March 24, 2022
March 24, 2022

New York. Los Angeles. Boston. San Francisco. Call them America’s “superstars.” With mega populations, these urban hubs have long reigned as the nation’s economic, social, and cultural capitals. But big cities have also been the hardest hit by the pandemic. “Zoom towns” are springing up across the country as professionals leave the city in droves. Even more, the pandemic has brought economic and social inequality into sharp focus for the nation’s lawmakers. And some, particularly in large cities that boast the most obvious cases of such inequality, are enacting new progressive policies and laws that seek to combat inequality. For some, this means a new financial structure that makes city life less compelling for those in higher income brackets. Will megacities keep their magnetism in the wake of Covid-19? Or are their best days behind them?

05:00 PM Thursday, March 24, 2022

Arguments Against (4 RESOURCES)


Technology (5 RESOURCES)


Progressive Policy and Racial Equity (4 RESOURCES)


Infastructure (4 RESOURCES)

  • 00:00:01

    [music playing]

    John Donvan:

    New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, America’s biggest cities, have long reigned as
    the nation’s economic and cultural capitals. But is that still true in the wake of COVID
    and the rise of remote life? The pandemic has also made inequality glaringly apparent;
    some cities are pushing back with progressive policies. But will those policies render
    city life even less attractive? And if so, for whom? So, we asked the question, are big
    cities past their prime?

    Hi, everybody, and welcome. And yes, that is a question that has been taking shape
    really now for many years now, as cities have been undergoing population and
    demographic shifts. And technology has been changing the way we live everywhere.
    But with the pandemic, all of this happening at hyperspeed, these changes and shifts, we
    have “Zoom towns” popping up around the country, we have people using services like
    Amazon to get the things they want and need without ever having to go outside their front

  • 00:01:01

    We have streaming services like Netflix and Hulu changing not only where people are
    going for their entertainment, but when they’re going for their entertainment. And we
    have even dating apps, making it possible for people to find love and each other not by
    going downtown but by going online, and maybe even going across continents.
    So, does all of this mean that the best days of big cities are behind them? Or does history
    tell us that cities have always gone through their ups and downs, and when the city is
    down a little, there’s always a chance that it’s going to make a comeback? Well, these are
    the questions that we are here to debate right now. I’m John Donvan. This is Intelligence

    [music playing]

  • 00:02:00

    Okay, everybody, delighted that you are here with us today, because not only do we think
    you’re going to enjoy and learn from this debate, but we also want you to participate in
    the debate. And we’re going to ask you to do that by asking you to vote. In fact, two
    times once before you’ve heard all of the arguments and again, after you’ve heard what all
    of the debaters have to say, on the resolution to tell us whether you are for or against or
    undecided on the language, Big Cities are Past Their Prime, and we will name as the
    winner of the debate, the team whose numbers changed the most in percentage point
    terms between the first and the second vote.
    So, the way that we would like you to vote is to go to That’s You
    will find there a multiple-choice field with the choices telling us whether you are for,
    against, or undecided on the resolution on the statement Big Cities are Past Their Prime.
    I’ll give you just a second to get your first vote in.

  • 00:03:00

    And now it is time to see who it is who will be debating with us.

    [music playing]

    Arguing for the motion Big Cities are Past Their Prime. Jennifer Hernandez is an
    attorney and environmental advocate who has received numerous Civil Rights Awards
    concerning land use and zoning laws. She’s written three books and more than 50 articles
    on the topic. Her partner, Joel Kotkin, America’s quote, “Uber-geographer,” and
    executive director of the Urban Reform Institute, and author of several books, including
    “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism.”
    Opposing them, Margaret O’Mara, a historian and professor at the University of
    Washington, who writes and teaches about the history of technology and American
    politics. She is the author of “Cities of Knowledge” and, most recently, “The Code:
    Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.” Her partner, Edward Glaeser, an
    economist, and professor at Harvard, and also the author of several books, including
    “Triumph of the City” and “Survival of the City: The Future of Urban Life in an Age of

  • 00:04:00

    And now here we are joined by our four debaters; I want to say Edward and Joel and
    Margaret and Jennifer; thanks so much for joining us for Intelligence Squared.

    Multiple Speakers:

    Great to be here.

    John Donvan:

    So, let’s get right to it. We’re going to go in three rounds in the first round is opening
    statements by each debater in turn. Our first speaker will be Joel Kotkin. You’ll be
    arguing in support of the motion that Big Cities are Past Their Prime.
    Joel, it’s your turn; go for it.

    Joel Kotkin:

    I think cities have been past their prime in many ways compared to where they were 40,
    50 years ago, for quite a long time. But I want to just define what I’m talking about the
    city; I’m really talking about the core city. The metro region is a completely different
    thing and is much more important. And so, what we’re really seeing is that regions are
    becoming more important than cities as we’ve historically defined them. And these
    regions are predominantly Suburban.

