Scientific American on cities

Scientific American’s September issue is titled Cities: Better, Greener and Smarter. They conclude ” We have seen a brighter future, and it is urban.” The whole issue is terrific, worth picking up at the newsstand or you can check it out at.

For this post I want to highlight three of their articles. The first is from two physicists who present compelling data that big cities are the most productive and greenest places across the planet. The article is titled Big Cities Do More With Less. They write:

The numbers show that urban dwellers produce more inventions and create more opportunities for economic growth. Often large cities are also the greenest places on the planet because people living in denser habitats typically have smaller energy footprints, require less infrastructure and consume less of the world’s resources per capita. Compared with suburban or rural areas, cities do more with less. And the bigger cities get, the more productive and efficient they tend to become.

Looking at diverse metropolitan regions across the U.S., China, Brazil and other nations they systematically found an average increase of around 15 percent in economic measures such as wages and patents produced per capita. And the inverse on use of infrastructure. “On average, the bigger the city the more efficient its use of infrastructure, leading to important savings in materials, energy and emissions. ”  Their data are clear: big cities are more productive and efficient.

The issue also includes a guest column from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It stands in stark contrast to Michigan policies. Unlike us, he understands that universities are major engines of economic growth and deserve increase public investments. He writes about a $100 million in infrastructure upgrades plus prime real estate competition the City is conducting to attract a world-class science and engineering campus to the city. His reasoning:

Boston leaped ahead of us historically, mostly for one reason: the strength of its research institutions, especially M.I.T. Every year researchers there develop technological advances that are spun off into new businesses. In fact, active companies founded by M.I.T graduates generate annual revenues of about $2 trillion. That’s roughly equal to the GDP of Brazil, the seventh-largest economy in the world. We estimate that in its first 30 years, a new applied science campus in New York could spin off some 400 new companies and create more than 7,000 construction jobs and more than 22,000 permanent jobs.

Finally the issue includes policy recommendations from the editors of Scientific American. They write:

But if cities are so beneficial, then why are U.S. policies stacked against them? … Cheap gas, highway subsides, tax incentives for home ownership, complacency over urban education and the apportionment of legislators all give preferential treatment to suburbs and rural areas. … Why should government policy favor owning over renting, driving over mass transit, or kids in one school district over another? The current incentives encourage people to settle in the outskirts when they might otherwise prefer to live downtown—a bias that makes little sense even when you leave out its environmental costs. And those costs are enormous. To keep our carbon emissions in check, we will need to edge closer to our neighbors. From the perspective both of simple fairness and of rational, science-based public policy, eliminating the incentives for citizens to spread out should be our goal.

Once again an agenda that we should be – but aren’t – pursuing in Michigan. Unless we have big dense cities with large talent concentrations we are not going to be prosperous. End of story. The lesson we need to learn quick is that big cities are the most important engine of economic growth across the planet.

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