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Conor Sen and Noah Smith

Debate: Build Up or Build Out?

A lack of housing is holding back cities, but lots of people prefer the suburbs.

Something for everyone.

Something for everyone.

Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg

Economic geography is a hot topic among economists who look at how location, transit and distribution systems and spatial relationships figure in growth, land use and urbanization. Bloomberg Opinion columnists Conor Sen and Noah Smith met online recently to debate the merits of population concentration versus dispersion.

Smith: Lots of people are talking about the need to build more housing in big cities. There are two basic reasons why. First, living near to their jobs eases the expense and burden of public-transit commuting for working-class people. Second, research shows that having concentrations of smart people in a small area is good for productivity. Smart people exchange ideas as they work together and move from job to job, and they provide a pool of employees for knowledge industry companies in tech, media, biotech and finance. That raises productivity, and the extra money gets spent on local services, which provides income for the working class. Therefore, we should try to pack a lot of people into highly productive cities if we can.