What’s the future for cities in the postpandemic world?

In this episode of the McKinsey Global Institute’s Forward Thinking podcast, co-host Janet Bush talks with Ed Glaeser. Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics and the chairman of the Department of Economics at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1992. His latest book, coauthored with health economist David Cutler, is Survival of the City: The Future of Urban Life in an Age of Isolation, written to make sense of what might be the impact of the pandemic on cities.

In this podcast, he covers topics including the following:

  • Has the pandemic changed cities temporarily or permanently?
  • What does the hybrid building look like?
  • Do developing world cities teach us something new?
  • How can homelessness be tackled?

Janet Bush (co-host): When you think about measuring inequality, what metrics come to mind?

Michael Chui (co-host): The obvious ones would be income within countries and relative per capita GDP among countries. Then there are metrics about different educational provision and attainment, which may signal inequality both of opportunity and outcomes. And, of course, there is the Gini coefficient. I am sure that there are many more.

Janet Bush: Yes, those are the ones that would initially come to my mind. But actually our guest today has been measuring the bumpiness of roads as a measure of what he calls infrastructure inequality. In the United States, he has found that African Americans ride on bumpier roads than white Americans.

Michael Chui: Well, I have certainly not come across an analysis like that before. Can’t wait to hear what else our guest has to say.

Janet Bush: Welcome to the podcast, Ed.

Edward Glaeser: It’s wonderful to be here, Janet.

Janet Bush: I think you would describe yourself as an economist who specializes in cities.

Edward Glaeser: For sure.

Janet Bush: What route took you to that specialism?

Edward Glaeser: I can give you three distinct answers to that question. All are true in their various ways.

The first route is that I grew up in New York City during the 1970s. It was a time in which the city had lost its way, in which it felt as if it was headed for the trash heap of history. And then it staged something of a comeback in the 1980s. And I found that absolutely fascinating. I found the New York around me to be an amazing place, full of opportunity, and full of peril. And I naturally wanted to understand that better.

Then there is the familial explanation, which is my father was an architectural historian, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. My mom ran capital markets for Mobil Oil. And so naturally, I became an economist who studied cities.

The third explanation, which probably has the largest weight on it, is that in the 1980s at the University of Chicago, Paul Romer and Bob Lucas were pushing forward the “new growth theory.” And the new growth theory, in a particularly dazzling piece of brilliance of Paul Romer’s, was based on the idea that there were spillovers across people, that meant that we lived in an increasing returns-to-scale economy that could continue to grow. But those increasing returns were only compatible with our normal markets if they were external to the firm, if they were spillovers.

That led Lucas, when he thought about these things, to think about what Jane Jacobs wrote about in the 1960s, in The Economy of Cities, when she talked about how we learn from people around us. Back to what Alfred Marshall, the great English economist, was talking about in the 19th century, when he wrote that in dense clusters, the mysteries of the trade become no mystery, but are, as it were, in the air. And this led to a rekindling of interest in cities.

And from there, I became an urban economist. And, you know, it’s been a wonderful 35-year existence of studying humanity’s amazing metropolitan areas.

Janet Bush: Cities work because of scale benefits, agglomeration, and network effects. Are those the key things?

Edward Glaeser: All of those things we would call different versions of agglomeration economies. Ultimately, at their root, agglomeration economies are about the elimination of transportation costs for goods, for people, for ideas. Network effects are just the benefits that we get to be linked to other people. And so that’s, again, elimination of transportation cost. And so they’re part of agglomeration economies.

Similarly, the scale economies, whether or not it’s the scale of my own operation, or in cities, often [have] the advantage of being able to take care of common infrastructure, like a common port, a common airport—that’s also an example of an agglomeration economy.

Of course, agglomeration economies also exist because we learn from people around us. And that’s very much that Alfred Marshall view. Or because labor markets function better, or because product markets function better. All of these things have at different points in time played smaller or larger roles in making cities dynamic economically.

Janet Bush: But there’s something magical about people being together, isn’t there? You, I believe, spent some time in Mumbai, a city that I know. And you described it as a magical experience. What did you love about it?

