Why the New Flows of Capital Matter for Cities

Prior to the rise of the car and the trucking industry, cities were the best places for investment. They provided access to markets through ports, rivers, and railroads. They had large pools of unskilled labor living near factories, and they were relatively dense making business easier for firms. Significantly, capital, the cultural sociologist Zygmunt Bauman claims, was “heavy” and enmeshed in place:

Routinized time tied labor to the ground, while the massiveness of the factory buildings, the heaviness of the machinery and, last but not least, the permanently tied labor ‘bonded’ the capital. Neither capital nor labor was eager, or able, to move.

Urban centers were hubs of industry, fostering, in the words of political scientist Douglas Rae, a “civic fauna.” The rich and the poor lived close together and intermingled by participating in common civic projects. Although hardly utopias—cities struggled with public health problems, pollution, and ethnic and racial antagonism—the flow of capital through cities created jobs and a rich cultural infrastructure. But as transportation and communication technology advanced, urban investment slowed, moving away from the expensive real estate and high taxes of the city toward greener pastures in the county. As a result, many cities over the last century experienced massive unemployment and high crime as populations followed the flow of capital to middle-class enclaves in the suburbs.

Yet, today, our cities again are seeing fresh investment due to new emerging economic sectors in knowledge and technology. Instead of building factories, investments in the burgeoning knowledge economy focus on human capital, innovation, and lighter technologies. These new sectors have resulted in job growth in software and pharmaceutical development, biotech, digital entertainment, and financial innovation, among other fields.

Urban centers are prime locations for these knowledge-based industries. The reason according to Professor Dana Silver is that “[Cities] spur innovation by facilitating face-to-face interaction, they attract talent and sharpen it through competition, they encourage entrepreneurship, and they allow for social and economic mobility.” As these sectors continue to grow, capital is again flowing back into cities. Yet, cities must recognize the form of capital has changed, and with that transformation there comes not only opportunities but also new challenges.

As labor shifted from working with machines and metal to generating new ideas and innovations, capital became highly mobile and disruptive—where once capital was “heavy,” it is now “light.” “The disembodied labor of the software era,” says Bauman, “no longer ties down capital: it allows capital to be extraterritorial, volatile, and fickle. Disembodiment of labor augurs weightlessness of capital.” The rapid movement of money allows a city to react quickly, investing in nascent tech industries. New, successful businesses can spring up overnight in seemingly any place.

However, even in an era of highly mobile capital, capital is not moving just anywhere, but to very specific destinations. Though the death of distance has long been heralded, place matters more than ever in the knowledge economy. Cities such as San Jose, San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C., Raleigh-Durham, Seattle, and Austin are places of intense knowledge-based economic growth. Each of these cities contains a cluster of similar high-tech industries that serve to reinforce the vitality of the region.

Although cities are again becoming important economic engines, their revival may not be evenly felt across the country. Innovation hubs take time to develop and certain areas have historical or geographic advantages. Silicon Valley, for example, owed much of its early growth to being the site of Cold War research and more than thirty years would pass before it became a world technology center.

As they attempt to harness this growth, smaller and less-established cities will discover some growing pains. They may experience something closer to what I found working at a successful education tech company. A decade after it was founded in a small city, the company was purchased by a private equity company. The investors moved the company to a larger, more innovative metropolitan area, laying off more than one hundred employees—a considerable blow to the local job market.

Innovation sectors require a highly educated and technological sophisticated population. Such a population takes vast resources to develop and will have potentially tremendous social consequences. As Tyler Cowen argues:

Th[e] imbalance in technological growth will have some surprising implications. For instance, workers more and more will come to be classified into two categories. The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage labor and market prospects are likely to be cheery. Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other. That’s why average is over.

The new flows of capital are not only changing cities economically, but also socially. In a Slate article, economist Robert Frank argues “top salaries have been growing sharply in virtually every labor market because of two factors—technological forces that greatly amplify small increments in performance and increased competition for the services of top performers.” This economic environment can deepen existing economic divides and exacerbate social tensions within a city. High-growth superstar cities such as San Francisco are struggling with exactly this problem.

In a rush to grow, cities may overlook those who are not part of the new economy. Worries over gentrification include more than simply displacing low-income families—these same people may be shut out of access to greater economic opportunity. The knowledge economy can disproportionately award skilled individuals and the sectors that employ them, while creating a sharp economic divide felt locally and nationally.

Unsurprisingly, many cities would rather have the problems of booming San Francisco than struggling Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Michigan. Cities such as Columbus, Ohio, for example, are developing knowledge indicators that can help target new tech industries. Richard Florida’s conception of the “Creative Class” (where cities are encouraged to appeal to artists for economic growth) has been extremely receptive across the country. As innovation sectors continue to grow, cities have again become investment targets, a trend that brings economic as well as urban revitalization. But with opportunity comes challenges. For a city to thrive, governments and business leaders will need to grapple with the seismic economic changes underway. Their metrics and laws will need to be updated to capture this shift. But more importantly, they will need to be vigilant to ensure that the new flows of capital benefit not just a select few, but everybody.

