Harvard economist and renowned urbanist Edward Glaeser says cities will bounce back from Covid, but could also stand to become more equitable through better access to education and affordable housing 

Speaking at a webinar organised by the Committee for Sydney this week, Glaeser said he did not believe the pandemic would mean the end to offices, because the draw of human interaction and face to face information sharing would continue to prove irresistible. 

He said looking to the future, Sydney should continue to focus on ground up entrepreneurship, and play to its strengths in the experience economy, which “dominates” the goods economy. 

The principles that saw the rise of cities would continue to govern beyond Covid, with data proving that while productivity may increase slightly in a work from home scenario, the benefits of face to face networking, learning and information-sharing were as true for companies today as they ever have been. 

“If new technologies were making face to face contact obsolete why is it that Google, of all companies, would prize face to face working so much? Why would they buy the Googleplex, a million and a half square feet downtown Manhattan?” Glaeser asked.

“I am not in any sense suggesting that hybrid and Zoom aren’t going to be part of our future somewhat — but there are real limitations to it that we need to be very clear about.”

Glaeser says urban life is not likely to look massively different in the wake of the pandemic, assuming there are not major resurgences of the virus in 2022, but there will be short term consequences.

“Commercial space will be more vulnerable than residential space, tourism will be substantially down, business travel will be down more than normal tourism, cities will reallocate from the old to the young, businesses will reallocate from the old to the young and global demand for talent has just gotten hotter.” 

However, he says the desire to fix urban inequality remained, and was possible with “smarter” government intervention.  

Glaeser’s approach to more affordable housing is to increase supply by making it easier to build, and to build for flexible use, making spaces able to serve a range of purposes depending on demand. 

“Successful cities are becoming permanently unaffordable. This is an American problem, but this is also very much an Australian problem, and for exactly the same reason — which is a failure to build enough affordable housing.”

In the past Glaeser has argued that the most expensive US cities in terms of housing are primarily a consequence of zoning and other land use controls.

“There’s no repealing the laws of supply and demand. If you have robust demand that is met with anaemic supply, places will become too expensive and unaffordable to ordinary people.”

Glaeser says the pandemic came at a time when the cities of America and Europe, and to a lesser extent in Australia, were far less united than they had been in the past due to a realisation that the rising tide promised by urbanisation was not lifting all boats. 

He says cities should not be “ashamed” of their inequality and that “cities are unequal because they are very pleasant places to be rich, and they are less intolerable places to be poor.”

However, “that inequality is only bearable if cities are serving their historic function of turning poor children into middle income adults — and it looks at least that American cities are failing to do that.”

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