  • 00:05:00

    This has been accelerated by online; it allows people more options. You know, let’s say
    if you live in Riverside, California, and your job is in Irvine, California, it’s kind of the
    death march do that every morning. Besides the fact that it’s bad for the environment, but
    — and mental health. But the reality is over time; we may be able to go once a week, we
    might be able to go once a month, we might be able to go twice a month. So, I think that
    you are going to see this dispersion continue. I think HG Wells had it right about 130
    years ago when he said it would become a place of concourse and rendezvous and also a
    place of elegant extinction because increasingly, very few people will have children in
    cities, particularly middle-class people. So, what we’re really talking about here is not
    that cities are going to die, but that their function will be different.

  • 00:06:00

    It’s not that cities are going to die or even core cities are going to die; it’s just that the
    world is changing, and in that changed world, suburbs and exurbs will be relatively more

    John Donvan:

    Thank you, Joel, very much for your opening statement.
    I want to go now to our next speaker, who will be arguing against the resolution that
    cities are past their prime here is, Edward Glaeser. Edward, it’s your turn.

    Ed Glaeser:

    Thank you.
    So, I think if we take a global perspective, the case that cities are past their prime is
    laughably false. Right? So, in 2018, the U.N. projected that we would go from having
    33 megacities to having 43 megacities over the next 12 years. These megacities are
    defined as having more than 10 million people in them. Today, more than one in eight
    people live in these megacities. And we see places like Lagos, which has grown from 2.5
    million in 1980 to over 15 million today. Bogota, which has increased from 3.5 million
    to 11 million, and Bangalore was growing from 2.8 million to 13 million. Right?

  • 00:07:00

    Cities are powering the growth of the developing world. They are providing enormous
    income benefits. And there are even places where self-reported happiness is
    demonstrably higher. So, I think if we’re taking a global perspective, this isn’t even
    arguable. If we want to restrict ourselves just to the U.S. I think the case is closer, but I
    still think it is very much false that cities are past their prime. And in part, it’s because I
    feel like we’ve seen this before. When I was a kid growing up in New York City in the
    1970s, the Daily News Headlines screamed “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” and it felt as if
    not just President Ford, but all of history was telling New York to drop dead because of
    changes in technology, because of the rise of suburbs, because of the death of distance,
    which meant that former urban powerhouses like the garment industry lost hundreds of
    thousands of jobs in a short period of time. And so, consequently, Alvin Toffler, a
    futurist, writing in 1980, wondered whether or not the information technology of his age,
    the fax machine, and the personal computer would make the urban knowledge industries
    that had come to be the mainstay of city life obsolete.

  • 00:08:07

    We’d all decamped to electronic cottages. And yet New York, even the core of New
    York, even Manhattan, has been experiencing an enormous Renaissance since 1980.
    Taken as a whole, New York City’s metro area real estate prices boomed 111 percent
    between 1978 and 1988, the city got safer, and it became more economically dynamic.
    And the reason for this and this is of course, not just about New York; it’s about London,
    it’s about Paris, it’s about Chicago, it’s about Los Angeles, is that what globalization and
    new technologies did is they radically increase the returns just being smart, they radically
    increase the returns to innovation. And we are a social species that get smart by being
    around other smart people. And it was this advantage of the ability to learn from one
    another in cities, exactly what Joel was talking about when he was urging his kids to go
    to New York when they’re young, that, in fact, the cities came back.

  • 00:08:57

    Now, looking forward, we’ve been through a terrible two years for cities; there’s no sign
    that the basic urban function is disappearing. And there’s no sign; in fact, the value of
    knowledge is disappearing. Cities have been through much worse; they have been
    bombed. They’ve suffered worse plagues in this one. And they’ve come back because
    they played humanity’s greatest asset, which is our ability to work together to collaborate
    and to create incredible new innovations.


    John Donvan:

    Thanks very much, Ed Glaeser.
    And next up on the screen with an opening statement in support of the motion that Big
    Cities are Past Their Prime. Here is Jennifer Hernandez. Jennifer, the screen is yours.

    Jennifer Hernandez:

    Thanks so much. I really appreciate being here.
    I wanted to just plunge in by first pointing out we are in an age of, I think, hyperpartisanship and finding division when we don’t need it. So, already the first two
    speakers have illustrated this. Joel has said regions are incredibly important; megacities
    are incredibly important. And Ed echoed that; that’s a point of agreement.

  • 00:09:59

    What’s I think no point of agreement is the concept of core cities. And especially in
    California, where I work as a lawyer trying to get housing approved, by the way, in core
    cities as a function of climate imperative, high-density transit-dependent housing has
    turned out to be a completely nonsensical concept. What do I mean by that? When you
    have achieved a level of housing stability and a car, you start saving because the next step
    is to try to buy something; when you buy, you buy out, you can’t buy in a core city.
    And buying is a really big deal. I represent civil rights groups in housing disputes and
    buying and depriving people of the right to buy is consigning generations to poverty.
    And we have already enough redlining history in this country to not use a high density,
    transit-dependent core city dogma to insist that we’re simply not going to allow new
    generations to buy into regions’ megacities.