Stephen Assink is curator and manager of Common Place. He is also a member of the Principal Investigator team for the Thriving Cities Project.

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Reflecting on “Data” and “Big Data” for Cities

The supercomputer Arctur-1, 2012.

The supercomputer Arctur-1, 2012. By Arctur (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Part 4 of the series Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data 

Given the rapid pace of city growth and the concurrent demand for better infrastructure and services, pressure on city leaders and managers to make smart policy and planning decisions around investment has never been greater. Limited public budgets, demands for open participatory government, and aging and deteriorating infrastructure also add to the complexities of achieving prosperous, sustainable, resilient, and inclusive cities. This increasingly complex planning environment is driving the demand for data on cities.

The massive collecting and sorting of information known as Big Data is responding to this need and becoming a necessary and useful tool for city leaders. However, in order to create broader knowledge of cities, Big Data must be contextualized and complemented by standardized and comparative city metrics, driven by demand of city leaders themselves. Standardized indicators reported by cities, such as those in the new international standard ISO 37120 Sustainable Development of Communities – Indicators for City Services and Quality of Life are needed to provide a more complete picture of city performance to inform decision making.

ISO 37120 was published in May 2014 by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISO 31720 defines and establishes methodologies for a comprehensive set of indicators that will enable any sized city in a developed or developing economy to track and measure its social, economic, and environmental performance in relation to other cities.

Standardized indicators can help reframe the Bent Flyvbjerg question—“where we are going?”—to “where ought we be going?” For cities, standardized indicators are important for benchmarking, guiding investments, and tracking progress. Cities are positioned to benefit from this type of data precisely because standardization of data enables city-to-city learning and the exchange of best practices, and data also empowers citizens by making them more informed about their city’s service delivery, with the end goal of improving quality of life.

ISO 37120 represents a critical shift in thinking when it comes to city data. It provides cities and stakeholders with a standardized approach and a global framework for third party verification of city data.

Noah Toly points to an example from Anthony Townsend on how Big Data helped to locate residents in Chicago who were vulnerable to extreme weather events. While Toly points out that Big Data may be able to provide this type of information, he argues that it is less likely to inform decision makers on why these people are vulnerable and what should be done to mitigate their risk. This is where standardized metrics can complement Big Data by helping to track the impact and readiness of cities to respond to extreme weather events and other risks. For this reason, in addition to ISO 37120, another standard for indicators on urban resilience is now being considered by the ISO. Risk and resilience indicators reported by cities will complement and in fact inform Big Data on risk from extreme weather events and track how neighborhoods will be impacted.

The first ever certification system and Global Registry for ISO 37120 has been developed by the World Council on City Data (WCCD). The WCCD, launched in May 2014 at the Global Cities Summit in Toronto, has been established to take this critical data agenda forward. The organization is coordinating all efforts on city data to ensure a consistent and comprehensive platform for standardized urban metrics through ISO 37120 and future standards under development.

Back to the question at hand: Big Data can be a tool for government. However, with regards to the concerns that Toly raises, it should not be the only tool. Big Data should be one of many datasets that cities turn to in order to ensure that cities are in fact headed in the right direction when it comes to sustainable planning for the future.

Patricia McCarney is President and CEO of the World Council on City Data (WCCD), and a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Global Cities Institute (GCI) at the University of Toronto.

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Harnessing Big Data to Democratic Ends

Seattle skyline at night, 2002. Wikimedia Commons.

Seattle skyline at night, 2002. Wikimedia Commons.

Part 3 of the series Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data 

It’s easy to be afraid of Big Data. (Like Big Brother or Big Tobacco, it’s coming for us).  It’s even easier to be excited about it. As Noah Toly noted in his recent posts on Common Place, the same qualities of Big Data can inspire both utopian dreams and dystopian fears. But what can Big Data do for–or to–democracy?

In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) called for governments and NGOs to “develop and identify indicators of sustainable development in order to improve the information basis for decision-making at all levels.” The hope was to craft new, large-scale statistical resources that would help assess and craft policies. The UNCED’s goal was twofold: first, to “bridge the data gap” that exists at all levels of government on key environmental and economic issues; second, to improve “information availability” in order to assure that data be accessible to all decision makers and managed securely and openly.  UNCED hoped not only to improve elite decision making but also to democratize sustainable development practices.