Edward Glaeser: Oh, I think I just loved the extent to which people were trying to find new things. People were coming from areas of enormous poverty. And they weren’t living in some luxurious urban existence, but there was a future. There was a promise there.

The sense of collaboration was amazing. The sense of creativity was amazing. I thought it was a fabulous experience. And it’s interesting how poverty and hope are not necessarily opposites. Mumbai felt to me—say, for example, in the area of Dharavi, which I spent some time walking around—like that was a place in which poverty was just infused with hope. And it just felt very different from many of, let’s say, America’s low-income areas, where it felt as if hope had departed.

Janet Bush: Do you notice differences between developing-world cities, which clearly are at the forefront of urbanization these days? Are they developing in a different way?

Edward Glaeser: Well, there are particular things that were true of much of Western economic development, which I think were sort of freakish in us, not so much that it’s unusual that it’s not going on in them.

For example, Western urbanization was very linked to industrialization. That was a very unique moment in history that that happened to occur, because in fact, heavy industry is actually a very bad match to urban density. It doesn’t require urban density. It creates bad things for people who live around you. It’s not a natural fit at all. It was sort of a weird 150-year period where they coincided. But it’s not at all natural.

Of course, in many developing-world cities, industry isn’t particularly evident today. Other things are often the same. I would say the Anglo-American experience is particularly intense in rule of law around property. There is an Anglo-American tradition of spending 1,000 years sorting out exactly the way that property title works in different areas.

That title had been largely worked out for rural settings by the time we started to do mass urbanization. That made the process of building up London, building up New York, on the property side, very orderly. Now, I don’t want to overstate. It’s not that our rule of law was so extraordinary. America was corrupt in the 19th century on a level that no developing-world city today has anything on, when it comes to bribing and corrupting city governments.

Nor do I want to suggest that they were particularly safe, in terms of personal safety. I mean, murder rates in 19th-century New York were also very high. And Jack the Ripper haunted the streets of London. Surely far more safety would be found in Mumbai today than would be found in New York in the 19th century.

But this particular era of land law was something that Western cities were very good at. And that made it easy to assemble large-scale properties that you would then develop for rental units. And that was one aspect that really is different.

It’s a big issue in terms of developing-world cities today, the difficulty of regulating housing markets, and regulating land, and assembling land, and so forth. And there’s also particularly, again, while we’re on Mumbai, the sort of strangeness of not necessarily having great title to everything, having lots of informal areas where we have no idea what’s going on, while as soon as anything becomes formal, we’re going to regulate the heck out of it.

And we’re going to have very limited floor area ratios, whereas the 19th-century US or London rules were very different. We have very well-established land law. But we don’t have a lot of regulations preventing you from building on it.

Janet Bush: That’s a very interesting contrast. Looking at China, China’s growth miracle owes a lot to high investment in cities and unlocking the value of land to finance those investments. Could other emerging economies learn from that?

Edward Glaeser: Well, certainly urbanization has been a big part of China, Korea, Japan. All of these areas, urbanization has played a role in it. I would think looking at Korea in the [19]60s and ʼ70s might seem like a more natural place for many of the developing-world places to look, rather than China per se.

In general, East Asia, of course, has been an amazing success story both in terms of GDP growth and in terms of management of cities. Looking at Seoul is usually a pretty sensible thing to do. And certainly looking at Singapore is a sensible thing to do.

Janet Bush: Let’s talk about the pandemic. Has the pandemic had a lasting effect on cities? And if so, what is it? What’s changed? Or it may be temporary.

Edward Glaeser: So, certainly, are we still living in a hangover from the pandemic? For sure. The most obvious thing that’s changed is we have not sorted out our commercial real estate markets at all. We have, still, vastly reduced levels of people going back into the office in various places. That’s the most difficult thing.

Whether or not that’s in Wall Street or Canary Wharf, these very large, concentrated office markets are particularly vulnerable, because by their very definition, they involve a heck of a commute, because they’re not well integrated with residential housing. And consequently, people don’t want to necessarily do that. And so if you give them a chance to work from home, they’re going to want to take that option.