  • 00:11:07

    I grew up in the exurbs of the Bay Area. And my dad was a steelworker. So, we’re my
    grandfathers. That’s what’s affordable, only that’s not even affordable, because we’ve
    stopped that level of growth in California.
    But the world has changed. Technology has changed. I’m sure there were people
    defending horses and buggies. And certainly, I know the people we’re defending
    telegraphs. The world has changed. We just completed a big study now in the SCAG
    region, all of Southern California except San Diego, finding out who’s telecommuting
    who wants to telecommute. And even for essential workers who have to be on the job,
    they have the opportunity to buy into shorter work weeks, four days instead of five, travel
    less, and do some of their functions from home. They also can do functions like banking,
    and tele-med and tele-training, and continuing workforce training much more easily, and
    they can be civic participants much more easily.

  • 00:12:08

    So, I’ll stop by saying there’s convergence on a megacity. There’s absolute disagreement
    on core cities.

    John Donvan:

    Thank you so much, Jennifer.
    So, reminding everybody that our motion is Big Cities are Past Their Prime and here to
    make her opening statement in support of the motion that cities are past their prime. Here
    is Margaret O’Mara.
    Margaret, your turn.

    Margaret O’Mara:

    Thank you so much, John. And it is really a pleasure to be here. Thank you to my
    partner Ed Glaeser thank you for also acknowledging the arguments of our opponents,
    Joel and Jennifer, but I am here to forcefully argue against the motion The Big Cities are
    Past Their Prime, they are not only in their prime but perhaps their best days are yet to
    come and here is why.

  • 00:12:53

    If we take the long view throughout millennia, throughout human history, large cities, the
    density of human settlement has been critical not only for protection, from harm, but also
    in creating commerce building wealth, communities of sociability, and critically
    communities of innovation and creativity where new ideas come together, and advance
    social progress and human understanding. The concentration of people and ideas, the
    physical proximity have been generative of new technologies of new ideas. It has been
    criticized as my partner Ed noted we are social animals, and coming together has been
    critical for the — it’s the glue that brings human societies together. And density, urban
    density is critical.
    Cities are also extraordinarily resilient. There have been many premature obituaries
    written for cities. Cities have endured war, have endured epidemics and pandemics

  • 00:14:01

    There is a reason that cities have become more — have endured even in a digital age.
    And I point directly to the tech industry and the companies that are the biggest tech
    companies in the world at the moment. These are not — even though Alvin Toffler
    predicted that we would all retreat to our electronic cottages 40 years ago, as Ed noted,
    not only have we not done that, but the companies that build the technologies that enable
    such retreat and remote work have doubled down on physical campuses in the last 15
    years. You have Apple investing a billion dollars in a grand campus. You have Google
    and Facebook; you have other — you have — up here in my town of Seattle, you have
    Amazon and Microsoft. And yes, not all of these are in traditional central business
    districts, but as I argue in my work, the concentration of the density of human settlement
    in places including Silicon Valley make them more urban than suburban, and they have
    been for quite some time.

  • 00:15:04

    Cities are also dynamic. They’re always changing. They’re always resilient. There’s
    never a — we can never say this is the end; this is just the beginning.
    Thank you.

    John Donvan:

    Thanks very much, Margaret.
    And that concludes our first round. And our second round is much more of a
    freewheeling conversation. And in which you’re encouraged to address one another, you
    can break in politely on one another. But I want to start with some questions from me.
    And my observation is that I think to a certain degree, the two sides are presenting
    different frameworks. One side is talking about the ideal, and the other side is talking
    about what is.
    But I take note; I want to go to Ed Glaeser; I take note that you said that there’s no sign
    that the basic urban function is disappearing. Yet I hear your opponent, Joel, when he’s
    describing the basic urban function in terms of that basic function, work, residents,
    middle-class prosperity, that he would be making the case that those functions are totally

  • 00:16:04

    And I want to ask you to respond to some of that.

    Ed Glaeser:

    So, the fact that cities are unaffordable for middle-class people, which I — and too many
    of them are is not a sign of urban failure; it’s a sign that people actually want to live in
    cities. It’s a sign of robust demand for urban space colliding in. And I want to associate
    myself strongly with the move to permit more housing in California, anywhere, and
    particularly in California cities. But cities are not delivering enough housing to meet the
    demand. But if the demand wasn’t there, as it wasn’t in the 1970s, that problem
    disappears immediately.
    So, this is not a sign that cities are failing. I agree with Joel that we have a big problem
    in terms of urban schools. I think that’s exactly right. But, you know, crime got a lot
    better over the last 30 years; we really did make progress on that, at least until the last
    two or three. And it is at least both a dire need and a great hope that, in fact, cities can
    improve their education.

  • 00:16:59

    We do have a track record of cities getting better; cities fixed places of enormous filth in
    the early 19th century and turned them into hygienic-sanitary places. We can also do that
    with the children of the disadvantaged who grow up in cities.

    John Donvan:

    All right, let me let Joel jump in on that.
    Go ahead, Joel.