The data the UNCED proposed to track would serve democracy in a “broad sense, ” helping  individuals and institutions at both the international and grassroots levels to engage with the pressing questions of our time. But while obviously helpful to the functioning of democratic societies, these large-scale statistical measures also present problems for them.  For example, elites can use such data to support what  appear to be their interests alone—a truth borne out by metrics such as GDP, which can be used to monitor and inform the economic power of the wealthy without reflecting the well-being of the population as a whole.

Indeed, assorted measurements and data have long been used by governments and political elites to  control populations, going back to the first efforts by monarchs to require  thorough census data on their  subjects. As political scientist and anthropologist James Scott shows in Seeing Like a State, the transparency that statistical measures give to complex political phenomena can also make citizens more “legible” to, and thus controllable by, political elites. Big Data thus not only abets surveillance, but can also also bring the politically “illegible” into the fold by forcing their normalization.

Then, too, Big Data can be used to assert the sufficiency of statistical fact, thereby sometimes curtailing robust or fully informed demoractic debate. Take recent partisan arguments  pitting economic stimulus against austerity. Neither side is prepared to engage in a conversation over the data itself. Both sides claim to be in possession of the facts, the left asserting that stimulus will lead to sustained economic growth, the right that austerity is the only route to the same destination. In this case, as in others, conversations beginning with the assertion of absolute facts tend to end either in stalemate (as in recent debates about the federal budget in America) or with technocracy, where the statistician is favored over and against the popular will of people (as with Italy’s Monti government).

Can we have the benefits of Big Data without the drawbacks? Is there a way to harness the democratic power of information  while also promoting democratic open-mindedness and popular empowerment? The work of geographer Meg Holden, who studied the development and implementation of a regional environmental impact index called Sustainable Seattle (S2), is useful here. Holden’s study of S2 shows how  complex phenomena such as urban sustainability and climate change can be made subjects of political debate through statistical measures.

Holden shows that grassroots attention to indicator development and application allowed the S2 project to bridge existing learning gaps between local politics and dispersed economic, ecological, cultural, and institutional phenomena. Rather than shifting knowledge of large-scale phenomena outside democratic debate, S2 promoted “social learning.” Residents of Seattle could (and did) use its findings to promote better  democratic debates.

The demands S2 placed on its developers were many. Among other things, they had to become statistical experts in indicator development while finding measurements that meaningfully correlated to ecological questions. They had to be marketers who could advertise their project and findings to their community. And finally, they had to lobby in support of their findings in order to have an impact on local politics. While Holden shows that S2 was imperfect, the responsiveness of its developers to broad public concerns makes it a model for those hoping to  to harness Big Data for democratic ends.

Above all, the S2 project leaders recognized the limits of Big Data. Its developers acknowledged the imperfect nature and sources of data, the limitations inherent in its processing, the necessity of packaging findings, and the need to bring findings to all audiences and institutions. In the long run, such chastened optimism and humility may prove to be the most helpful lessons  of all.

Callum Ingram is a graduate student in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. His dissertation research focuses on the use of urban space and architecture by democratic social movements.

Editor’s note: For more on this topic, subscribe to receive the spring issue of The Hedgehog Review, “Too Much Information.”

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Governing for the Common Good: An Interview with Kathy Galvin—Part 2

In the first part of my interview with Kathy Galvin, a city councilor in Charlottesville, Virginia, Kathy spoke about the challenges of generating political consensus within a city. Here, Kathy discusses the effect of different departmental silos on governance, as well as the difficulty of finding common ground among citizens on historically fraught issues such as Vinegar Hill. In response, she advocates for a holistic approach to social problems.

 

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Back to the City! Back to the Country!

Thomas Jefferson once said: “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” Despite his penchant for Parisian culture and cuisine, Jefferson obviously did not hold the same affection for European cities. Rather, Jefferson, who spent much of his private life gardening and farming at his rural home in Monticello, celebrated those who lived off the land. In 1785, he wrote to John Jay:

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bands.

Although others may not have shared Jefferson’s exact passion for the bucolic, his preference for agrarian life was commonplace throughout much of American history. Indeed, the United States was mainly a rural country well into the twentieth century.

By the end of the nineteenth century, American cities such as New York City and Chicago were metropolises of more than one million people. With the growth and dominance of these cities, apprehensions about urban culture deepened. As William Cronon argues in his study on the growth of Chicago:

What really worried rural and small-town residents of Chicago’s hinterland was their perception that the city acted as a magnet for sin. Young people drawn to the city by its energy and excitement could all too easily give in to pleasures and temptations that would finally jeopardize their souls.

Small town residents were not the only ones to view the big city suspiciously. At the turn of the twentieth century, prominent city-based scholars—particularly from the Chicago School of Sociology—also conceived of cities negatively.

But once urbanization took hold, largely thanks to the immigration and industrialization of agriculture, Americans began flocking to cities. There, they sought economic opportunity, improved education, and the sophistications of the cosmopolitan lifestyle. The city-dweller came to view rural life as backward and narrow.

