Expert panel discussion: Threats to urban life

The Threats to Urban Life session was chaired by Ed Glaeser (Harvard, IGC) and opened with his own overview of some of the pertinent threats to urban life. Glaeser outlined a number of issues which arise for government when considering the downsides of density, primarily with respect to the large externalities associated with rapid urban growth. He went on to expound on some of the potential public policy tools, by way of subsidies and regulation, which can offer solutions to some of these concerns. Gleaser addressed ideas around the balance between the upsides and downsides of density and in particular the ways in which we might want to think about how public policy can make the downsides less harmful. He also iterated the importance of this research agenda for the IGC, noting that there is little by way of knowledge in understanding how to make agglomeration work more effectively. This is thought to be particularly important in the development context where countries have urbanised much more quickly, relative to national wealth, than countries have historically.

Nava Ashraf (Harvard Business School, IGC) followed with discussion of her project, working alongside Glaesar, on ‘Water, Health and Wealth in Zambia’. In this presentation Ashraf discussed how vital infrastructure developments have been in supporting urban growth and thus the needs of a growing urban population. In particular, the research focuses on the impact of a reliable municipal water supply in Lusaka, looking specifically at the economic and health impacts. The preliminary results from the research highlight the negative consequences resulting from pipe breakages in terms of economic and health outcomes, pointing to the importance, in this policy space, of stable water supply.

Following Ashraf, Esteban Rossi-Hansberg (Princeton) considered ‘The Need to Shrink Effectively’, with a discussion of the challenges associated with shrinking cities. This presentation recognised the need to think about the level of flexibility of our urban systems, particularly in the event of economic or local shocks. This discussion was placed within the context of the potential for climate change to exert its own shocks and specifically in the developing country context. Using Detroit as an example of a shrinking city, Rossi-Hansberg highlighted the need to consider, from a policy perspective, the management of shrinking cities and what this means in terms of their adaptability and structural transformation.

Guy Michaels (LSE) followed Rossi-Hansberg’s discussion by presenting his research on flooded cities. This cross-country study examined the effect of large-scale flooding on urban areas and found that there was no evidence that people moved to higher ground following a large-scale flood event. Michaels suggested that the reconstruction process should encourage movement to areas less prone to flooding.

Finally, Rudiger Ahrend (OECD) presented research completed by the OECD on metropolitan governance. This considered the importance of stronger governance mechanisms in urban areas in terms of decision-making and externalities. The OECD research highlighted that urban areas with smaller numbers of municipalities were generally more productive and better at making efficient decisions on behalf of the city as a whole. Aligned to this finding, cities with governance bodies were also associated with better outcomes by way of productivity.

BY ELLA SPENCER, igc Evaluation manager