    Joel Kotkin:

    For the type of units that families are not going to go into their studio apartments, small
    one-bedroom, that to go and think you’re going to get a three-bedroom apartment in New
    York is probably not going to happen.
    Now part of the thing that is also happening is urbanity is shifting. I mean, Margaret was
    talking about Apple. Now, that’s in Sunnyvale. I asked you to go to Sunnyvale, and you
    tell me that that has anything to do with a city? I mean, as we traditionally understood it.
    Now, if you want to start saying that, as Frank Lloyd Wright said, the city is wherever the
    citizen goes. I think that’s right. But the vast form of Silicon Valley, the most of the
    growth in Austin, all taking place in mostly in suburban areas.

  • 00:18:06

    In terms of patents, according to Rich Florida’s research, actually, there are more — most
    patents are in fairly low areas in terms of density. So, I mean, I think that there are
    functions where cities are uniquely strong, but I think a lot of their employees, a lot of
    their people, I think people have gotten used to having options. And I think one of the
    big issues for cities, and this may be an area where Ed and I would agree, is cities have
    got to compete for people, there’s now more options of where you can go in terms of
    which cities and what part of cities. And if I was to advise mayors, you got to deal with
    education, you got to deal with crime, and you’ve got to deal with having a middle-class
    economy. I don’t see anyone in Los Angeles pushing hard to get Elon Musk to build
    Tesla’s in South L.A.

  • 00:19:03

    The kind of economy that we’re evolving in our urban centers is one that’s very
    bifurcated, and I don’t think it’s sustainable socially.

    John Donvan:

    I want to ask; I’m trying to sort of getting a handle on the sentiment from the side arguing
    that Big Cities are Past Their Prime, Joel and Jennifer, I don’t get the sense that you
    necessarily are saying Big Cities are Past Their Prime and that’s too bad. I’m not hearing
    you say — I’m getting more of the sense Big Cities are Past Their Prime, and let’s move
    And Jennifer, almost from you, I almost got a sense of Big Cities are Past Their Prime
    and good riddance. Am I reading you correctly on that?

    Jennifer Hernandez:

    The core city as a middle-class construct, I believe, is not only past its prime but good
    riddance. The kinds of jobs that are being discussed for lower- or middle-income
    workers, even our service jobs for the wealthy and the professional class those are not
    just jobs that traditionally have paid enough, nor will they pay enough, even at $15 and
    $19 an hour numbers, to afford housing in those locations.

  • 00:20:10

    It simply doesn’t work, and it’s not going to start working. On the other hand,
    megaregions, which are anything but past their prime, they’re thriving, and they’re
    thriving globally. But to actually support a mega-region construct, you have to make the
    mega-region work; you have to recognize the transportation solutions have to work
    within and between suburbs, not just that there’s some hub of a spoke. I mean,
    Cambridge is not Boston; they are two spokes or two hubs. And that is the model that is
    actually happening. And to actually make housing work and school districts work and
    Civic Participation works, we actually have to stop planning for downtown San
    Francisco, we have to start planning for the region, and planning for a middle-class
    success route in the region, and that the Bay Area has broken as well.

  • 00:21:05

    John Donvan:

    So, it sounds as though what we’re debating about is maybe what has been called
    downtown. If you’re in Manhattan, downtown is south of, you know, 14th Street. But in
    most communities, there’s the notion that there’s a dense urban area that you’re going to
    go to if you have enough wherewithal, you’re going to live there, if you’re able to live and
    work there, you would like to do that, and you’re going to dine there, you’re going to go
    to movies there, you’re going to raise your kids there. That that downtown is, I think, is
    the kind of thing that we’re talking about is threatened now.
    And I want to go to Margaret. When you hear Jennifer essentially saying, yeah, good
    riddance to that model, that it’s — what’s your response to that?

    Margaret O’Mara:

    My response is that everything we’re talking about here in terms of housing and
    infrastructure, and even the downtown itself, is the product of public policy creating
    market incentives. And those change over time. Why do we have central business

  • 00:21:57

    That’s a result in part of the rise of new types of industries, white-collar service industries
    in the 19th century, new technologies of the building that allowed for skyscrapers, but
    also zoning laws starting in the early 20th century that separated commercial activity
    from an industrial activity from residential activity.

    John Donvan:

    Ed, I want to come to you. And you and Margaret have been talking about how the value
    of cities is the proximity of human beings being able to see each other face to face, talk to
    one another, go upstairs, go downstairs, run into each other in the neighborhoods, see
    each other in the grocery store, or in that nearby workplace, that that’s where human
    interaction happens, that’s where innovation happens. And you’ve heard from them a
    series of reasons they don’t think that that’s necessarily number one, working but also not
    really necessary, that — the implication being that technology — and we’ve seen this,
    some — the case made more successfully in the past year or two because of the pandemic,
    that technology is replacing that human need to be each other, to be our best selves, and
    to be our most productive societies.

  • 00:23:08

    I would really be curious to hear what your response to that is.

    Ed Glaeser:

    Great. Thank you, John. And this affordability discussion reminds me a lot of Yogi
    Berra’s line that Toots Shor is so crowded that nobody goes there anymore. Right? That,
    in fact, big cities or downtowns, or whatever you want to say, are just so desirable that
    nobody — that they’re clearly past their prime because that’s what those high prices mean.
    And whatever this sort of argument about, you know, that these downtowns, these faux
    downtowns that are created on the BART stop a long way away from San Francisco that
    they’re not gonna sell that is just completely irrelevant for the dynamism and continuing
    desire of people to actually be in real cities where they’re next to each other.