This trend didn’t last. By the mid-twentieth century, the tide turned in the opposite direction. Once again, cities were perceived as dangerous and undesirable—but the person who sought a safer home turned not to the country, but to the suburb.

Aerial view of Sonoma County, California

Suburbs have existed as long as cities. In the Middle Ages, they were places for the poor—priced out of the cities and living along the city walls—as well as the rich, who had their own suburban villas. In America, suburbs sprang up in the 1800s as a response to urban industrial pollution and lack of sanitation infrastructure. They allowed those with the monetary means to travel back into the city with their health intact. Such suburbs were more akin to natural villages and were closely linked to cities. Suburban expansion was relatively limited compared to urban growth—until the automobile.

After World War II, suburban neighborhoods grew exponentially in size. People left cities for the suburbs, as rural and urban populations declined. Thanks to the automobile and the ease of obtaining a home mortgage, suburban living became easier. Coupled with the outsourcing of urban industry and (often racist) concerns about urban violence, the city quickly fell out of favor. Soon suburban living (or certain forms of it) became the apogee of the American dream.

One of the most salient features of the post–World War II suburb was its localization of the American middle class and its propagation of practices of mass consumption. In her 2003 book A Consumers’ Republic, American historian Lizabeth Cohen noted, “As home in the surburb[s] became a mass consumer commodity to be appraised and traded up like a car rather than a longstanding emotional investment in a particular neighborhood, ethnic community, or church parish, ‘property values’ became the new mantra.”

Although the suburban ideal still figures predominantly in our cultural imagination of individual success, the discussion around suburbs has become more nuanced and complicated. Though the suburb still has its defenders, criticism of the “’burbs” has grown steadily, with many questioning their environmental, economic, social, and even spiritual legitimacy. Perhaps, the most poignant critique is simply that are banal. Lewis Mumford summed that view up best:

Whilst the [historical] suburb served only a favored minority it neither spoiled the countryside nor threatened the city. But now that drift to the outer ring has become a mass movement, it tends to destroy the value of both environments without producing anything but a dreary substitute, devoid of form and even more devoid of the original urban values.

Today, cities and suburbs with high walkability (or access to mass transit) are again growing in population and desirability. City living is increasingly being celebrated for its economic potential. In addition, cities with a range of institutions and opportunities offer particular ecological and social benefits.

This urban revival is well-documented, but a small return to farming has also begun. In an article earlier this month, NPR journalist Jennifer Mitchell reports that “overall, fewer young people are choosing a life on the land. But in some places around the country, like Maine, that trend is reversing. In Maine, farmers under the age of 35 have increased by 40 percent.” Mitchell goes on to cite environmental factors as one of the key reasons people are getting back into farming: “all the young farmers interviewed for this story mentioned environmental health and climate change as factors in choosing a life on the land.”

As Thomas Jefferson reminds us, praise of country life has often come at the expense of the city. Now, however, the country appears defined not so much against the city, but rather the sprawling suburb. Although there are clear differences between urban and country living (farming is not exactly a get-rich enterprise), they are no longer opposed to each other.

Each environment offers opportunities for unique connections and activities difficult to attain in mass suburbs. In the country, people live closer with the biotic world and are able to work with their hands. In the city, populations are more dense and diverse, and there are a plethora of cultural, social, and economic options. The very structure of these places makes it easier to be a part of a community larger than oneself.

Yet, the temptation to romanticize both city and country is strong. Community still takes work. Cities can price out the poor, reinforce racial and class divisions, and promote individualistic consumer ideals. And the burgeoning return to farming presents its own challenges to community-building. (Not to mention, it’s really hard work.) Suburbs remain intact and seem unlikely to diminish in significance, and they too contain vibrant neighborhoods.

Though the quest for thriving encompasses all places, including the suburbs, the return to town and country reminds us that where we live can just as much affect who we are.

Stephen Assink manages and curates Common Place. He is a member of the Principle Investigator Team for the Thriving Cities Project

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Governing for the Common Good: An Interview With Kathy Galvin—Part 1

Recently, I sat down with Kathy Galvin, a city councilor in Charlottesville, Virginia. I asked her about the multi-faceted challenges facing city government leaders in promoting a thriving city. In part 1 of this interview, Kathy discusses the difficulties of generating political consensus within government as well as across a diverse constituency.

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Snapshots of City Life: Our Top Reads

We at Common Place read many articles this year on issues facing our cities and communities. Here are some of our favorite reads, in no particular order.

