Paul Romer believes cities are the past, present and future of civilization, and “Humanity’s Best Hope for Progress,” as he will explain in his lecture at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater.
Romer is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, professor at New York University, and former chief economist of the World Bank.
Cities have been centers of progress, discovery, employment and production for centuries in the past, Romer explained, a trend he said he has “every reason to expect to continue” for centuries in the future.
“Cities are where the action is,” he said, and aims to “offer some hope” they will continue to progress.
Romer sees value in cities for where they are in scale – large enough to gain the benefit of collective insight from discoveries made by a larger number of people living and working in close proximity, and small enough to be ruled by a set of common frameworks.
“When the number of people increases in a particular area, one effect … is that there’s less of any physical object per person,” Romer said. “But there is another effect: Each of us can discover insights we can communicate to others (to) take advantage of that.” Being around more people leads to more strategies for transforming the world to greater value for everyone, he said.
An idea, as Romer has long been fond of saying, is something everyone can use simultaneously. Humans’ “capacity for discovering and communicating ideas, which means that we can benefit from the presence of other people,” is what makes cities so valuable.
Romer won the Nobel Prize in 2018 for promoting the insight that a human “tendency towards ‘groupishiness’ makes progress possible.”
In studies of progress in the developing world, Romer came to understand that a major “bottleneck” was the slow pace of city growth and the access to benefits cities bring.
“Encouraging urbanization,” he said, “was the most powerful lever governments had to encourage successful economic development,” but it’s one not being leveraged to its full extent.
“The challenge … is that it takes some capacity for collective action to build a successful city,” Romer said. “Many developing countries lacked the capacity in their systems of governance … for successful urban development.”
In his talk today, opening the Week Five Chautauqua Lecture Series on “Infrastructure: Building and Maintaining the Physical, Social and Civic Underpinnings of Society” Romer will cite examples of successful cities, which “should give hope that we can try new things” at the city level, he said. The ability of cities to circumvent the barriers at national and global scales suggests to Romer “we should cultivate and protect” our successful places, and “have the courage” to create more.
Romer will describe the “amazing success” of New York City, which welcomed millions of immigrants to phenomenal results. He lists the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan, laying out the Manhattan street grid as urban living space before much of the island was settled, as “the single greatest success of bold government action in urbanization,” a story he said more people should know.
He also plans to describe the phenomenon of the arts festival Burning Man and the temporary city that crops up in the Nevada desert each year to host it. The festival and its city “suggest from a very different perspective what can happen when people come together” and enjoy the communal benefits.
“Over centuries, we’ve made remarkable progress,” Romer said. “There’s no reason why we should imagine that possibility has come to an end, but we have to have imagination and courage, be willing to try things, use (the past) as the guide for what we’ll try next.”
Developing cities promotes innovation, but when done right can also be centers of human thriving, Romer said, although more progress is needed to make that thriving accessible.
Moving to cities now is prohibitively expensive compared to the past, Romer explained, both in the United States and the developing world, because of a lack of room for more people. “It isn’t hard to make room,” he said, “we just have to decide to do it.”
All it will require is collective action, a characteristic Romer noted is showing signs of eroding around the world.
“The capacity for making and enforcing collective decisions is both incredibly valuable, for the benefits from cooperation and sharing, but also fragile,” he said. “We should be doing everything we can to foster it.”
There are flaws to how urbanization has turned out across the world, Romer admitted, with urban sprawl and congestion convincing many that the boom of cities is something to be stopped.
“You can do urbanization badly, that’s clear, but you can still do it effectively,” Romer said. The elements required to urbanize effectively, he argues, are not overly complicated.
“In the long-run perspective, we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
Once the world understands “the potential for all of us to benefit” from the collaborative nature of cities, Romer said, and “we figure out how to keep (building them), we can keep making progress.”