  • 00:23:51

    Returning to the key issue of face-to-face contact and work, we have a fair amount of
    pre-COVID evidence on just how strong the connection is between high levels of
    employment density and productivity. So, certainly, if you look within Greater New
    York, the correlation between employment density and productivity is enormously
    strong. If you look across metropolitan areas, the correlation between employment
    density and GDP per capita is enormously strong.
    Now, what do we know about this Zoom thing? What we know is that for many
    activities, it was absolutely dismal. For example, for schooling, right, the world of you
    know, we have a number of studies of remote work at this point in time, and it’s
    somewhere between disastrous and catastrophic in terms of kids, in terms of younger
    people learning over Zoom.
    There are simple tasks that can be done remotely relationships that can be done remotely
    that work, but the ability to form new relationships is much more hampered. And I’m just
    going to read you from the abstract from the journal Nature by Sonia Jaffe and her
    coauthors, and this is a study of tens of thousands of Microsoft workers.

  • 00:25:00

    “Our results show that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network workers
    to become more static and siloed with fewer bridges between disparate parts.
    Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in
    asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees
    to acquire and share information across the network.”
    So, this switch to remote work was not some costless thing. It was a real change that had
    real effects on the way that relationships work. And relationships are fundamentally the
    engine of creativity. I will just say. Personally, we had our first enlive all departments
    seminar yesterday, and it was just magical. And there’s just no comparison between a
    Zoom seminar and face-to-face contact where ideas are just bubbling all over the place.

    John Donvan:

    Would that in-person meeting not also be possible if you’re out in the suburbs

    Ed Glaeser:

    Having a live — for sure. But you know, the proximity between people is fundamentally
    what cities are about delivering.

  • 00:25:58

    So, we’re in Cambridge; we’re not in downtown Boston, that’s right. But this is still, you
    know, a big city by almost any reasonable definition. And it is certainly possible to have
    a meeting, to have a conference in the suburbs and have everyone in the same room. But
    that tends to be a very planned event rather than the sort of more, you know, more
    random more bump rate-related interactions that so often happen in dense urban areas.

    John Donvan:

    I’m also curious to ask all of you about a political question. Many of the cities we’re
    talking about are by no means all of them. And of course, there’s a whole gradation of
    what do we mean by cities, which keeps coming up here. But if we talk about Boston, if
    we talk about New York, we talk about Los Angeles, we talk about Seattle, the Bay Area,
    we’re talking about communities that have elected, regularly, quite progressive
    leadership. And we’re already seeing this notion of a great separation taking place among
    the population, progressives moving to cities, and conservatives moving out of cities.

  • 00:27:00

    That may be overstated, but you know what I’m talking about. And I’m just curious to go
    to you, Joel, to what extent does the political dimension to this, if at all, play into your
    argument that cities are past their prime?

    Joel Kotkin:

    Well, first of all, and I think this is probably an area where Ed and I would probably
    agree, one of the great disasters for the cities has been the adoption of, you know, what
    we might want to call progressive, although I don’t — I wouldn’t call it historic
    progressivism, it’s the new progressivism. In other words, when you elect DAs, who, you
    know, choose not to enforce the law, or, you know — obviously, you have the defund the
    police thing. You have, you know, you have people like AOC blocking Amazon going to
    Queens, which, you know, would have been, I think, probably, I think Ed would agree, a
    pretty big stimulus to that area.

  • 00:27:55

    So, I mean, the reality is, when cities did make their comeback that Ed talks about which
    is I think legitimate, you think of who was there, you got Bob Lanier in Houston, you had
    Giuliani, and then you had Bloomberg and then you had reform mayors in some of the
    other cities. We don’t have that now. So, the question is going to be, will cities somehow
    find a way of centering themselves getting control of things? And then I think their
    chances are — will be much better. I don’t think they’ll ever go back to what they were in
    the past, just because history has moved on and, you know, the world is much bigger, but
    I do think that cities can rescue themselves and do much better if they can change their
    political stance.

    John Donvan:

    All right, Margaret, I didn’t expect to get to a question like this. But based on what Joel
    is saying, you know, is there an argument that cities are more prime or more in their
    prime if they don’t have progressive leadership?

  • 00:28:59

    I mean, you can take that question wherever you want.

    Margaret O’Mara:

    Look, homeownership has been the vehicle for building personal wealth for the better
    part of a century; of course, those that have been discriminated against people of color in
    homeownership systemically, generationally; of course, the access to homeownership is a
    critical vehicle of wealth creation. But what if there were other ways to build economic
    opportunity? Moving to the mass suburbanization since the 1950s has contributed to
    more isolation; it’s more unlikely for people to encounter one another. This geographic
    sorting of progressive cities and conservative suburbs and rural areas is, in part, this is
    accelerating political polarization. And we have plenty of evidence again, looking —
    taking the long view that simply having people as neighbors and finding a way to rebuild
    that social fabric goes a long way.

