Pandemic reminds us that we are part of a common global community: Edward Glaeser

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The 4th International High-level Forum on Sustainable Urban Development began on Nov. 16 in Chengdu, Sichuan province in China. Amid the epidemic, the forum was held with the help of remote technologies, with officials, experts, and scholars from both China and abroad attending the forum on-site and online.

During a video interview by, Edward Glaeser, professor at Harvard University, renowned urban economist, and the author of "Triumph of the City," discussed issues concerning urban sustainable development, especially in the post-pandemic era.

Glaeser is an advocate for urban development as a means of protecting nature. In reality, few countries can avoid the "urban diseases" that arise during urbanization, among which over-concentration of the population is the most pivotal issue. Glaeser stated how overpopulation can cause numerous problems, with the spread of contagious diseases being just one of them, with urbanized countries like Britain and America historically encountering similar problems. 

With COVID-19 currently raging in these countries, working to solve these problems is even more important. "A pandemic has the ability to shut down our urban world," said Glaeser. He then gave three suggestions to avoid such issues from happening again: improving early warning systems and closing related urban networks is a disease is encountered; using symptomatic and asymptomatic data to fight diseases; and, the preemptive preparation of medical and research resources, etc.

Glaeser also believes that urban development models will also change in the wake of COVID-19, but that these changes will depend on how the pandemic plays out. If the pandemic reaches an end, there will only likely be short-term economic dislocation but it will still take a few years for everything to revert back to normal. However, if the pandemic continues for a long period of time or if another pandemic occurs in the next decade, we will likely be looking at a very different world where businesses will collapse, public transportation challenges will occur, and fiscal challenges would endure. 

During COVID-19, the question of whether "to wear a face mask or not" has become a problem in the US. Glaeser said he likes feasible solutions when they involve liberty, but said that he thinks people should definitely wear masks. In every society, there are people who push back against what others promote, therefore "every government needs to figure out how to balance those things."

When it comes to urbanization, Glaeser stated that denser urbanization is more environmentally friendly. If China builds up its cities rather than merely building out, its carbon emissions will reduce significantly and it can become a global leader in this area. He especially emphasized that "there is no sense in which density is incompatible with also having green space."

Technologies and smart designs are important for this change, and naturally, we can expect that some problems will arise during urbanization. "In every country, the government plays catch up with urbanization," said Glaeser, adding, "You don't solve traffic congestion just by building more highways." To deal with these problems, both infrastructure and incentives play significant roles, where "incentives" refers to how to "nudge people towards doing the right things."

People are at the center of urban development, which is also the philosophy adopted by the Chinese government. Glaeser said he totally agrees with this sentiment and pointed out that some architects and urban planners may sometimes confuse the real city, which is humanity, with the visible city. Some cities are built to impress people rather than to foster humanity. However, he regards Chengdu as a city that is possibly built for humanity. Glaeser said China should continue to advance its development model, stating “China has long roots” in urbanization and has been urbanizing intelligently for nearly 2,000 years. 

At the end of the interview, Glaeser said that though he has never been to Chengdu, he very much looks forward to visiting  in the future so as to, taste real Sichuan cuisine and get a closer look at the pandas. 

"I think a great sadness of the current pandemic is that we are not able to connect in person, which is what makes conferences like this even more important. They remind 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 concluded.

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