That’s a challenge. As an economist, I tend to think the way these things will work is that prices will fall. Occupancy will go back up. The product gets used. Maybe it doesn’t get used quite as intensively as it did before, but it does get used. I don’t know that that’s a permanent challenge. I think it does create a good five to ten years of pain in a lot of prime office markets, though. That does translate into lower commercial tax revenues.

The view that this makes an urban doom loop automatic is, I think, a mistake, in part because property tax rates are flexible. And if the base value of commercial property goes down—people are willing to pay to fight crime. It’s not like you can’t make the case to voters, as New York’s leaders did in the 1980s and 1990s, that you need to raise property tax rates in order to finance public safety. I think that’s a challenge. I don’t know if there’s anything else which is as obvious as that.

I do continue to think that there is a conflict between the very footloose nature of talent in an age of Zoom, where it’s not so much that I’m concerned about we’re all just going to dial it in from our basements.

It’s more that companies can relocate to Florida, or relocate to Texas, or—I don’t know what exactly the equivalent is in the UK option. The UK is funny, because London is just such a huge magnet for everything that it becomes much harder to—I mean, you also don’t have the same level of differences in either tax rates or climate across the UK.

Whereas in the US context, moving from Chicago to Florida was a very real thing, and a lot of firms did so. And that’s both a tax rate, and a safety issue, and a climate issue. And then that collides against the pre-COVID progressive sense that cities were failing along a number of key dimensions, in terms of caring for their least fortunate members.

That’s the lack of upward mobility, particularly in American big cities. That’s the high level of housing unaffordability. That’s the fact that America locks up a lot of young men. And it treats a lot of other people fairly brutally in the process of policing.

All of these are things which ran up against—we wanted to do more. We understandably wanted to do more. We should do more. But if you try to solve your social problems by either taxing the rich or letting crime get out of control, the rich will leave. And you’re not able to handle things.

That’s exactly what we saw in the 1970s, where the increased mobility of talent, the increased mobility of companies—because of container ships, and highways, and suburbanization—ran up against big-city mayors like John Lindsay of New York, or [Jerome] Cavanagh in Detroit, who wanted to solve real social problems. But the rich just left.

And I was worried about this playing out, and I think we’re all going to see if it does play out going forward.

Janet Bush: MGI wrote a report recently called Empty spaces, hybrid places. And it looked at this office attendance being stable at about 30 percent below prepandemic levels. But there is a possibility that there will be a hybrid model that persists. So what would a hybrid building of the future look like?

Edward Glaeser: The sensible hybrid model might be that firms somehow or other share space. The problem with the hybrid model reducing demand for real estate is typically when companies say, “You can take one to two days off,” they actually want people in the office at the same time. So unless they can figure out some way to share across companies, that doesn’t lead to much of a reduction in footprint.

And as we know, and I’m sure McKinsey itself, I suspect, in its prepandemic era, most management consulting firms managed to have huge numbers of their personnel out of the office many days a week. And the offices just stayed empty. We weren’t particularly good at optimizing around space use before the pandemic, so I doubt we’re going to get very good at optimizing around it postpandemic.

Janet Bush: Right. Do you think that there’s a danger that the agglomeration benefits of cities would be lost, because people aren’t coming in to work in their offices?

Edward Glaeser: It’s interesting. I think it is certainly true that the agglomeration benefits are a function of how many people are there. And if fewer people show up there, the agglomeration benefits decrease.

The thing that I feel safest about in terms of the future of wealthy world cities is the city as playground, the city as place of pleasure, the city as consumer city. That feels like it has no danger whatsoever facing it. I mean, it was 250 years ago or so when Dr. Samuel Johnson said that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, because there’s all in London that life can afford.” You know, he was right then. And he’s still right.

That’s an enduring thing. I don’t think there’s any danger of any of this in the developing world. I don’t think the Zoom thing is particularly relevant for most of the developing world. If anything, it’s just pure benefit, because the higher-end people can Zoom with people in Europe, people in the US. That’s a pure asset.