  • 00:30:00

    John Donvan:

    So, again, I’m hearing the side that’s arguing that cities are not past their prime talking
    about — acknowledging that cities have had a rough couple of years, but that a comeback
    is possible and that abandoning the goal of trying to help them come back is not the way
    to go. Whereas your opponents, I think, are saying, let’s let it go, times change, things
    change, the world has moved on. But I want to take that question to Jennifer. Just in
    terms of investment in cities, I mean, again, traditional cities, I mean, let’s say an
    investment in Manhattan, let’s say an investment in San Francisco; are cities worth
    investing in to try to establish their prime-ness again?

    Jennifer Hernandez:

    So, on transit, first, our spending on mass transit has been extraordinary pre- and postCOVID. And ridership has dropped every year. Again, pre-COVID.

  • 00:30:59

    There were more people working remotely in Southern California than there were using
    transit at a time of unprecedented investment in transit. It costs too much; it’s too slow.
    When you go to voters and say, hey, can you approve a transit bond measure sales tax?
    And they say, sure, when will the improvements be done? And realistically, you have to
    say 30 years, which is an entire working person’s life, you have to think, wait a minute,
    there’s a lot that’s broken here. And so, rather than throw good money after bad, and try
    this time, to maybe persuade more people to ride a bus, which has been falling nationally,
    maybe it’s time to actually think about investment, where the money will go the farthest,
    where you can improve life for more people. And how many more people becomes an
    important metric. I love biking. I love bike lanes. 1.1 percent of Californians commute
    by bike.

  • 00:31:58

    And yet our spend on bike lanes is huge relative to our now open contempt for the idea of
    relieving bottlenecks on highways, even for carpool lanes, which are disfavored. Who’s
    being hurt versus helped by that policy? Who drives the most? It’s people who were
    priced out of the inner city. And I use inner-city this time, for the core that was built on a
    different business model, with, as Margaret says, very different social priorities, which
    then sucked up all kinds of resources for the region, transit being the easiest example.
    But in San Francisco, it takes almost a million dollars per unit to build an affordable
    housing unit.

    John Donvan:

    I want to take your comments about transit and investment in transit to Ed.

    Ed Glaeser:

    You know, 40 years of transportation economics at Harvard can be boiled down to four
    words, or so the old joke goes, “bus good, train bad.”

  • 00:32:58

    There’s a lot to like about smart buses; there’s a lot to like about congestion pricing. And
    we need to be really careful on any large-scale transit system, whether or not the costs
    don’t rapidly, you know, massively exceed the benefit. So, I believe that cities are worth
    investing in. I don’t think the federal government needs to subsidize them. I think that
    they can invest in themselves with their own property tax revenues. But I would not be
    prioritizing new transit lines; I would be prioritizing like Joel would be, kids growing up
    in schools. And mostly, I would be unleashing the builders, who not subsidized but with
    fewer regulations will build a city of the future if they’re just not held in a regulatory
    straight jacket.

    Jennifer Hernandez:

    I think it is, very frankly, disrespectful to a whole lot of Americans to say cities are the
    future. I think cities are, of course, the future. So are university campuses. But they
    evolve. And I think it is disrespectful and fundamentally quite racially discriminatory to
    say we want you all to want to live in a place you can’t afford, period, the end.

  • 00:34:01

    They are simply unaffordable. And so, yeah, I’d like to live in like a mansion too. But
    that’s not a debate that we should be having.

    John Donvan:

    What would be your hope for San Francisco 15 years from now, and what’s your fear?

    Jennifer Hernandez:

    So, I was born in San Francisco, and so was my son. I wanted to work there from the
    time I was a little girl on the outskirts of the Bay Area. And I did work there, and I was
    within, you know, four blocks of one location and downtown for more than 30 years of
    my legal career. I have huge affection for San Francisco. There’s a book by Michael
    Shellenberger called “San Fransicko,” which tells the story of progressive cities and their
    governance challenges. And one of the most powerful politicians in California during my
    lifetime, former mayor, former head of the legislature, Willie Brown, said you couldn’t do
    anything about the homeless in San Francisco; the advocates won’t let you.

  • 00:35:03

    And that is the story of San Francisco. We spend 1.1 billion with a B, dollars on
    homeless service providers, all of whom think they’re doing great work, and there’s no

    John Donvan:

    I hear you painting a pretty unfortunate picture. But is your hope that that can turn
    around and your fear that it won’t? What’s your hope? Rather than describe the present,
    what’s your hope for the future, and what’s your fear for the future?

    Jennifer Hernandez:

    There is enough money in San Francisco to change to a governable society. It will
    require confronting as opposed to pretending there’s consensus with the radical left.
    I do think there’s hope —

    John Donvan:

    Thank you very much.
    And Ed Glaeser same question to you, what’s your hope for the city of San Francisco in
    15 years? And what’s your fear for it?

    Ed Glaeser:

    You know, the city should never apologize for their inequality. Cities are places where
    it’s a really fun place to be rich, and it’s often a less intolerable place to be poor.

