The most recent surveys, from Monocle magazine, Forbes, Mercer and The Economist, concur: Vancouver, Vienna, Zurich, Geneva, Copenhagen and Munich dominate the top. What, you might ask, no New York? No London? No LA or HK? None of the cities that people seem to actually want to emigrate to, to set up businesses in? To be in? None of the wealthiest, flashiest, fastest or most beautiful cities? Nope. Americans in particular seem to get wound up by the lack of US cities in the top tier. The one that does make it is Pittsburgh. Which winds them up even more.
So I moved away from the most liveable city to be with you guys? Yikes.
Cities are central to economic growth. The Commission on Growth and Development emphasized the strong relationship between urbanization and economic growth as central to understanding why some countries grow and others do not.
Of course, though urbanization tends to be related to economic growth at the national level, urban areas rise and decline in prominence and economic vitality. Some manage to maintain their status by adapting to the changing desires of their customers; others seem wedded to past glories. In Triumph of the City, a just published book, Edward Glaeser explains how cities make “us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.” But some cities, such as Detroit and New Orleans, seem headed in a downward spiral. Why? Can they pull out of this seeming endless abyss? Ever the optimist, Glaeser, in today’s Economix column, illustrates what went wrong in Detroit and what some community leaders are doing to turn Detroit around. His answer, detailed in variety of a papers, is become a “skilled city”; that is, one that educates, attracts, and retains skilled people and offers them numerous opportunities to interact, to be innovative, and to start new enterprises.
The answer depends on whether it manages to preserve its history of entrepreneurship, says Edward Glaeser in his piece Start-Up City in New York’s City Journal. He argues that the strength behind the spectacular economic development New York City has experienced in most of the past two hundred years grew out of entrepreneurship. Industries have come and gone, but the entrepreneurial spirit remained. But will this be the case after the Fall of Finance? Glaeser worries that the financial firms that have come to dominate the City aren’t small and entrepreneurial, but relatively large, possibly undermining that culture of entrepreneurship. Moreover, in several studies and surveys New York state and New York City show up as one of the worst places to do business in the US. One other piece of this picture that I think deserves more attention than Glaeser is granting is the constant influx of immigrants that New York has experienced for a long time. See this paper by Waldinger on immigrants and the famous New York garment industry, or this study by the Kauffman Foundation on immigration and technology entrepreneurs in particular. Of course when great numbers of immigrants became entrepreneurs in NYC, it was in small-scale manufacturing industries such as the garment industry, where no knowledge of English and no higher education were required. My great-uncle has several childhood friends who successfully became such entrepreneurs in the US, and spoke rather limited English to the day they died. It is doubtful that such a mechanism of low-skilled immigrant entrepreneurship could function today. But, as the aforementioned study suggests, technology may be the new garment industry.
What’s the best idea out there to reduce poverty and improve urban life? Well, Paul Romer thinks a big part of the answer is his charter city idea. What’s the charter city idea, you ask? I’m not sure, actually. Professor Finkler has been on me to read about it, and I may finally take him up on it, as the new issue of The Atlantic has a feature piece, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty.”
How’s that for a provocative title?
The article of course profiles Romer, who is by any account a fascinating character.
In the 1990s, Paul Romer revolutionized economics. In the aughts, he became rich as a software entrepreneur. Now he’s trying to help the poorest countries grow rich—by convincing them to establish foreign-run “charter cities” within their borders. Romer’s idea is unconventional, even neo-colonial—the best analogy is Britain’s historic lease of Hong Kong. And against all odds, he just might make it happen.
Does meeting with fellow students and faculty to talk about running a farm in the ghettos of Oakland, dumpster diving to feed pigs, and corralling runaway turkeys in downtown Oakland sound like fun?
During the Spring term Green Roots and the Environmental Studies program will be sponsoring a for credit campus read program. The book is Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter. Her work covers topics including sustainable agriculture, urban communities, and healthful eating. As a special treat, the author will be in the Fox Cities in mid-April, just before Earth Day!