“5 Key Themes Emerging From the ‘New Science of Cities,'” Michael Mehaffy
What exactly is a city? According to Citylab journalist Michael Mehaffy, “a remarkable body of scientific research has begun to shed new light on the dynamic behavior of cities, carrying important implications for city-makers.” That is, “cities are complex, adaptive systems with their own characteristic dynamics, and—if they are going to perform well from a human point of view—they need to be dealt with as such.” By emphasizing concepts such as connectivity and human scale, this new approach to the urban environment will change not only the way cities are conceptualized, but also how they are assessed as healthy and vibrant.

“The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats,” Nick Hanauer
Though not city-focused, this article from “zillionaire” Nick Hanauer does touch on many themes pertinent to urban communities—wages, jobs, and demographic insularity or “skyboxification.” The stratification of communities (explored here on Common Place) is a worrying trend, as it can exacerbate class divisions and power imbalances. Hanauer is concerned about these trends and offers some prescriptions, but will his fellow rich care?

“Liberalism and Gentrification,” Gavin Mueller
There have been many articles this year devoted to covering gentrification; yet none have attracted the attention Gavin Mueller’s piece did. Strongly polemical, passionately written, and at times overly simplistic, Mueller’s take on gentrification begins with Janes Jacobs and ends with an attack on liberalism, capitalism, and how those forces are destroying Washington, D.C.: “It’s important to understand what’s going on [in D.C]. A powerful capitalist class of bankers, real-estate developers, and investors is driving gentrification, using a mixture of huge loans (to which only they have access) and government funding to push land values higher.” However one feels about Mueller’s take, cities will need to understand and confront the complexities of gentrification.

“Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young?,” Claire Cain Miller
Not many cities have the cultural cachet of Portland, Oregon. With a relatively low cost of living, an abundance of natural beauty, an educated population, and a much-celebrated (or satirized) urban culture, Portland has become the ideal city. Claire Cain Miller set off a debate when she questioned the economic sustainability and wisdom of Portland’s lauded bohemian-esque vibe—even Thriving Cities’ own Tom Krattenmaker weighed in.

“Young and Restless: How is Your City Doing?”
Published in October, this report by City Observatory highlights several cities that experienced population growth from millennials. When they move into cities, millennials bring higher levels of income, creativity, technological familiarity, and social tolerance. Though there are legitimate worries about this influx of young folks, cities should be doing what they can to welcome America’s largest generation.

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Why Cities Need More than Big Data

Part 2 of the series Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data 

According to some proponents of Big Data Urbanism, data and powerful computational techniques will domesticate urbanization and transform our cities into responsive devices. For them, we stand at the edge of a new era. Demographic trends—for the first time in history, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas—coincide with the development of hitherto unknown technical capabilities to usher in a new techno-urban age. As Anthony Townsend writes, given the coincidence of urbanization and technological advances, Big Data “will be an immanent force that pervades and sustains our urban world.” But what, exactly, can we expect from Big Data? Can it be harnessed for the pursuit of thriving urban communities and, if so, how?

Some proponents of Big Data Urbanism sound utopian notes. As Adam Greenfield notes in his study of “Smart Cities,” plans to develop New Songdo (Korea), Masdar (United Arab Emirates), and PlanIT Valley (Portugal) tout the power of Big Data to coordinate “the moment-to-moment flow of [experiences]…by nothing less than a unified Urban Operating System that, at least in theory, manages the interactions of every connected space, vehicle, device and garment in the city,” with the goal of creating “the ultimate lifestyle and work experience.” While this utopian strain is especially evident in proposals to build Smart Cities from whole cloth, much of the rhetoric surrounding Big Data suggests it will also work similar miracles for existing cities.

While Big Data Urbanism finds support in various corners—planners, policy makers, IT professionals, and corporate leaders—there are also its detractors. For privacy advocates, uneasy about our willingness to generate and to surrender personal information, Big Data is the enemy. Others worry that the technological infrastructure supporting Big Data may be used systematically to curb liberties, either through the subtle nudges of revised choice architecture or, as Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin suggests, by an emerging surveillance state. Still others fear that the integration of Big Data into every aspect of urban life exposes us to catastrophic risks through cyber-warfare and cyber-crime. The same technologies used to collect information and manage urban life may be hacked by foreign governments. In November 2014, the U.S. National Security Agency revealed that hackers from China, Russia, and Iran have gained access to the critical infrastructure for distribution of energy and water. Likewise, these technologies may be used by criminal elements to nefarious ends.

 

Recent console-gaming hit Watch Dogs dramatized this last concern. Set in a dystopian future Chicago, Watch Dogs gives us the story of Aiden Pearce, a hacker who gains control over the city’s “centralized operating system,” turning the entire city into a weapon in his vigilante efforts to avenge his niece’s death. He goes on a revenge spree, using the city’s Big Data capabilities against his enemies and exposing a dark side of the city-as-device conceit at the heart of so much Big Data hype.