  • 00:36:02

    But that inequality, right, which reflects, in fact, the strength of cities, in many ways, is
    only tolerable because if cities are proving to be escalators of upward mobility. Too
    often, American cities have failed to do that, and that includes San Francisco. And
    there’s no question; my hope for San Francisco is that it does better for both the children
    of the disadvantaged, and that means, as Joel has said, fixing the schools, and it does
    better as an engine of upward mobility. Not just for the people living in San Francisco,
    but for people who commute in, not from Stockton, but from places that are reasonably

    John Donvan:

    So, that’s your optimistic scenario. What’s your pessimistic scenario for the city?

    Ed Glaeser:

    They keep on doing the same stuff. The schools are crappy, and they don’t build any
    more housing, not just in the city but outside the city as well.

    John Donvan:

    Okay, thank you all for letting me conduct that brief poll. That’s going to wrap up our
    second round. And I want to move on to our third round, which will be closing
    statements by each of you in turn. They will be brief, two minutes each. And making his
    closing statement in support of the resolution The Big Cities are Past Their Prime, here
    again, is Joel Kotkin.

  • 00:37:05

    Joel, your turn.

    Joel Kotkin:


    I just want to make this point that the — there’s been a huge tradition in this country to
    look at suburbs as places filled with angry, white, alienated people. I can tell you 96
    percent of the growth in suburbia in the last decade was among minorities. I think that
    we have to understand also that people in the suburbs it’s not like they don’t talk to each
    other; actually, if you look at most of the studies will show you that people are more
    social in the suburbs, particularly in suburbs where people are homeowners. I know in
    my own neighborhood, which is diverse, that there are people who are, you know, during
    COVID, we really helped each other a lot. There’s a strong civic association in the
    suburbs. And they’re not the boring places that they once were.

  • 00:38:05

    It’s become more interesting. So, I think that basically, we have to understand that most
    Americans, the vast majority, are voting with their feet for suburbs and excerpts. That
    doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention to cities, but we have to start thinking more about
    them. And I think academia, in particular, has been really, really slow to address these
    issues. There’s very little study of the places with a vast majority of Americans live that I
    think is a great failing that we have to correct we have to start thinking about how do we
    make life better for the vast majority of people. I think that’s a challenge that our society
    faces, and it’s a challenge that cities also need to face.

    John Donvan:

    Thanks very much, Joel Kotkin.
    Our next speaker making a closing statement is Ed Glaeser. Ed, you’re up.

  • 00:39:00

    Ed Glaeser:

    So, the topic that we’re debating is not whether or not suburbs are important and often
    good places and places that need study. The topic is not, the debate is not that you know,
    certain downtowns are somewhat dysfunctional, especially when the police leave them.
    The topic is whether or not Big Cities are Past Their Prime. When I look around me, in
    both the cities of the U.S. and even more so in the cities, the developing world, I think
    that is very far from the case. And I want you to just go with me for a second to the
    Dharavi slum of Mumbai. I remember going walking around there about 13 or 14 years
    ago. And every place you walk, you would see, you know, new forms of human
    ingenuity you would see, you know, guys who are sewing ladies’ undergarments, you feel
    like you were in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1905. And you see guys who are
    recycling boxes, and that means chopping up and turning them out inside out so you
    couldn’t see the old labels. How did they learn there was like money in that, the city must
    have told them somehow? Then you go down you see a ceramics district where there are
    these people making pottery, and they’re so proud of them.

  • 00:40:01

    They won’t even take any money from you for them. These are people who started, came
    from places of enormous poverty. Right? And there is no future in rural destitution.
    Places like Dharavi are places of possibility. They’re places where there’s a chance where
    we can change where we’re not just centered in subsistence agriculture that gets torn apart
    when the environmental factors get worse. They’re places that are connected to the
    outside world. They’re places where their children can actually have a chance. The fact
    of the matter is, regardless of what’s happening in Orange County, the important things
    that are happening in cities are happening in the developing world, where billions and
    billions of people are finding a better future for themselves in big cities. Right? And for
    that reason, right, even though cities have been working miracles since Socrates and Plato
    bickered on an Athenian street corner, I believe very much that urban miracle, the age of
    urban miracles is not over. And big cities are absolutely not past their prime.

  • 00:40:58

    John Donvan:

    Thank you very much, Ed Glaeser.
    Again, making the argument against the motion that Big Cities are Past Their Prime, our
    next debater will be speaking in support of the motion for her closing statement. Again,
    for the motion that Big Cities are Past Their Prime, here is Jennifer Hernandez. Jennifer,
    you’re up.

    Jennifer Hernandez:

    Thanks very much.
    So, I’m going to come back to where we started, or at least where I started, which is we’re
    talking about big cities as the core city, not the megaregion. I have agreed, here and
    elsewhere, that the megaregion is the economic engine of the future; it is possible and, in
    fact, probable that the vast majority of people living in a megaregion will be living at a
    suburban scale.
    It is also the case that even in big cities, there’s a village around your very own
    neighborhood and around your very own workplace. People do like walkable
    opportunities to interact with other human beings. And that occurs regardless of how
    many people are on a sidewalk at any given moment of the day.