But even in the wealthy world, Zoom is a very elite thing. In May 2020, the high point of working remotely because of COVID, 68.9 percent of Americans with advanced degrees were working remotely. Five percent of high school dropouts were working remotely. It just wasn’t a thing for less educated Americans. And so the more that the future is Zoom oriented, it’s likely to be a force that only increases inequity.

One of the things to be slightly careful about with surveys is, I tend to think online surveys tend to, in some cases radically, overstate the level of remote work, because you get people who are comfortable being online. The current population survey data, which is done by the US government, that seems to suggest stability at about 10 percent of people fully remote. And, if anything, slightly increasing numbers, looking like it’s going from 8 percent to 12 percent of people doing remote part time. So maybe between the two groups, maybe a quarter of the US population with some degree of regularity.

Janet Bush: There’s a few ideas knocking around about managing cities. And one of them is the 15-minute city. Do you have any views on that?

Edward Glaeser: I do, in fact, have views on the 15-minute city. And I certainly applaud the idea that we’re going to have land-use regulations that are such that it’s easy to put residences, and workplaces, and cafés, and stores all in the same neighborhood. There are wonderful things about the 15-minute city, a vision of neighborhoods being full of lots of different amenities. It’s great. The ability for us to have access to lots of things without driving a car, that’s fantastic.

But the view that we should basically see ourselves as being citizens of a sort of small neighborhood, rather than citizens of an entire metropolis, that feels deeply dangerous to me, especially in America, with its history of profound racial and income segregation.

Together with Carlo Ratti and a series of other coauthors, we put together a paper looking at, essentially, mobility using cellphones and the 15-minute city. And what we find in the US is actually the more that rich people, elites, live within their 15-minute area, they actually integrate more. So in an elite setting, it’s not a terrible thing.

If you’re coming from a poorer area, if you’re an African American, the 15-minute-city experience is one that involves just much more experience segregation for them. And so if you want a city that’s integrated, you want to eschew the 15-minute city. You want to embrace a metropolis-wide vision of the city, not one that focuses on small little neighborhoods.

Janet Bush: I was very surprised when I saw a headline in The Economist which was talking about the death spiral of the city, because The Economist is usually very measured and British in the way that it speaks about these things. But it was a podcast that you took part in. You don’t see a death spiral for the city, do you?

Edward Glaeser: No. I don’t. There are particular American cities that were challenged prepandemic and will be challenged postpandemic. The American Rust Belt cities that were relatively low property values, significantly below construction costs—a significant decline in office rents could just mean very large levels of vacancies in those places that will persist.

One way to think about it is if you think that this—the Zoom, the remote work, the hybrid, whatever it is—will lead to a substantial reduction in commercial rents, in New York, San Francisco, and London, they’re still going to be occupied because those rents are going to be high enough to cover the cost. In Buffalo, in Cleveland, they might not be. And so, in those areas, death spirals are more worrisome.

In general, death spirals are less worrisome in the UK, because the central government doesn’t let it happen. In a highly federalized structure like the US, the federal government does not see its job as saving, for example, Cleveland. That’s not its job. The UK government kind of does see its job as saving Liverpool. It’s just a different thing. And also, the differences in the quality of government aren’t as big, the differences in climate aren’t as big.

There are a lot of things which make it particularly hard to bring back declining US cities that are less true in the UK context.

Janet Bush: You’ve been described as “free market by instinct.” But is there a place for policy in cities, to make them work well?

Edward Glaeser: For sure. It is certainly true that I received my PhD at the University of Chicago. And, yes, I have a certain amount of skepticism for many things that government does. But just as there’s no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole, supposedly—once the shells start raining on you, you start praying—there’s no such thing as a true libertarian in a city. Cities need government.

There are all these spillovers, or externalities. Some of them are positive, the magical sharing of ideas, but many of them are negative, right, traffic congestion, crime, contagious disease. All of these things require an effective public sector to manage. The idea that we don’t have a really profound need for government policy to make our cities livable, to make them humane, to make them places of upward mobility—all of those things have a profound need for policy.

