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Is Ed Glaeser a NIMBY?
Seems like it.
After the popular profile of a NIMBY in the New York Times last week by Conor Dougherty, I thought maybe I should do my own.
But this time about someone you wouldn’t expect.
As a rule, we are all NIMBYs at least once.
I stumbled across this 2006 profile of Harvard pro-density urban economist Ed Glaeser. It was quite revealing.
The profile explains that although he grew up in New York City, the guy who could live anywhere decided to move to Weston, Massachusetts, on the outskirts of Boston. Apparently, his home is on a 6.5-acre (2.6Ha) plot of land in a suburb with not one, but three, massive golf courses.
At a 2011 event, he was asked about this apparent hypocrisy.
But he was stopped in his tracks by a question from the audience:
"I can't get past the fact that you actually live in the suburbs. It's brave of you to admit to that. By working in the city aren't you taking the best from the city and getting away from the worst of it? Although you say high density is the thing, it's not actually what you personally choose to do."
With a wry smile, Glaeser replied: "I cannot tell you how acutely aware I am of what I am missing every day by living in the suburb. I count the hours until my last kid is out of high school and I can move back into a one room apartment. My five years in the suburb has not left me feeling as though I'm living some wonderful existence."
Yet this 2019 profile of him says he is still there enjoying the lifestyle and the living space.
Surprisingly, he and his wife, Nancy, who have three children, decided to move to the suburbs of Boston several years ago. To Glaeser, it was a perfectly rational decision: the suburbs offer more living space, better schools, and a reasonably fast commute.
I don’t know where Ed Glaeser lives today.
But I do know that in 2011 he didn’t want more housing in his suburban oasis.
In a 2011 article Glaeser argued that the area around the Walden Pond reservation in his neighbourhood should be protected from new housing and instead new housing should be built in other people’s neighbourhoods.
Living around trees is less green than living around concrete. The next time you want to fight for nature, leave Walden Pond alone and start pushing for denser development in downtown Boston.
The weird part is that his analysis of the environmental evils of low-density housing suggests that his own lifestyle choice is a very destructive one.
A long time collaborator of his, Joseph Gyourko, said the following in the below video from early May 2022.
If you ask what are really rich people like you and Ed Glaeser doing to keep people away from your mansions and your houses, that’s always going on. (1:04:15)
These are surprising revelations.
Glaeser is a guru who has encouraged his followers to worship city growth and new housing in every nook and cranny. Yet all the while he has been living the suburban dream on acreage and lobbying to keep new housing out of his own neighbourhood.
Unfortunately, this classic “do what I say not what I do” stuff is common in debates about planning and housing.
Former Sydney northern beaches MP Jason Falinski chaired a parliamentary inquiry into housing supply. He came down firmly on the side of taking power away from residents to enable property developers to do as they please.
Yet, he provided a video campaigning against the development of 450 dwellings by the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council in his electorate at Lizard Rock and hosted a petition against it. This is despite the fact that the local council and state government supported it.
Former Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley promoted densification across the city during his time in office, but hates density in his own neighbourhood, even for not-for-profit aged care housing.
Many property developers also hate living in or near the type of buildings they build.
I am sure plenty of town planners and councillors also live in old low-density suburbs while making decisions about how to densify other people’s suburbs. Some seem self-aware at times.
I myself live in an old but dense inner-city suburb in a detached house on 300sqm. My area is slowly becoming surrounded by new residential towers. I’ve also been involved in local community groups trying to make sure that the changes are more incremental and facilitated with public investments like parks, schools, bike paths, bus services, traffic lights, and more, to enable densification in a way that creates a net benefit.
This gives me a unique perspective. I’m pro-moderate density and I have also lived the gentrification and densification experience for the past 17 years.
But it is a puzzle that those who most fervently push densification and high-rise housing often choose for themselves very different housing options.
Or perhaps not. Obsessing over density and infill development could just be another case of what Rob Henderson has called luxury beliefs—things you don’t really believe, but use to signal group loyalty and status. Luxury beliefs are “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while the main price is paid by those less fortunate.”
The whole anti-zoning thing really has become a symbol of elite status, as others have noted.
The implicit message here isn’t really that you need to quit your creative job and dedicate your life to ending affluent residential zoning, but that being anti- such zoning is a culturally-informed position to hold in creative-class publications and at creative-class parties. I’m certainly not aware of [David] Brooks abandoning his $2M home in Capitol Hill! It's the intellectual equivalent of Patagonia telling you not to buy their jackets; he’s having his zoning rules, and anti them too.
When I read Glaeser’s writing I can’t shake the feeling that he doesn’t really believe what he says much of the time. His actions suggest some of these beliefs are mere luxuries, and the behaviour of many others suggests this common.
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Ed Glaeser says in this interview (5.22mins) that he grew up in a rent stabilized apartment in New York. Not sure if this means anything. Just interesting.