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The fix for US cities

A big city mayor, a top prosecutor and a leading urban economist had a lot to say at the 2024 SIEPR Economic Summit about what ails American cities and how to turn them around.
Edward Glaeser of Harvard, San Francisco's top prosecutor Brooke Jenkins and San Jose, Calif. Mayor Matt Mahan discuss steps to tackle urban problems at the 2024 SIEPR Economic Summit.

A lot of people think U.S. cities are done for. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, residents have fled, offices have emptied, and tax revenues have fallen. TikTok videos depicting homeless encampments, retail theft, and open-air drug markets all point to an urban crisis seemingly without end.

At the 2024 SIEPR Economic Summit, three top experts — San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins and Edward Glaeser of Harvard — offered their perspectives on the future of U.S. cities.

The nub of their dynamic conversation: The death of U.S. cities has been greatly exaggerated, but there are still serious problems that need to be addressed before they can flourish again.

Glaeser, an expert on urban economics, offered some historical perspective on the rise and fall of U.S. cities.

In the early 1970s, he said, a billboard on the highway out of Seattle asked if the last person to leave the city could please turn out the lights. The reason, said Glaeser: Seattle’s hometown giant, Boeing, was shedding jobs. But then came Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, and Starbucks to pick up the economic slack and then some.

Glaeser offered up another example: the fax machine. When it went mainstream, people figured that no one had any reason to congregate in cities. “Why would we need to be face-to-face when we could just fax each other?” he said.

In hindsight, these predictions seem laughable. But they offer a reason to pause before concluding that today’s urban bugaboo — remote work — marks the downfall of the metropolis.

“Cities,” he said, “have been through worse.”

Getting back to basics

Even so, U.S. cities have problems that need policy responses, the panelists said during the session moderated by Neale Mahoney, the George P. Shultz Fellow at SIEPR who will take over as the institute’s Trione Director early next year.

For Mahan, who was elected mayor of the country’s 12th largest city in 2022 on a theme of “getting back to basics,” this means focusing on a narrow set of objectives: public safety, homelessness, clean streets, and faster government permitting (“not the sexiest of issues,” he said of the permitting process).

Mahan said he also wants to see city agencies do a better job of measuring their own performance.

“We have challenges that far outstrip our capacity to solve them if we keep doing things the same way,” he said.

Jenkins, who became San Francisco’s top prosecutor in 2022, said San Francisco also needs to return to the fundamentals of running a city — which means less ideology and more pragmatism in the delivery of city services. “We’re not all rowing in the same direction,” she said.

For her, the path to pragmatism is clear. “I often say ‘All crime is illegal again in San Francisco,’” Jenkins added. “I say that to be funny, but also to be very serious.”

“The beautiful view of the Bay is not enough to sustain us,” she said. “If we can’t provide [safe streets], then people will leave, especially for somewhere that is more affordable.”

Watch the full discussion.