Density, Proximity Enable Learning and Raise Productivity

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 13, 2010

Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser explores the purpose of cities in his latest NY Times column, titled, "Why Humanity Loves, and Needs, Cities":

Given the vastness of the globe, why do human beings choose to live so close to one another?

Understanding the appeal of proximity - the economic advantages of agglomeration - helps make sense of the past and future of cities. If people still clustered together primarily to reduce the costs of moving manufactured goods, then cities would become increasingly irrelevant as transportation costs continue to decline.

If cities serve, as I believe, primarily, to connect people and enable them to learn from one another, than an increasingly information-intensive economy will only make urban density more valuable.

He notes a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) on the economics of clustering that concluded both incomes and productivity correlate positively with density.

Teasing out the flow of causality is challenging, but the two seem to reinforce each other: more productive people tend to move to cities where there are more opportunities; while at the same time, cities are more effective at spreading and sharing the knowledge that allows people to increase their productivity.

What this means is that as knowledge become more and more important to our economy, the urban characteristics of density, proximity and contact will become more and more essential to economic growth.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted April 15, 2010 at 20:55:48

I suppose one of the problems with battling the perception that cities are inherently evil (at least to live in, at least to some people) is that there has been a 'country vs city' mindset going on for thousands of years. Higher crime rates, greater pollution, hectic pace of living...

Another one, maybe not readily identifiable to some, is what land ownership means. To identity, to individualism, to independence. In recent discussions with my father, it was noted that freedom of movement, freedom to migrate, freedom to own land is a very recent societal development for many people. It's easy to forget that the idea of owning your own land, of not being tied to someone else's land through your labours really only came into being with the settlement of North America, and even then, really only picked up speed after the first century of colonization. I believe there is an inherent attachment to the idea of land ownership, to a parcel of land, and to many, this subconsciously means 'not in the city'. (I can remember when living in the UK that home ownership REALLY meant something when there was a garden involved. That is, to purchase a flat in an urban setting was far nicer than renting...but to purchase a flat WITH A GARDEN took on an entirely different meaning. In a not-as-expansive-as-Canada Britain, THIS was the manifestation across the pond of what I'm proposing.)

The thing is, politicians and civic leaders don't do themselves any favours when 'promoting' the idea of quality city living...because they're always cocking things up so badly. Seriously; who'd be seduced by the players who are regularly featured in Star and Spec articles...?

(What I'm presenting here should not suggest that I am either anti-city or pro-rural living. I've spent my life in both locales. The only thing that really matters is thriving in the environment that works best for YOU. This cannot be mandated. However, we need a level playing field in order for people to make informed decisions. And even here, on RTH, at times biases take all the 'level' out of the process, creating seesaws, gullies and philosophically unscalable hummocks.)

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