  • 00:41:59

    We will continue to be humans that can actually improve our lives. If we recognize and
    respect the choice of people to own a home, to live in a place that they feel safe. And to
    respect the fact that those now seeking that kind of housing opportunity in the U.S. are
    majority-minority members of our world, and we need to knit ourselves together.
    Increasing diversity in the suburbs has been a reality, for now, for a long time, except for
    the suburbs that stopped growth. That’s the immoral conclusion of the parts of
    megaregions that have priced themselves out of middle-class homeownership. And that
    is to be attacked and criticized and condemned.

    John Donvan:

    Thank you so much, Jennifer.
    And Margaret O’Mara, you get the last word. Your closing statement will be against the
    motion that Big Cities are Past Their Prime. Here you go.

  • 00:43:00

    Margaret O’Mara:

    So, in 1832, New York City had a devastating cholera epidemic, so did many of the big
    cities of North America and around the world during that time. 3500 — over 3500 New
    Yorkers died, and the proportion in today’s eight million population of New York City
    would be as if 100,000 people perished.
    Those who died were disproportionately poor. A lot of immigrants, a lot of people who
    were not considered by New York’s elites to be very worth saving. And yet, even though
    some of those elites in the cities devastated by the epidemic did build country houses
    became early suburbanites at least living part of the year away from disease, there was a
    doubling down on creating infrastructure, public health, infrastructure, physical
    infrastructure that would prevent these sort of devastating diseases from uprooting city
    life because there was a recognition that cities were essential. They served essential
    functions, and I’m talking about core cities, as hubs of commerce, as hubs of social life
    and cultural life.

  • 00:44:06

    Let me tell you another story about my city, Seattle, which in 1971 had been so
    devastated by job cuts of its major employee — employer, Boeing, which had sheared off
    over 60,000 jobs in the region and countless others closed as a result. There are two real
    estate agents who put up a billboard on one of the main arterials saying, will the last
    person leave Seattle to turn out the lights? That’s a kind of funny billboard to think about
    50 years on when Seattle is a tech hub, a boomtown, in fact, choking on its own success.
    And so, I think it’s not that cities are past their prime. It’s not that cities, big cities in the
    United States, don’t have the problems they certainly do. But those problems stem from
    the missing ingredient that was present in cities when they were at the peak of their
    vitality, which is a civic realm, a place where people of all incomes and all kinds could
    come together.

  • 00:45:04

    Rebuilding that is critical, and leaders who invest in that who become public servants
    investing in that rebuilding will be critical.
    Thank you so much.

    John Donvan:

    Thank you, Margaret. And your closing closes the debate; that was the end of round
    And now to all of you who are watching now, we need you to vote that second time that I
    talked about in the beginning, reminding you that your vote will choose the winner of this
    debate between the first and the second vote, the team whose numbers go up the most in
    percentage point terms, that team will be named our winner. I’m going to ask you, again,
    to go to and register with us whether you are for, against, or undecided on this
    And as I mentioned earlier, we’re going to be keeping this vote open for another seven
    days so that people out there in the world, people who live in cities, and people who don’t
    live in cities, can also tell us where they stand on this resolution. And after seven days,
    we will announce the winner on our website,

  • 00:45:59

    So, with the competition over and while I still have all four of you here, I just want to
    thank you so much for the way you did this, the homework that you did, the insight that
    you brought, the civility that you showed one another. I think that civility is somewhat
    based on the fact that in a lot of fundamental ways, you agree, but you also disagree in
    fundamental ways. And you presented your arguments with respect for one another and
    respect for the process. And you are clearly, clearly listening to each other, and that’s a
    sort of rare thing these days. So, to Ed and Margaret and Joel and Jennifer, thank you so
    much for taking part in this Intelligence Squared debate.

    Multiple Speakers:

    Thank you.

    John Donvan:

    And I want to thank all of you who are joining us; by watching the debate tuning in, we
    really appreciate that you’re here. I also want to do a little bit of a commercial; we
    appreciate your support. We are a nonprofit organization, and we depend on the support
    of people like you to help us make these things happen and put them out to the world.
    We have all kinds of membership opportunities, donation opportunities, and we would
    love you to consider being part of this and to keep this going by going to our website,

  • 00:47:06

    So, for being here, all of you out there in debate viewing-land, thanks so much for joining

    [music playing]

    [end of transcript]

    This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please excuse any errors.








Change in voter behavior
45% - Remained on the Side
12% - Swung from the Side
8% - Swung from Undecided
Change in voter behavior
0% - Swung from the Side
4% - Remained Undecided
4% - Swung from the Side
Change in voter behavior
2% - Swung from the Side
22% - Remained on the Side
2% - Swung from Undecided

Have an idea for a debate or have a question for the Open to Debate Team?

Join a community of social and intellectual leaders that truly value the free exchange of ideas.
Readings on our weekly debates, debater editorials, and news on issues that affect our everyday lives.
Help us bring debate to communities and classrooms across the nation.