The promise and the peril of Big Data Urbanism may be much more mundane than suggested by either utopian proposals or Watch Dogs, but mundane doesn’t mean meaningless. Townsend recounts a tantalizing number-crunching example where a Chicago-based team of analysts “cross-referenced Meals on Wheels delivery logs with the city’s own tax records to generate a map of elderly living alone” so that the city could “start to build up a list of people that need to be checked on during heat and cold emergencies.” Finding and helping those who are exceptionally vulnerable to extreme weather events should be a priority, and Big Data can help us with that.

However, while Big Data can help us to locate people at risk during meteorological emergencies, it is less likely to help us know why broad swaths of our cities—for instance, entire neighborhoods—are more likely to suffer in the midst of those events. And while cunning criminal networks may colonize this new urban infrastructure, it is more likely that Big Data will colonize our sense of how we know a city and how we pursue thriving cities. Its approach both reflects and reinforces a vision of urban life in which more and better information is the key to thriving urban communities. In fact, both proponents and detractors of Big Data Urbanism put information at the center of their vision for our urban future. Either we need more and better information to flourish or that same information will put us at greater risk.

But the pursuit of thriving cities is not primarily concerned with information-gathering. Rather, it is focused primarily upon practical judgment. As Bent Flyvbjerg suggests such reasoning in urban affairs should ask four questions:

  • Where are we going?
  • Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?
  • Is this desirable?
  • What should be done?

This approach has room for gathering and analyzing data. But it privileges other modes of inquiry that illuminate hidden assumptions and embedded judgments. Unfortunately, when we expect too much of Big Data, we truncate the range of our inquiry. An over-reliance on data collapses Flyvbjerg’s four questions into one: Where are we going?

If our thinking about cities is reduced to this one question—if we ask over and over only “Where are we going?”—it should come as no surprise that Big Data advocates would need a new, more expansive, and increasingly expensive digital infrastructure for answering questions about urban life. Their focus is not Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data, but Thriving Data in a World of Big Cities.

This question also enervates our agency vis-à-vis urban life. The push for Big Data may give us a better sense of where we are going but a poorer sense of how to get there. Thus we get more of the same—not the city of tomorrow but the city of yesterday with the sensors of tomorrow. In the end, Big Data is less likely to deliver on utopian promises and more likely just to help deliver our pizza faster.

 

It’s a cyberpunk mashup of old and new: old class tensions and new sensors, old race relations and new displays, old environmental challenges and new analyses. What’s worse, this approach can actually mask and even reinforce values, tensions, and power relationships that are always operative in our urban communities. By truncating the range of inquiry into cities, we conceal the pluralistic dimensions of urban life, we diminish our expectation of conflict, and we cheapen the meaning of cooperation and collaboration.

Certainly, Big Data can be a useful tool for thriving cities. By helping us answer the essential question, “Where are we going?” it can help us formulate efficient responses when we ask what should be done. But in order to properly contextualize these questions and harness their answers for good, we will need at least three things.

First, here are the questions we need to ask about Big Data before we can bring Big Data to bear upon the city: In the world of Big Data, who wins and who loses, and by what mechanisms of power? Is this desirable? Finally, what should be done? How should Big Data intersect with urban life?

Second, we will need a vision of thriving urban communities that can inform our use of Big Data from the very beginning. Big Data can’t tell us how to collect data, nor to whom we should make data available and how. It can’t tell us how we should govern data, nor how we should respond to the data we collect. If we’re to answer the question, “Is this desirable?,” we must prize the practical judgment and value-rationality that so many Big Data enthusiasts and detractors seem to ignore.

Third, we will need to bring to the surface diverse visions of what a thriving urban community looks like. Big Data can help us with measuring, rating, ranking relationships between variables, like food insecurity and educational outcomes. But there will be a plurality of potentially legitimate, but not self-justifying, responses to any such information. Urban life is indelibly marked by such pluralism. Big Data can help us to understand these tensions only by not masking their reality and importance.

Noah Toly currently serves as Director of Urban Studies and Associate Professor of Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College. He has taught various courses in environmental politics and policy, urban politics, and ethics. He is also a member of the Thriving Cities Project steering committee.

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Thinking About Homelessness (Without Thinking About Poverty)

Why are people homeless? It seems like a complex question, involving systemic, environmental, and personal considerations, but I would offer it has a clear and simple answer: Because they don’t have a home.

Such tautologies can reveal hidden assumptions, make us aware of our own thinking. My blatant endorsement of circular reasoning is in good company (at least for the time being). Within high-functioning homeless systems of care nationwide, this truism is now considered best practice. I briefly want to speak to why this is the case and how, in particular, it relates to discussions of poverty.

First, why. Behind the tautology lies an approach to homelessness called Housing First. Housing First states that homelessness is a housing crisis and therefore should be addressed, without stipulation or barrier, precisely through housing. This approach distinguishes between “housing” and “emergency shelter.” If someone is staying in emergency shelter, they are still considered homeless according to the federal definition. While housing-based solutions to homelessness have fallen in and out favor since the 80s, the traditional approach to homelessness in our country has been shelter-based intervention.

