Cities are often centers of poverty,” he told reporters. “Yet it’s not because cities make people poor but because cities attract poor people. And actually urban poverty should be seen as a sign that cities are succeeding, rather than failing.”
American urban economist Edward Glaeser speaks at a press conference in promotionof the Korean edition of his book in central Seoul, Monday. (Hainaim Publishing) American urban economist Edward Glaeser speaks at a press conference in promotionof the Korean edition of his book in central Seoul, Monday. (Hainaim Publishing)

He also pointed out that while cities are often seen as the total opposite of Mother Nature, it is in fact “the best thing we can do” for the environment. “If we live close with one another in the city, we drive less, we occupy smaller housing units and we use less energy,” he said.

According to the scholar, urbanized countries where more than half the population lives in cities have income levels that are five times higher and infant mortality rates that are less than a third of the countries that are less than half-urbanized. “We recently reached an amazing half way point where more than half of humanity lives in cities and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Though it is his fist time visiting Seoul, Glaeser said Seoul has some “extremely impressive” qualities which makes it “one of the world’s great cities.”

“The strength of Seoul and the strength of Korea is the education and the culture makes the human capital of the area so enormously productive,” he said. “That’s certainly the most important thing.”

He also pointed out that Seoul has managed to balance order and innovation, which isn’t always so easy to accomplish for many cities around the globe. “Think about two cities,” he said, citing examples. “Rio de Janeiro, a city of phenomenal innovation on the streets but little order, much chaos, on basics of urban life. Zurich, on the other hand, is a city of far less innovation but enormous order.

“Seoul to me appears to have a good balance between the two ― in a sense that it is a safe and clean city where things would function reasonably well but it also has a phenomenal array of restaurants serving different types of food.”

Yet Seoul might want to consider being more “international,” said Glaeser. “Seoul is very Korean in a sense that Tokyo is very Japanese, and Paris is very French,” he said. “Whereas New York isn’t very American, London isn’t very English and Hong Kong isn’t very Chinese. … As great as it is to be very Korean, there is something to gain from being more internationally mixed (city) as well.”

Suggesting that successful cities are often made of “smart people, small firms and connections to the outside world,” the scholar said Korea’s tendency of favoring big corporations may not give desirable results in the long run.

“Seoul has smart people in abundance. It’s one of the smartest cities you can imagine,” he said. “But it is also the city that is often known for its manufacturing firms. And many times, those firms have been great in the short run but less good in creating long run entrepreneurship.”

While stressing it is totally one’s personal choice to choose where he or she wants to live, some systemic measures to get people out of the city are unjust, Glaeser said. “I see nothing wrong with people choosing suburbs as long as they pay for the full cost of their commute and infrastructure and as long as the government policy doesn’t push them to do it,” he said.

Despite all the challenges that the world is facing, including natural disasters, poverty, wars and fatal diseases, Glaeser said he cannot help being positive.

“I am optimistic and this book is optimistic because I have enormous confidence in the ability of human kind to do amazing things when we work together,” he said.

This connects to the most important reason why he thinks cities are so great. “Our great talent as species is our ability to learn from people around us. We are born with the ability to soak up information from our parents, our peers, our siblings, our teachers,” he said. “Cities help that happen.”

By Claire Lee (