The topic of the NYU Law Forum on March 2 was “America's Cities: The Burden of the Past, or the Promise of the Future?” In a discussion moderated by Roderick Hills Jr., William T. Comfort III Professor of Law, panelists looked at the factors contributing to the thriving of urban areas.

Edward Glaeser, Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard University, pointed out that, despite the ability to telecommute from peaceful rural areas, cities are still desirable places to live.

“Globalization and new technologies have increased the returns to being smart,” said Glaeser. “They’ve increased the returns to having new ideas. They’ve increased the returns to understanding particularly complicated ideas. And that’s where cities come in. We are at our heart a social species that gets smart by being around other smart people. Face-to-face contact is critical to the learning process.... A young lawyer who comes to New York and works doesn’t just learn from training sessions or even the august classes that they take. They learn from the random things that they’re exposed to.”

Making cities work at a human scale is the chief concern of Ethan Kent, vice president of the Project for Public Spaces. Kent has contributed to placemaking, or the creation of useful public spaces, in Times Square and other key New York City areas as well as Portland, Oregon; Providence, Rhode Island; and Santiago, Chile. Unfortunately, he said, municipal government often isn’t set up to optimize such endeavors, even though they add significant value and appeal to urban areas.

Diana Silver, assistant professor of public health at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, has examined data for a number of “declining” cities—including Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and St. Louis—and investigated how those cities are addressing their issues. But the thinning ranks of local government mean fewer local initiatives, thus compounding the problem.

Watch the full video of the event (1 hr, 14 min):