The Haven building

The Haven is a multi-purpose day shelter and social resource center located in downtown Charlottesville, VA. Credit: Melinda Ginda

The logic of such shelter-based intervention is to provide a roof and a meal first so that individuals and families do not suffer from exposure and hunger—and then expand, if possible, beyond subsistence to include programming such as financial literacy, employment assistance, mental health and substance abuse treatment, adult education, and child care. This thinking makes sense. You have a “captive audience.” Why not make good on it?

The trouble arises when the expanded programming begins to overshadow, and even define, the basic problem of homelessness. Sadly, what often happens over time is that the very programs meant to alleviate the crisis obscure it and can even serve to habituate someone to homelessness. Housing First thus endeavors to keep the basic problem—namely, the housing crisis—at the forefront of the conversation.

Homelessness is a crisis (not to mention a form of trauma); preventing and ending the crisis should be the priority. We can make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring by providing the right amount of the right intervention at the right time.

A quick snapshot of the national and local numbers surrounding homelessness brings the issue into clear relief. Kaki Dimock, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Coalition for the Homeless, writes:

 The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that it costs $40,000 a year to maintain a person in homelessness. A local study suggests that regional costs are closer to $26,000 a year in overnight and day shelter, police contact and arrest, jail, EMS response, local social services, and medical costs. It simply makes sense to house an individual or family experiencing homelessness: it is less expensive and it pays significant dividends. Households that have been housed use Medicaid-eligible services 60% less frequently, even when their behavioral or physical health issues have not been addressed. Having addressed the housing crisis, most households can manage their exacerbating issues without additional assistance.

The why of Housing First stages the how. How does a housing-based approach to homelessness relate to the larger issues of poverty? By keeping them discrete. Simply put, solving homelessness does not and cannot involve solving poverty—not at first. Solve the crisis, then help the individual or family connect to community and mainstream resources. The many horizons of poverty are best addressed once the housing crisis is managed. For example, consider the issue of a healthy night’s sleep; within the homeless population, insomnia is arguably endemic. Insomnia endangers one’s physical, psychological, and emotional wellbeing. How can someone find, and sustain, gainful employment under those circumstances? When we conflate the crises of homelessness and poverty, we risk entangling our clients in the safety net.

Perhaps we will never completely solve homelessness, but I do think we can create responsive, fast-acting, collaborative systems of care. We can build systems in which individuals and families are diverted from our traditional institutions of care before they ever become homeless, in which there is no wrong door to stable housing, in which we truly make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring.

Stephen Hitchcock is the director and chaplain of The Haven, a low-barrier day shelter and housing and social resource center in downtown Charlottesville, VA.

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There Goes the Neighborhood

First published as an article in 1995, Robert Putnam’s famous book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Communitysolidified many Americans’ concern about the disappearance of community life. Nearly 20 years later, this worry has only increased, as other scholars—Charles Murray, Claude Fischer, Bill Bishop, and Theda Skocpol—have continued to document this social trend.

vanishing neighborMarc Dunkelman’s The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community is the latest iteration of this ongoing dialogue. At the core of Dunkelman’s transformation thesis is the subtle hollowing-out of the “middle-ring” relationships that historically defined American social life. These relationships according to Dunkelman:

are defined by a familiarity that allows acquaintances to carry on conversations about personal subjects even if they aren’t entirely private. They represent, in essence, the people with whom an individual is familiar but not intimate, friendly but not close.

Dunkelman begins with that essential early reporter of American life, Tocqueville, who first noticed how relationships formed the basic structure of the American township: “municipalities were integrated units determined not by a remote central authority, but by the realities of everyday life.” People of all stripes knew one another. They shared common practices and formed civic associations unaided by the state. And they built their social and political institutions on these relationships. This “bottom up” social architecture soon became the bedrock of American society.

Even as America urbanized in the early twentieth century, middle-ring relationships still formed much of the social fabric, despite the fears of urban sociologists. As observed by Jane Jacobs in the 1950s, the daily interaction and relationships between neighbors formed the basis of thriving communities. Not surprisingly, Jacobs argued for a built environment predicated on diversity in its functions and social arrangements as a model facilitating the greatest potential for middle-ring relationships.

Despite challenges such as rapid industrialization, this social arrangement persisted in American life, but, as scholars and writers have for the past two decades noted, community cohesion is in decline. Conservatives point to the growth of the state or the erosion of religion. Liberals blame the market or rising inequality. Although Dunkelman sees legitimacy in both claims, for him, the thinning of middle-ring relationships lies mostly in the thickening of what he terms “inner-ring” relationships:

The prima facie evidence suggests first that Americans have chosen to invest more time in the inner rings. Desperate for affirmation, and equipped with new tools to keep in touch with a few prized connections, we’ve chosen to double down on the small group of people [close friends and family] we hold most dear.