Now, I will say, in terms of managing across space, my primary view tends to favor spatial neutrality on the part of national government. I don’t actually think that strong regional policies to aid place A over place B are usually warranted, also because central governments often screw it up. But when we’re thinking about how to make London a place of more upward mobility, to make it more functional in terms of mobility, all of those things have a strong need for an effective public sector.

Janet Bush: So place-based policies are not for you?

Edward Glaeser: Well, I want to distinguish between place-based policies that are fundamentally redistributing from place A to place B, versus perhaps having national policies that are place sensitive.

For example, you can think about two policies towards affordable housing, one of which is: give poor people housing vouchers. Which is, the government just gives them cash. And secondly: use the national government to encourage housing supply in a particular location.

America has some places, like Texas, where the private sector does a really good job of building like crazy. Extra help subsidizing supply makes very little sense there. Similarly, it makes very little sense in cities like Detroit, which have far more housing than they know what to do with. In these places, it makes sense to do more with vouchers.

In other cities, the quantity of housing can be very constrained by regulation. And in those cases, giving people vouchers will just cause the prices to go up, because you have a fixed stock of housing. And so it makes more sense to push on the supply side.

I’m not saying we should redistribute from, let’s say, a constrained place like Boston, Massachusetts, to Texas, or from Texas to Boston, Massachusetts. But you might want different policies in those different areas.

Similarly, in the case of—let’s say you have a disability policy that both features a base payment and then essentially taxes employment. They say, “You can’t earn if you’re receiving disability.” Although typically disabled people are able to earn. You could imagine that in places where long-term joblessness is just a really big problem, you might want to make the base payment lower but do less to tax employment for those areas. So you do less to encourage joblessness in those areas.

In those senses, I think you could have place-sensitive policies, even if you don’t view your job as “I’m going to encourage people to move to Wyoming,” for whatever reason.

Janet Bush: You’ve gone through an interesting mix of policies. But overall, what’s the key to tackling urban homelessness?

Edward Glaeser: I would differentiate homelessness, which is, of course, deeply related to issues of mental health as well as housing supply, from the more general housing supply problem. Housing supply more generally, I think, is mostly about an issue of getting rid of barriers to building and figuring out if there are other things that the public sector is doing that are causing construction costs to be higher than they should be.

Those are, fundamentally, what we can do in this area. In terms of homelessness, if the people are basically functional and they just can’t afford housing, maybe a housing voucher does it in that case. But for many people, they’re not functional. There’s a whole set of theories around “fix housing first,” which is a plausible hypothesis: fixing housing first.

I was talking to the mayor of San Jose, California, about ten days ago, and their issue of providing housing for the homeless. It was costing them $1.2 million a housing unit to provide this. This is a level of investment that very few cities could possibly contemplate doing. And in his case, the big game, which sounded sensible to me, was moving towards very-low-cost modular housing. Prefabricated things, and just figuring out how to create cheap and maybe even mobile homes that can actually be—if you’re going to fix housing first, rather than $1.2 million, you can do it for tens of thousands, rather than less.

Obviously, it’s also worthwhile thinking about mental-health-related interventions or other things that are homelessness related. But homelessness is just a very thorny problem to tackle.

Janet Bush: In his book Progress and Poverty, Henry George advocated for an end to private land ownership. He called it an evil. What do you think of that?

Edward Glaeser: An end to private land ownership is a bit strong. I think you want something—the George view that you want a land tax has a lot to recommend it. George favored some fraction of the city to be paid for by a land tax, in part because, unlike with an income tax, the land can’t run away. Unlike a property tax, which is shaped against the value of the physical structure, a land tax doesn’t deter you from building structures in that area.

There’s a lot to like about a land tax. I think it’s hard, if property owners or businesses don’t have any stake in the value of their land, because they take a lot of actions which increase the value of your land. And you want them to take those actions, right?

American cities were actually—many of them were built by real estate developers. This basic structure of creating Chicago out of whole cloth, or creating St. Louis out of whole cloth, or creating, above all, Los Angeles out of whole cloth. The Los Angeles real estate booster community, hoping to benefit from increasing the value of land, made those cities.

