Edward Glaeser: Make our urban world more livable and more humane

The 4th International High-level Forum on Sustainable Urban Development was held both online and offline in Chengdu, the capital city of southwest China’s Sichuan Province on Nov 16-18. Officials, ex

The 4th International High-level Forum on Sustainable Urban Development was held both online and offline in Chengdu, the capital city of southwest China’s Sichuan Province on Nov 16-18. Officials, experts and scholars from home and abroad attended the forum in person or via internet.

During the event, Professor Edward Glaeser from Harvard University shared with China.org his insight into issues concerning urban sustainable development, especially in the post-pandemic era. He is also a renowned urban economist and the author of “Triumph of the City.”

Professor Glaeser advocates that people living in cities could be a way to protect nature. While in reality, barely any country could avoid “urban diseases” during their urbanization process, among which over-concentration of population is a pivotal one. Overpopulation could cause a lot of problems, with contagious diseases being one of them.

In history, countries like Britain and America all had similar experiences. With COVID-19 now raging, discussing the problem is more meaningful.

“A pandemic does have the ability to shut down our urban world,” said Professor Glaeser. To prevent such things from happening again, he gave three suggestions: First, improved warning systems should be established. When a disease starts, related urban networks should be shut down. Second, fighting diseases hinges upon data. Both symptomatic and asymptomatic data are important when it comes to diseases. Third, preparation is necessary. Medical resources, research resources and the like should be prepared preemptively.

Professor Glaeser also believes that urban development models would change in the wake of the COVID-19, but that depends on how the pandemic plays out. If the pandemic is reaching an end, he said, there will just be a short-term economic dislocation, but still it would take a few years for everything to revert to the normal. But, if things go wrong, or if another pandemic occurs in the next decade, people will be looking at a different world: Business would collapse, public transportation challenges would occur, and fiscal challenges would become enduring, he added.

During COVID-19, to wear a face mask or not seems to have become a problem in the U.S. In response to a question concerning this, Professor Glaeser said he likes feasible solutions when it involves liberty, but he thinks people definitely should wear masks. In every society there are some people pushing back against what the rest of the people promote, therefore “every government needs to figure out how to balance those things,” he noted.

With respect to urbanization, Professor Glaeser believes that denser urbanization is more environment friendly. If China “builds up” intensively with cities rather than merely “building out,” he said, its carbon emission will be much less, and China will become a global leader in this area. He especially emphasized that there is no sense in that density is incompatible with also having green space. Technologies and smart designing are important to that end.

“In every country, government plays catch up with urbanization,” Professor Glaeser said. “However, you don’t solve traffic congestion just by building more highways.” To deal with these problems, according to him, both infrastructure and incentives are significant; and incentive refers to how to “nudge people towards doing the right things” as he put it.

People, after all, are at the center of urban development. That is also the philosophy adopted by the Chinese government. Professor Glaeser said he totally agrees with it. He also pointed out that some architects and urban planners may sometimes confuse the real city, which is humanity, with the visible city, and some cities are built to impress people rather than to create humanity. He regards Chengdu as possibly being a city built for humanity.

Professor Glaeser said China should continue to advance its development model as it has “long roots” in urbanizing, and has been urbanizing intelligently for 2000 years.

Professor Glaeser has not been to Chengdu but he much looks forward to visiting it sometime, tasting the real Sichuan gourmet and getting a closer look at the pandas. “I think it is a great sadness of the current pandemic, that we are not able to connect in person, which is what makes conferences like this even more important. That reminds us that we are part of a common global community that cares about cities, trying to make our urban world more livable and more humane,” he said.

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