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Stephen Malpezzi

The Wisconsin Idea Meets Barcelona (Part I)

by Stephen Malpezzi Thursday, October 11, 2012

Greetings from Barcelona, Spain’s Chicago (“Second City”), Catalonia’s capital, an economic engine of the country and the region (currently sputtering a bit, as you’ll know), probably best known to many Wisconsinites as the home to Gaudi’s still-evolving masterpiece, the Church of the Sagrada Família, but also more architecture, history, and culture than I can begin to address today.

I’m here for the sixth annual Urban Research and Knowledge Symposium, Rethinking Cities: Framing the Future, jointly organized by the World Bank and the city of Barcelona. There are hundreds of researchers, activists, mayors, and other city officials here, and even a few business people, though it’s focused primarily on public policy issues. For your first look at the conference, go to

Many readers of this blog will have had a look at the “Tradition and Innovation” paper that explores our real estate program over the past century—if you haven’t, the fall 2012 edition is available here. One of the themes of that paper is the importance of the Wisconsin Idea, usually traced back to President Charles Van Hise around 1904, but more fully developed and first named “The Wisconsin Idea” in a 1912 book of that title by the founder of Wisconsin’s Legislative Reference Bureau, Charles McCarthy. In honor of the centennial of that publication, the University has organized a website: Be sure to click on the “The Wisconsin Idea Globally.” It’s been a long time since we’ve taken the limiting part of the phrase “the walls of the University are the boundaries of the state” literally—we’ve long gone national and global—and, if you ask my basketball buddies in the astronomy department, they’ll tell you we’ve gone beyond global!

There’s another aspect of the Wisconsin Idea that is worth discussing: that the idea is not a lecture, but a conversation. Ideas, especially good ones, are a two-way street. I’m presenting a paper and contributing to this conference in other ways, but it’s just like class: I’m learning a ton while I’m at it.  During my early morning downtime, I’ll send a little taste of the conference.

 The conference was opened by World Bank and city officials, most notably the Mayor of Barcelona, the Honorable Xavier Trias.  This was followed by a plenary session that launched a forthcoming book, Rethinking Cities: A Roadmap Towards Better Urbanization for Development, edited by Edward Glaeser and Abha Joshi-Ghani, to be published by the World Bank. I’ve contributed a chapter on housing markets and policy, which I'll talk about more later. The session comprised an overview by the book’s editors, Ed and Abha, and commentary by mayors and other officials from Harare, Seoul, London, and, of course, Barcelona. Ed’s presentation was especially substantive, as you’d expect from the author of one of my 2012 Dynamic Dozen, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Ed gave a great overview, rich in the history as well as the economics of cities, touching on, among other things, the ways in which cities facilitate trade, make capital and labor more productive, and help us address some of our most urgent environmental problems.