City planners ignore the importance of ‘human capital’

by Kerry Jackson  |  September 14, 2023

Depending on who’s talking and who’s listening, the United States has a number of cities that are failing, caught in a doom loop of self-destruction. San Francisco is today’s favorite target. A succession of stumbling administrations taped a “kick me” sign on the city’s back and invited the shots it takes from all across the world. The same could be said for Baltimore, and Detroit has long been a much-cited example of urban decay. It’s not unreasonable to wonder which California city, San Francisco or Los Angeles, will be the next Detroit.

While none of America’s “failing” cities are anywhere as wretched as, say, Lagos, Nigeria, widely recognized as one of the lousiest places in the world in which to live, all could use some improvement.

Urban planners tend to think that gimmickry is the key to lifting cities out of their sclerosis. So they promise a wonderland connected by light rail; close off streets to automobiles; design layouts in which most daily trips can be made in 15 or 20 minutes; hand out tax breaks to politically favored industries and businesses; block development in outlying zones where land is cheaper; and rely on strict codes rather than free and open enterprise.

But their plans never seem to transform cities in meaningful or constructive ways. Maybe that’s because the one resource that is needed beyond all others is far down the list of ideas if it appears at all. Nothing can improve a city like human capital.

“​​To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively,” Harvard economist Edward Glaeser wrote in his 2011 work “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier.”

It’s a noteworthy point, but not entirely unique. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” author Jane Jacobs said much the same. “There is,” she wrote, “no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” Enrico Morreti, who wrote “The New Geography of Jobs,” believes that simply “being around smart people” makes others “smarter and more innovative.”

Morreti’s contention plays directly into Glaeser’s argument that a city is a “mass of connected humanity,” where, writes UCLA’s Allen J. Scott, an “intense circulation of ideas” sets in motion a “state of affairs … capable of unleashing rounds of creativity and innovation whose effects can be observed.”

Unfortunately, planning is more likely to disconnect than connect.

A Slate review of Glaeser’s book noted that “politicians and planners tend to overvalue the physical environment. They encourage cities to look for the Next New Thing.” While the shiny toys are often interesting, and are unveiled at glitzy ribbon cuttings where politicians boast of their greatness, they simply aren’t as important as the human element.

But cities are already filled with brilliant minds, so their presence alone doesn’t guarantee the sudden sprouting of urban Camelots around the country. What does ensure progress, though, is the room for these bright people to innovate, cooperate, invest and overcome. The marketplace of ideas, not the preconceived notions, arrogance and stubbornness of planners, drives cities toward greatness.

One could be forgiven, though, for believing just the opposite is true, since cities are overrun with top-down planning, zoning boards, environmental restrictions that are too often used by competitors and radical activists to block development, inert bureaucracies, exhausting tax levies, rent control laws, onerous business licensing and gross property rights violations – to name just a portion of the many obstacles created by governments.

No matter how brilliant the residents of any given city are, they can never fully overcome the thicket of obstructions that elected and unelected officials put in their paths. Until they are freed of these shackles, their inventive natures are restrained. Entrepreneurs need space to breathe and unleash their creativity. No renaissance can take place if the smartest people are limited by public policy.

America’s great metropolises did not grow because they were planned by bureaucrats at city hall. They grew from trading posts and transportation hubs into commercial and industrial colossi because private citizens were liberated to put their minds to work, to cooperate and to collaborate.

When compared to “corresponding national governments in Europe,” historian Carl Bridenbaugh wrote in 1938’s “Cities in the Wilderness: The First Century of Urban Life in America 1625-1742,” the colonial governments that preceded the Revolution “were much less powerful and intrusive.” Cities were free to experiment “with new methods to raise revenue, build infrastructure and to solve urban problems.”

Being largely left alone, cities developed organically, which attracted smart, energetic people looking for opportunity. As cities grew, so did the need for arbiters who could settle disputes regarding property, rights-of-way, resources, public infrastructure and public spaces such as sidewalks. Eventually, though, and at great cost, regulatory power crowded out civil society. What cities need is a reversal of that trend so that smart people can be free to lead an urban reawakening.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

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