Seoul is a human capital city
By Chung Ah-young
As many urbanites tire of their hectic lives in Seoul, they are tempted to go outside the city, seeking pastoral lives in rural areas.
However, Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, takes a different approach toward cities, saying the cities magnify humanity’s strengths.
To mark the Korean publication of his book “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier” (Hainaim Publishing; 544 pp., 18,000 won), he met Korean reporters at the Press Center in Seoul Monday.
It is his first visit to Seoul which he says is “one of the world’s great cities.”
Through his book, the economist emphasizes the chief role of cities is to expand human strengths. In that sense, his impression of Seoul is remarkable, although Glaeser didn’t have enough time to fully appreciate its value.
“The most important thing about Seoul is that it is a human capital city ... The strength of Seoul and the strength of Korea lies in education and culture that make human capitals more productive,” he said.
The professor also pointed out that Seoul manages to achieve an interesting balance between order and innovation which is not always easy.
He took the examples of two cities — Rio de Janeiro, a city of phenomenal innovation on its streets but little order and much chaos posing challenges of urban safety and crime and Zurich, a city of far less innovation on the streets but with enormous order.
Seoul appears to have a good balance between the two in which people can work functionally with phenomenal differences of service at restaurants and retail infrastructures.
He suggested that successful cities have smart people, small firms and connections to the outside world.
“This is the long-term recipe for urban success and for reinvention time after time. Seoul has smart people and it is a smart city connected internationally. But it is also often known for large firms. Many times those companies do great in the short term but not good in the long run,” he said.
He explained that the reason New York is a successful city is it has recently made a successful transition based on human capital — replacing shipping, manufacturing and the garment industry with global finance, while some large industrial manufacturers in Detroit have continued to decline.
Glaeser emphasized the importance of globalization for a successful city transcending the countries and continents.
“But Seoul is very Korean and Tokyo is very Japanese or Paris is very French, whereas New York is not very American and London is not very English and Singapore isn’t very ... I don’t know what Singapore would be ... and Hong Kong isn’t very Chinese. The trend of history is toward an international city,” he said.
Glaeser is critical of thriving cities that impose building regulations and restrictive conservation rules to limit new construction while espousing the rising-up of new buildings for effective residences for the city dwellers.
The professor said that building up is an alternative to building out by putting a lot of people in a tall building in which neighbors interact with each other in more spacious living conditions.
But developers and builders pursue less rational reasons and often pursue the hyper glory of a tall building.
“And more than once the tall symbol of the excess is ended up being empty for too long. Don’t forget the Empire State Building for 15 years was called ‘Empty State Building,’” he said.
The professor said that from Seoul to San Francisco and St. Petersburg, cities are becoming more vibrant.
It’s a puzzling phenomenon because even though people live in an age of information and communication that enables people living in a long distance to communicate easily across the globe due to electronic devices, they come to cities despite inconveniences such as environmental and other social problems.
“The world faces enormous challenges. There is still hunger and disease. There are still national disasters. Environment remains as an enormous challenge and war remains as a challenge.
“But I am optimistic. This book is optimistic because I am enormously confident in building humankind to do an amazing thing when we work together.”
Glaeser said that when we are alone, we are humble creatures but when we’re together, we create such feats from discovering vaccines and building skyscrapers to producing the glories of art, music and culture.
“So much of that was done by humanity connected between the cities and human beings learn each other’s ideas and together create something miraculous. I see that process is continuing around the world every day, constantly and more and more.
“Despite the enormous challenges we face, I can’t help but feel optimistic and hopeful and positive about the future of our species on this planet because we are together. We will work on this connection.”