Monday, July 11, 2011

Changing Our Minds About Cities

We live in a time when we can observe a paradigm shift taking place in the way people think about cities. Until now, cities were often thought of in terms of crowding, congestion, crime, garbage, noise, concrete, pollution, and honking cars. The ideal living situation was the suburbs with two-story houses, tree-lined streets, ample parking, private garages, green lawns, picket fences, hedges, and back yard barbecues.

That is changing. Since 2010, for the first time, more people now live in cities than in rural areas and are loving it. Edward Glaeser (right) has a new book called "Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier" (left). He presents data asserting that people in cities are smarter and make more money, live happier and longer lives, and leave less of a carbon footprint on the environment than people outside of cities. That is a completely different story than the one which with we grew up.

Because this is a time of transition in our thinking, these ideas are controversial. Glaeser advocates for vertical growth - we need to build taller buildings and stop putting height restrictions on buildings. We need to replace rather than preserve older buildings that inhibit access to housing in order to keep housing costs down as people flock to the cities. We need to stop subsidizing single family home ownership and highways to allow tall buildings and public transportation to fairly compete. You can see how his message might appeal to developers and enrage preservationists and environmentalists.

Glaeser points out that cities are actually more environmentally friendly than suburbs. People who live in cities use, on average, 40 percent less energy than those who live in the suburbs.

There are at least two major lessons to explore here. One, of course, is the changing role of cities in our future and the other is the opportunity to examine how we respond to disruptive change. There aren't many times when we are aware of a paradigm shift taking place while it is happening. This awareness often only happens afterward. But here we can see a clear paradigm shift from a previous negative view of cities to a new positive view of cities as vibrant and attractive places to live. Here is a clear opportunity to examine how we respond to a new and emerging paradigm while we still hold onto an historic and traditional set of beliefs.

Click on the heading above to see Glaeser talk about the book.

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