Wednesday, February 09, 2011

False choice

Here is David Brooks, writing about Chicago, politics, cities, Ed Glaeser's new book:
Many of us are drawn to the big power politics of Washington, but city politics is better than national politics because the problems are more tangible and the communication is more face to face.

This is a point Edward Glaeser fleshes out in his terrific new book, “Triumph of the City.” Glaeser points out that far from withering in the age of instant global information flows, cities have only become more important.

That’s because humans communicate best when they are physically brought together. Two University of Michigan researchers brought groups of people together face to face and asked them to play a difficult cooperation game. Then they organized other groups and had them communicate electronically. The face-to-face groups thrived. The electronic groups fractured and struggled.

Cities magnify people’s strengths, Glaeser argues, because ideas spread more easily in dense environments. If you want to compete in a global marketplace it really helps to be near a downtown. Companies that are near the geographic center of their industry are more productive. Year by year, workers in cities see their wages grow faster than workers outside of cities because their skills grow faster. Inventors disproportionately cite ideas from others who live physically close to them.

For years, cities like Detroit built fancy towers and development projects in the hopes that this would revive the downtown core. But cities thrive because they host quality conversations, not because they have new buildings and convention centers.

The cities that have thrived over the past few decades tend to have high median temperatures in January (people like warm winters and other amenities). But even cold cities like Chicago can thrive if they attract college grads. As the number of college graduates in a metropolitan area increases by 10 percent, individuals’ earnings increase by 7.7. This applies even to the high school grads in the city because their productivity rises, too.

When you clump together different sorts of skilled people and force them to rub against one another, they create friction and instability, which leads to tension and creativity, which leads to small business growth. As Glaeser notes, cities that rely on big businesses wither. Those that incubate small ones grow.
All true, of course, but people can also "rub against one another" when not in a downtown. The creative people that Brooks and Glaeser and many others write about also find each other and become inventive in places like Silicon Valley and many other such venues outside the Northeast. Looking into the future, will we be building more 19th century-type downtowns or more Silicon Valley-type places? So it is not simply downtown vs "electronic groups".