There is a myth that even if cities enhance prosperity, they still make people miserable. But people report being happier in those countries that are more urban. In those countries where more than half of the population is urban, 30 percent of people say that they are very happy and 17 percent say that they are not very or not at all happy. In nations where more than half of the population is rural, 25 percent of people report being very happy and 22 percent report unhappiness. Across countries, reported life satisfaction rises with the share of the population that lives in cities, even when controlling for the countries’ income and education.
So cities like Mumbai and Kolkata and Bangalore boost not only India’s economy, but its mood. And certainly they are not un-Indian, any more than New York is un-American. These cities are, in so many ways, the places where their nation’s genius is most fully expressed.
The urban ability to create collaborative brilliance isn’t new. For centuries, innovations have spread from person to person across crowded city streets. An explosion of artistic genius during the Florentine Renaissance began when Brunelleschi figured out the geometry of linear perspective. He passed his knowledge to his friend Donatello, who imported linear perspective in low-relief sculpture. Their friend Masaccio then brought the innovation into painting. The artistic innovations of Florence were glorious side effects of urban concentration; that city’s wealth came from more prosaic pursuits: banking and cloth making. Today, however, Bangalore and New York and London all depend on their ability to innovate. The spread of knowledge from engineer to engineer, from designer to designer, from trader to trader is the same as the flight of ideas from painter to painter, and urban density has long been at the heart of that process.
The vitality of New York and Bangalore doesn’t mean that all cities will succeed. In 1950, Detroit was America’s fifth-largest city and had 1.85 million people. In 2008, it had 777 thousand people, less than half its former size, and was continuing to lose population steadily. Eight of the ten largest American cities in 1950 have lost at least a fifth of their population since then. The failure of Detroit and so many other industrial towns doesn’t reflect any weakness of cities as a whole, but rather the sterility of those cities that lost touch with the essential ingredients of urban reinvention.
Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens. Detroit was once a buzzing beehive of small-scale interconnected inventors—Henry Ford was just one among many gifted entrepreneurs. But the extravagant success of Ford’s big idea destroyed that older, more innovative city. Detroit’s twentieth-century growth brought hundreds of thousands of less-well-educated workers to vast factories, which became fortresses apart from the city and the world. While industrial diversity, entrepreneurship, and education lead to innovation, the Detroit model led to urban decline. The age of the industrial city is over, at least in the West.
Too many officials in troubled cities wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project— a new stadium or light rail system, a convention center, or a housing project. With very few exceptions, no public policy can stem the tidal forces of urban change. We mustn’t ignore the needs of the poor people who live in the Rust Belt, but public policy should help poor people, not poor places.
Shiny new real estate may dress up a declining city, but it doesn’t solve its underlying problems. The hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies. With all that supply of structure and so little demand, it makes no sense to use public money to build more supply. The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren’t structures; cities are people.