March 25, 2009
THE ST INTERVIEW
Pack them in, build them up
A 6.5m population is fine. Dense cities thrive by attracting smart people
By Tan Hui Yee
IF YOU feel uneasy about the fact that Singapore is gearing up for a population of 6.5 million, Professor Edward Glaeser has this to say: You've nothing to worry about.
'Density is underrated and undervalued and the pleasures of density are in fact quite remarkable,' he declares.
'Living with 6.5 million people doesn't mean you necessarily have less private living space. There is absolutely nothing unhealthy about having lots of tall skyscrapers and people walking around between them. Not only is it good urban policy, it is a good environmental policy as well.'
If urban density ever needed a salesman, it would be Prof Glaeser.
The 41-year-old economist at Harvard University made his name studying what made cities tick.
In Singapore earlier this month to give a talk at the Civil Service College, he stressed that cities survive and thrive by constantly reinventing themselves, which is only possible if there are enough 'smart people' present to generate a creative buzz.
His view is shared by urban theorist Richard Florida, who famously argued that a 'creative class' of talented professionals flocks to vibrant global cities for work and lifestyle opportunities and in turn contributes to their growth.
Except, both men differ on what constitutes talent.
Dr Florida's idea of a skilled worker, Prof Glaeser says half in jest, 'is a 28- year-old who wears a black turtleneck' and frequents coffee houses.
'My model of a skilled worker is that 42-year-old biotechnology worker who has a husband and two kids and is trying to live a decent life.
'Those lead you to very different views of what the fight for talent is all about. Florida thinks you need a lot of coffee houses, and I think you need good schools and safe streets and fast commutes. And I'm pretty sure I'm right.'
If he is, Singapore - seen as clean, safe and sterile - is in a good position.
Cities, he says, need the right kind of buzz to bring them forward. 'The things that people define as what makes a city buzz, a lot of them have to do with public spaces and restaurants and bars and cafes. But I don't think it's at the heart of what makes cities well-functioning and successful. It's a mistake to think that the buzz is just the number of pages that you read in Time Out magazine.'
Take the buzzing research triangle in North Carolina in the United States, home to companies like IBM Corporation.
'It may not be the hippest area to spend a Saturday night but there sure is a heck of lot of new innovations going on. A lot of Silicon Valley is pretty boring from the perspective of an urban hipster. But in terms of what really matters, there's a lot of buzz there.'
To maintain what he refers to as an intellectual edge, he says Singapore needs to constantly expose itself to cutting- edge ideas and have a sizeable pool of skilled workers.
Asked what skills are valued in the context of recurring discussions over the value of an arts degree versus a science degree here, he says: 'Studying Shakespeare does not make up for innumeracy. It certainly does enrich our lives. The more prosperous a country is, the larger the role of arts.'
He points out that a recent study on the effect of mandated science and maths curricula in American schools found that they improved the earnings of the less advantaged significantly. 'It suggests that forcing the school to teach maths and science ended up being very good for them.'
The arts, he says, is 'a bit of a luxury good'. 'If you told people of my great- grandfather's generation that a thriving arts scene was going to determine which city you were going to go to, they would have thought you were mad.
''Can I put bread on the table?' and 'Would we be shot?' - those would have been the primary issues that would have driven people two generations ago.'
A small country like Singapore, with a four million population, he says, need not worry that its size will disqualify it from the big league as long as it has enough quality and diverse talent.
'The question is more an issue of the high human capital people you have, how many potential entrepreneurs you have, how much diversity there is, rather than the actual body count. You can add on an extra five million unskilled labour and it is not going to make a difference to your ability to innovate.'
But primarily, he maintains that cities should serve people's needs rather than exist for their own sake.
In 2005, he wrote an article against the rebuilding of New Orleans after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, saying that its residents were better off getting money to rebuild their lives elsewhere if they wished. The city, he said, had been declining way before the hurricane hit, and it was not doing a good job of looking after its poor residents either.
Putting people first means getting rid of unnecessary rules that make business and housing unaffordable. From his studies of New York and Boston over the past 30 to 40 years, he contends that the cities' recent surge in home prices is more a result of tightening building regulations, rather than anything else.
Logically, if there is enough supply of homes, housing prices will converge around the cost of building that next floor up. In places where land is scarce - like Singapore - height restrictions act as a dampener on housing supply.
Although the demand for housing reflects the attractiveness of a city, its ability to produce enough affordable housing to meet that demand is 'a sign of urban health'. He notes in some parts of the US, 'it feels as if every neighbour has gotten the right to say no to every project'. In suburbs, it is all about zoning and minimum lot size. In cities, it is about maximum heights.
He is quick to admit that his model applies to cities where housing is supplied by the market. The fact that more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in public housing makes it trickier to apply here, but he ventures: 'I think you want to think of how well you are delivering pleasant affordable housing. The Government has played such a heavy role in housing, not inappropriately so, that I think the ability of the private sector to deliver cheap affordable housing is potentially not as strong as it could be.'
Not only does density make housing affordable, he says it is also sustainable. 'Crowding more people on less land is fundamentally good for the environment. Partly because people have lower transportation costs, live in smaller homes, and use less energy.'
A 2008 US study he did found that the carbon footprint of the people who choose to live 'close to nature', surrounded by woods or lawns, was higher than that of city folk. 'If you want to be good to the environment, stay away from it,' he advocates.
Density is also exciting. 'Chicago's lakefront has grown and strengthened the city. The high-rise buildings in Boston have been associated with an increasing vitality in that city's downtown. Philadelphia only recently broke its height restriction, and the high rises there have been able to support more stores and night life.'
If he had it his way, all cities would be planned around actual human dynamics rather than according to preconceived notions of what they should look like.
During his walks around Singapore, he noted that its hot, humid climate keeps people off the streets in the day.
'There's a huge amount of pedestrian traffic but it's indoors. It's all in the air- conditioned malls, which is really where the street life is. That means connections between those malls are actually what city planning needs,' he prescribes.
Still, by any standard, Singapore has a lot going for it. 'The density levels are remarkable...if you love the ability of cities to bring people together and experience a collective world, there's a lot to admire there.'
Expert on the dynamics of cities
PROFESSOR Edward Glaeser, 41, is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard University. He is also the director of its Taubman Centre for State and Local Government and Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, both research institutes at the university which work on governance issues.
He is noted for his studies of the dynamics and real estate markets of American cities, and last year published the book Rethinking Federal Housing Policy: How To Make Housing Plentiful And Affordable, with Professor Joseph Gyourko, professor of real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania.
He received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1992. He lives in the American state of Massachusetts with his wife, Nancy, a 42-year-old management consultant, and three children aged one to four.
ON HOW ARTS APPRECIATION SHOWS PROGRESS
'It is a remarkable statement of the prosperity of humankind that we are increasingly willing to say that guys may actually care about having a downtown buzz and an artistic buzz in cities. That's actually a great thing, that we have reached that level of prosperity.'
ON GROUND-UP INNOVATION
'The core model of urban innovation is one in which it's very very hard to predict what the new 'in' thing is going to be. In most of the world, when cities got involved in top-down planning processes, they have not been very successful.'
ON SPACIOUS SINGAPORE
'I grew up in New York, a city of eight million. Six-and-a-half million doesn't seem so big to me. People get used to anything. Living with 6.5 million people doesn't mean you necessarily have less private living space. That can be accommodated by building up without too much difficulty. It doesn't mean that you have less shared spaces. You've actually got a lot of green space on this island and there's lots of room for moving things around.'