Revisiting Glaeser: Stamford and the triumph of the (small) city in Connecticut

Stamford is one of the safest places to stay in New England. Photo by Anamul Rezwan/Pexels.

Connecticut cities are well-known around the world for their dominance in certain industries and their innovative history. Once upon a time, Hartford was the insurance capital of the world and the wealthiest city in the country. Today, Hartford is one of the poorest cities in the country, and insurance and other industries have a downsized presence in the city. Other Connecticut cities had similar outcomes: Bridgeport went from being a factory powerhouse to a depressed urban center, while Willimantic lost its manufacturing title as “The Thread City” to become the “Heroin Town.” For many people in Connecticut, cities represent a state of decline. However, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and others have defended the city as “our greatest invention.” Indeed, history shows that Connecticut’s greatest moments happened in cities and its future greatness will depend on the triumph of the city.

Not all Connecticut cities have suffered the same fate. The city of Stamford boasts impressive statistics: the fastest growing city in the statethe safest city in New England, an affordable housing program rated top 10 in the nation and ranked No.7 for human capital and lifestyle and No. 1 for connectivity. Since the office boom of the 1970s and 1980s, Stamford has emerged as one of the most prominent corporate centers outside of Chicago and New York City. Its residents enjoy a high quality of living with high earnings (the average household income is $140,000), and the growth of the city is supported by over $6 billion in investment. Stamford, albeit a small city, has triumphed.

In his signature book “The Triumph of the City”, Glaeser provides a framework for understanding the success of cities. In simple terms, Glaeser argues that cities succeed because they are able to attract talent and create spaces for collaboration. Essentially, successful cities like New York City and Hong Kong are centers of human capital. It is no coincidence that Stamford, the state’s most successful city, also ranks among the top 10 cities in the nation for human capital. There are also new spaces in the city in the form of coffee shops, breweries and events that allow entrepreneurs, students and business leaders to collaborate. Additionally, the municipal government has contributed to the new social and economic fabric of the city by making it more walkable and demanding more community benefits from eager developers.  

The success of a small city like Stamford is partly due to its convenient proximity to New York City, but most of the credit goes to savvy business leaders and city officials who have embraced Glaeser’s framework and focused on attracting new residents. Yet Stamford could have ended up like other Connecticut cities. Once upon a time, Stamford was also a manufacturing hub, dubbed “The Lock City” for its world renowned lock production and known for producing the world’s first truly portable typewriterthe electric shaver and other products still in use today. Many of these industries were gone by the 1950s, so the city reinvented itself into a corporate center through the Urban Renewal program. The types of corporations headquartered in the city have changed over time, and one of the biggest industries today is digital media, led by giants such as World Wrestling Entertainment and Spectrum.  

Connecticut cities have struggled because their success has depended on industry rather than people. In his book, Glaeser emphasizes that the city is ultimately about people, not its industries or skyscrapers. Hartford can try to attract companies and Bridgeport can try to build its way out of poverty, but those efforts will only bring headlines, not success. There are plenty of lessons for Connecticut cities to learn from Stamford, but one stands out: The triumph of the (small) city is achieved by making the city about people. The people who will be in these cities will be UConn students, professionals and out-of-state newcomers. Regardless of their backgrounds, they will all contribute to human capital and the triumph of the city. 

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