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VOL. 126 | NO. 45 | Monday, March 7, 2011

Glaeser Discusses City Triumphs at Leadership Luncheon

MICHAEL WADDELL | Special to The Daily News

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Community leaders and elected officials were on hand Thursday as Harvard urban expert Ed Glaeser spoke at the seventh annual Leadership Memphis Community Leadership luncheon held at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis.

Glaeser discussed the themes in his new book, “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.” In the book, Glaeser travels through history and around the globe to reveal the hidden workings of cities and how they bring out the best in humankind.

Ultimately, Glaeser cautions against the over-subsidization of homeownership and transportation in place of investing in human capital by spending on education and public safety. He feels too much money is unnecessarily wasted on transportation and infrastructure when it could be spent educating citizens, especially our children.

Glaeser sees cities as a place where people can go to be around other intelligent people and share ideas.

“Our greatest asset as a species is our ability to learn from other people and soak up ideas,” Glaeser said. “Cities succeed by bringing together talented people who can learn from each other. The connections that are formed and the collaborations of human brilliance create miracles.”

Glaeser’s work has focused on the determinants of city growth and the role of cities as centers of idea transmission. He has written about why some cities thrive while others lag and what factors drive up the cost of living in some cities but not others. He feels globalization increases the returns on great new ideas.

“We need to have constant stimuli to give us new ideas. Cities provide that,” Glaeser said. “We are constantly borrowing knowledge from those around us, and it’s often the unexpected ideas that are most valuable.”

He believes skills will make the difference in how successful Memphis becomes.

“Memphis is now a great success as a transportation hub, but things will change. The ability of the city to reinvent itself will rest with its human capital,” said Glaeser. “The more an area is challenged, the more its skills will come to the forefront.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. were among those in attendance, and they addressed the audience before Glaeser spoke.

“The most successful cities that we have in this world are the ones that put people first,” Luttrell said.

Wharton spoke of when he hired someone one year ago to set up an office focusing on human capital and talent retention.

“I think it was the best decision I’ve ever made, and I would do it all over again,” Wharton said. “Because for the first time, we were able to say that we are serious not only about investing in roads, rail, rivers and runways, but more importantly, we are serious about investing in our people.”

Wharton also pointed out changes to the city’s development code that now encourage density within the city to decrease the suburban sprawl that has occurred over the past few decades.

Sprawl results in higher carbon emissions from automobiles and much higher gas consumption. Glaeser points out that if countries like India and China follow the model set forth by America, it will make everyone’s lives more expensive.

“Investing in schools, safety and short commutes is often the best thing cities can do for their local economies,” Glaeser said.

He believes there is a need to rethink models for local schools, a topic especially relevant to Memphis and Shelby County right now. He said the current system turns off the power of competition and innovation, which has strength in urban areas.

“In my world, teachers are heroes,” Glaeser said. “They are also being maltreated by the current system, and we need to have something that is more dynamic and more attractive to their talents.”

Glaeser is the Fred & Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1992. A teacher of urban and social economics and microeconomic theory, he has published papers on cities, economic growth, and law and economics. He is also the director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and director of the Rappaport Institute of Greater Boston.

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