Edward Glaeser: "Cities in the Developing World"

URB.im recently attended a conference at NYU hosted by the Development Research Institute and the Marron Institute of Urban Management on "Cities and Development: Urban Determinants of Success." This is the third post of our four-part series reporting on the event.

In his talk on "Cities in the Developing World," Edward Glaeser started by arguing that cities do not make people poor, but rather attract poor people who previously lived in more rural areas.

Today, the world’s poorest countries are urbanizing rapidly. This is a stark difference from richer countries in the Global North, which had comparatively more wealth before their respective historic periods of rapid urbanization. Glaeser suggested that one of the main explanations for this divergence is the state of the global agriculture industry. When western nations underwent urbanization in the 19th century, the global trade economy was relatively small. In order for large parts of the population to move to cities, a country’s agricultural industry had to already be well-developed enough to sustain the national population as fewer and fewer people worked on farms. A country needed to reach a certain level of wealth before urbanization could happen. Today, with a global economy in which food can be shipped all over the world, individual countries do not require a strong domestic agricultural industry in order for many people to move to cities, and so urbanization can occur in poorer contexts.

Even today's closed economies are urbanizing rapidly, however: as agriculture becomes a more productive industry, it becomes less valuable. Industry becomes comparatively more valuable, and more people move to cities.

According to Glaeser, once people arrive in cities, various factors determine the productivity of urban space. These factors include the city's population density, human capital (the residents' levels of skills and education), and entrepreneurship. Glaeser claimed that certain cities have a culture of entrepreneurship. New York City in the 1950's, as an example, was a place where almost anyone could start a garment factory, thanks to economies of scale and low barriers to entry. The culture of entrepreneurship that built on the successful garment industry in New York City created conditions where entrepreneurs could then start different kinds of companies.

Glaeser identified some of the biggest challenges facing developing cities today, such as institutional corruption, the delicate balance (between draconian policing and anarchy) required to enforce the law, and a pervasive failure to protect land rights. Still, cities are—and always have been—spaces that connect people who want to challenge the status quo. From the American and French revolutions to Tahrir Square in recent years, city spaces are ripe for movements to seize public spaces and bring about change.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.