At the same time, Dunkelman argues, there has been an explosion and intensification of “outer-ring” connections, or “relationships that connect individuals on nothing more than a single plane of interest.” The factors for this shift include the proliferation of mobile and communication technologies, which make it easier to stay connected with friends and family as well as to find like-minded groups online. In addition, outer-ring relationships have increased with the growth of surburbia and the sorting out of American society into distinct socio-economic enclaves. Even the way we organize social movements has changed:

In lieu of forming semiautonomous local chapters, national groups now more embraced a hub-and-spoke model, where organizers headquartered in Washington or elsewhere would reach out directly to members. The one-time supposition that members would attend a regularly scheduled tea was replaced by the request that members send donations designed to fund the work of professional staffers, who would then carry the banner.

Small town evening (4691861030)

Small Kansas town in the evening. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASmall_town_evening_(4691861030).jpg

For Dunkelman, “Because we all have a limited amount of time and attention, social capital invested in one ring generally requires divestment from another.” In other words, “What limited time and energy Americans have today is devoted to our most intimate relations and a set of much more one-dimensional connections.” The verdict then is clear:  “The township, in essence, is dying.” The upshot of all these changes is that, despite an increase in diversity, Americans now seek out and spend more time with people similar to themselves. This new reality has profound consequences for our economy, politics, and society.

With the thinning out of middle-ring relations, certain rhythms of social life change. Historically, as Dunkelman shows, these rhythms facilitated advantages throughout society. In economic areas, these connections spurred creativity and innovation, as well as helping communities weather economic turmoil by “giving residents—or, at least many of them—the wherewithal to transition into a new industry and a new career.”

Politically, the dearth of middle-ring relationships hurts our democracy. For Dunkelman, the problem is not that people are more ideologically polarized. Rather, they no longer see compromise as a political good: “Those on the other side of any given issue now are not only wrong, they’re almost alien.”

Dunkelman also points out that even though certain groups may have been excluded from American social life in the past, middle-ring structures tended to bring people together. Once certain social activities and places were opened to all, people from different races, ethnicities, and classes mixed in a variety of social activities from schools to churches to public entertainment.

The temptation to nostalgia may be strong as one reads this book, but Dunkelman does not encourage this interpretation, urging instead a recognition that things have changed and that there is an urgent need to move forward. For Dunkelman, America is transitioning from a township society to networked one. There are still strong communities, but today many are now being defined by “loosely connected contacts, born from farther-out connections.” As with any sweeping social change, there are trade-offs. With more far-reaching connections, we have the freedom and ability to meet people from all over the world, and we tend to grow more tolerant and curious. “Townships weren’t just seedbeds for mutual understanding,” writes Dunkelman, “they also cultivated the prejudice and division that has plagued American history.”

Throughout, Dunkelman bases his argument on the fact that “social capital invested in one ring generally requires divestment from another.” Yet, as Robert Putnam argues:

Too often, without really thinking about it, we assume that bridging social capital and bonding social capital are inversely correlated in a kind of zero-sum relationship: if I have lots of bonding ties, I must have few bridging ties, and vice versa. As an empirical matter, I believe that assumption is often false. In other words, high bonding might well be compatible with high bridging, and low bonding with low bridging. In the United States, for example, whites who have more non-white friends also have more white friends.

Whether Putnam is right or wrong, this critique does raise important questions about the cause of these changes. Although Dunkelman chronicles several seismic factors, he largely ignores how new forms of capitalism and technocratic public policy have contributed to the weakening of traditional communities.

In addition, Dunkelman neglects the underlying beliefs and symbols—a common civil religion as well as a shared sense of the American destiny—that undergirded our middle-ring relationships at the birth of our republic. Today, the struggle over community is not simply a matter of technological or structural change, but real differences surrounding our substantive conceptions of what is good and right.

Still, Dunkelman accurately observes how the decrease of middle-ring relationships is deeply intertwined with the tensions that many feel about contemporary life:

It feels as though things are falling apart because institutions built for township society don’t work without middle rings. The networked society that’s emerged is still searching for ways to exploit the advantages of stronger inner- and outer-ring ties.

In the end, Dunkelman is cautiously optimistic. We may not be able to go back (nor, as many argue, should we), but we can go forward, harnessing the creative power of new kinds of relationships. Whether that is enough—or even the answer—remains to be seen. At the very least, Dunkelman’s book is helpful, clarifying much about the changing dynamics of American community. Presenting his expertise and familiarity with social capital scholarship in a coherent and readable narrative makes this book a worthwhile and timely read.

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