I like private ownership of land. I just also like a land tax. And I think George was right about that.

Janet Bush: If you could summarize what makes one city successful and another one less successful, what would you say?

Edward Glaeser: I have a very simple two-factor model of economic success at the place and the country level, one of which is human capital. Skills, talent, and—write it large—this is not just about years of education. This is about the talent and inclination to be an entrepreneur. This is about various forms of cultural strength that exist in different areas. Human talent.

And the second, which is having reasonable, sensible policies that are relatively pro-business, pro-entrepreneurship. Those are the two things.

Now, you also need a whole other set of policies to attract and retain smart people. That doesn’t mean you don’t do anything else. But most of the other things are dedicated towards attracting and retaining smart people, rather than any other particular objective.

How do you get to that route of having skilled people and relatively sensible policies? There are many different routes towards getting that. The East Asian route was different from the Scandinavian route, was different from the UK route, which is different from the US route. And the US route is somewhat different in different parts of the region as well.

There’s not one way of doing it. I think it’s hard to retain talent unless you provide a reasonably pleasant urban area, a reasonably benign public sector towards business and entrepreneurship, and reasonable opportunities for raising kids and living in a reasonable fashion. I think all of those things are sort of necessary for retaining talent.

But it’s also true that there’s no one model for this. And there’s no one model for successful neighborhoods, either. I mean, great cities are frequently archipelagos of neighborhoods that have lots of different variety. And that can be a great attraction for a city.

Janet Bush: When you look towards the future, what are the major trends that you see unfolding in urban life?

Edward Glaeser: I think we need to be obsessed by what’s happening in the developing world. To me, the most exciting things that are happening in cities are happening in poorer countries. And the most exciting things in poorer countries are happening in cities. And so those areas feel like they’re really important to me.

I just came from a conference in Washington at the World Bank that was jointly done with the UK International Growth Centre—I co-lead their cities program—which had a lot of really exciting things that were being talked about.

The mayor of Freetown, [Sierra Leone,] Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, I thought was particularly fantastic in terms of her energy that she brought to things. There were things that I hadn’t thought about that I learned, all about urban government. We were often concentrated on things which are very dull but nuts-and-bolts aspects of making governments better.

How do you do public procurement better? How do you get your minibus, jitney system to work without people killing each other, the operators killing each other? Basic things around quality of life that are very exciting and that I think of as central towards improving the quality of life in developing-world cities.

I don’t know that there’s any one thing. When I think about the US, I continue to think that the state of urban schools is our biggest challenge. The transportation that is so linked to cities is sort of interesting, because for many decades, it felt like we were by and large treading water in transportation, that our cars didn’t improve that much. Our trains certainly didn’t improve. And in the past ten, 15 years, with the rise of autonomous, electric vehicles, it feels like we’re in a place of much more change. And that’s kind of exciting. GPS-based things.

The way that technology relates to cities is sort of interesting. From the public-sector perspective, it can move very slowly. And it can be difficult to figure out how to incorporate the technology, especially since a private-sector company can just—if the new technology has come along, and it doesn’t have workers who know how to handle the technology, they’ll just fire some workers and hire some new workers know how to handle it. Governments are much stickier. And so it’s much harder to adjust your workforce for the new technologies that come along.

Janet Bush: You mentioned looking to the cities of the emerging world, and that being where the excitement is. Can you give us an example of something that’s excited you?

Edward Glaeser: Sure. The paper that I’ve been working on right now is about workplace integration in Brazil. We have a long tradition in Western social science of thinking about residential segregation. Residential segregation feels like it’s really important in lots of ways. And I think it is very important for children.

Segregation has a very powerful effect in explaining differential outcomes for whites and African American kids. But as recent work using cellphone data, by Susan Athey and Matthew Gentzkow and their coauthors have shown, experience segregation for adults can be very different than residential segregation.

In most American cities, you get up in the morning, you leave your segregated neighborhood. You go to an integrated firm. You interact with lots of different people. And so the neighborhood doesn’t matter. But it does matter for kids. Because the kids actually don’t go to work in an integrated company. They go to a segregated school. They play on a segregated street corner. Understanding this feels important to me.

I have new work with Cody Cook and Lindsey Currier that tries to differentially look at them, the cellphone mobility patterns of poor kids and rich kids, and just documents how much more of a life that is disconnected from the marvels of urban areas that the kids of poverty experience, even in wealthy cities.

In Brazil, we are specifically looking at the integration of workplace establishments. And this was motivated by asking whether or not Brazilian cities were serving as engines of opportunity for ordinary people, or people who even start in poverty.

The fact that came out of this work was that southern Brazilian cities seemed to be doing a lot better than northern Brazilian cities, that the north—which tends to be poorer, tends to be less educated, tends to be oriented towards natural resources—was just much less well-performing, both in terms of the initial wages but also the upward mobility that you get.

Because one of the core facts about cities is they’re not just a level effect, meaning you get higher wages. They’re a slope effect, meaning that you’re on an escalator that pulls your wages up more quickly if you’re in a dense urban area.

What we found was the differences between the north and the south could be completely explained, or almost completely explained in a statistical sense, by the fact that the southern firms were just much more integrated by skill than northern firms were. The northern firms were relatively simple, natural-resource-related firms that by and large had less skilled people just work with other less skilled people.

This work has since been duplicated in the US and finds the same thing, that actually being around skilled people is just really important in the workplace. We’ve always known that skills were really important at the neighborhood level. We were less clear that they were central for upward mobility at the individual level, at the firm level.

But thinking about what developing-world cities end up producing, these sort of integrated firms versus which ones produce firms in which less skilled workers are isolated laborers, who don’t actually integrate with anybody else—that feels like an interesting, important thing to understand better.

Janet Bush: When you talk about segregation in in these cities, are you talking about racial segregation?

Edward Glaeser: Skill. But you can sometimes proxy for skill by income. It’s also true. But I don’t typically have race data from the administrative data on these things. I have data on income or other things which are proxy for skill.

Another thing that I’ve been doing that I’m excited by is using Uber’s data from cellphone records to measure the bumpiness of roads. And so I can tell you how different the bumpiness is on all types of roads in the US, and how much bumpier roads that African Americans ride on are from roads that whites ride on. We can even use how much people slow down on bumpy roads to measure how much they dislike bumpiness, in some sense how much the social losses are from bumpiness.

I can also tell you that in four out of five cities that we were able to get data on, American cities aren’t targeting their repaving at all. We’re not repaving the bumpier roads more quickly. And I would love to see how this works out in Johannesburg or Nairobi, or other places like that.

Janet Bush: I just love that. I love that. Potholes—in Britain we call them potholes—are a very major civic issue.

Edward Glaeser: It’s a big deal. We have big data that enables us to measure them. And we should be not just measuring them but actually using that big data to target our public resources.

Janet Bush: One last question. Tell me, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of cities?

Edward Glaeser: I am by nature an absolutely incurable optimist. I’m not trying to persuade anyone on your podcast that they should be optimistic. The only thing I will tell them is being optimistic is a much better way to go through life. That actually feeling full of hope is just a much better way to wake up in the morning and be excited about what you’re doing, rather than calibrating yourself to look for doom in the horizons.

And I would say, the last 3,000 years have been a pretty great run. Humanity connected in cities has done absolutely miraculous things, from the miracles of fifth-century Athens, the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes; the magic of 15th-century Florence, the painting of Masaccio, and Botticelli, Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico; the amazing things that happened in 19th-century London in so many ways. The history of urban areas is stunning. There’s just a lot to be optimistic about.

Janet Bush: Well, Ed, thank you so much. I so appreciated your data on bumpy roads. That was my highlight.

Edward Glaeser: The name of the paper is Infrastructure inequality. And if you just Google, “Glaeser infrastructure inequality,” any of your readers, any of your listeners, can find it.

Janet Bush: Well, thanks so much.

Edward Glaeser: Thank you, Janet.

Explore a career with us