Confronting Climate Change, Rethinking the City

J.D. Irving Smoke Stacks. Tony Webster via Flickr.

J.D. Irving Smoke Stacks. Tony Webster via Flickr.

With the dust settling on the Paris climate talks and the difficult process of international negotiation over, the even harder process of confronting climate change begins. Unsurprisingly, transitioning to a less carbon-dependent economy and society will require sacrifice, hard work, open dialogue, and strict accountability—not to mention overcoming tremendously powerful economic structures and political opposition. Yet, tackling climate change is not only about conjuring up herculean strength or unleashing torrents of technological innovation. Rather, overcoming our carbon dependence should be seen as an opportunity to rethink for the better an institution largely shaped by and for fossil fuel: our cities.

For the past 100 years, urban life has been indelibly shaped by the ample consumption of carbon. Our dependence on the automobile can be traced back in part to Eisenhower’s 1956 Federal Highway Act, in which the American government at all levels—city, state, and federal— transformed the American urban landscape into one entirely dominated by concrete. Decades later, it is no surprise that the vast majority of the CO2 emitted by cities is caused by automobile use.

Around the same time as the Federal Highway Act, new land use policies were put in place that zoned cities into sections separated by their uses and densities. With federally backed mortgages making home ownership easy, the combination of these trends led to the exponential growth of suburbs, and along with it the demand for gasoline. Once compact, dense, and walkable, the American city today is sprawling and dispersed—and more dependent than ever on fossil fuel to sustain its infrastructure. Continue reading

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Who Is the Smart City for?


Aerial view of completed developments at Palava today

By 2025, more than a million families might call India’s Palava City home; via Wikimedia Commons.

Who doesn’t love a good dystopian thriller? With unforgettable characters and edge-of-your-seat chase scenes, these movies are entertaining, exciting, and extremely lucrative. From Blade Runner and The Matrix trilogy to Elysium and the Hunger Games series, these movies have defined our conception of a post-apocalyptic world. But the real power of this genre lies not in its special effects but in its creative baring of social tensions in futuristic megacities that today no longer look so far-fetched.

From lack of infrastructure to concentrated poverty, megacities—urban areas of 10 million or more people—present significant challenges for any local government. Concerns over social inequality have also long been a fixture of the discourse around megacities, especially so in India where there are six such metropolitan areas amid a culture defined by the hierarchies of the caste system. At the moment, however, the issue of urban exclusion in India is now coalescing around that nation’s burgeoning smart city movement.

Smart cities, according to the Indian government’s website, “are those cities which have smart (intelligent) physical, social, institutional, and economic infrastructure while ensuring centrality of citizens in a sustainable environment. It is expected that such a Smart City will generate options for all residents to pursue their livelihoods and interests meaningfully and with joy.” The impetus for India’s smart city building is largely urbanization demographics. Currently, 31 precent of India’s population is urban. That is projected to increase to 65 percent over the next decades. India has set a goal of 100 smart cities to meet the challenge of settling its growing urban migration in decent and humane ways.

Smart cities employ new technologies that integrate urban infrastructure with powerful data analytics, a trend has already hit Chicago, New York, and Rio de Janeiro, cities with significant investment in advanced urban technology. A goal of this movement as Noah Toly argues here on Common Place, “is to make the whole city more responsive, giving us instant access to information we can hold in one hand, turning the city into a device. By harnessing big data, we suppose we may harness the power of urbanization and the city itself—a force with few rivals in history.” Supported by powerful advocates such as Michael Bloomberg and companies such as IBM, smart cities are poised to become a dominant form of urban settlement in the twenty-first century.

Although most cities around the world are incorporating smart technology into the existing urban fabric, India aims to build its smart cities from scratch—thanks to more than $1.18 billion committed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The city of Palava is a prime example. Considered Mumbai’s sister city, Palava is the largest privately planned city in India. Through partnering with IBM, Palava will have cutting-edge technology that will help the city government guide and manage its population. Branded as a “city of opportunity,” Palava offers residents a community that boasts lush green spaces and immaculate apartments—according to its website, “Palava isn’t just a new place to live, it’s a new way to live.”

In a country where more than 300 million people live without electricity or access to basic services, smart cities, at least on paper, seem to offer a solution combining sound infrastructure and an improved quality of life. However, critics allege that smart cities will in fact exclude those most in need of what they offer. In a recent Guardian article, journalist Shruti Ravindran highlights the growing concerns about exclusion in India’s new smart cities. In particular, Ravindran points to recent comments made by Indian economist Laveesh Bhandari:

 In a monograph for a conference on smart cities in Mumbai in January, the economist and consultant Laveesh Bhandari described smart cities as “special enclaves” that would use prohibitive prices and harsh policing to prevent “millions of poor Indians” from “enjoying the privileges of such great infrastructure”. “This is the natural way of things,” he noted, “for if we do not keep them out, they will override our ability to maintain such infrastructure.” Bhandari’s bald statements sparked social-media pandemonium, and the economist is now at pains to assert he is far from uncritical of such plans.

In the United States, discourse on urban exclusion usually centers on affordable housing and how factors such as public policy or market forces have often resulted in limited availability. In India, the land sought for smart city construction could lead to the razing of poor districts, the forced removal of the poor, and their subsequent exclusion from new communities. As Ravindran reports, “Smart cities remain a key justification for a controversial land-acquisition ordinance the government is aiming to enact, which does away with mandatory consent and social safeguards for those whose lands are forcibly acquired.” Once built, smart cities could be “governed by powerful corporate entities that could override local laws and governments to ‘keep out’ the poor.” Ravindran notes that “To make sure that no one trespasses on its immaculate privatopia, Palava plans to issue its residents with ‘smart identity cards’, and will watch over them through a system of ‘smart surveillance’.”

Other critics have also warned of this potential for exclusion in smart cities. Well-known smart city critic Adam Greenfield poignantly asks, “What role will the citizen play [in the smart city]? Is the city-dweller best visualised as a smoothly moving pixel, travelling to work, shops and home again, on a colourful 3D graphic display? Or is the citizen rightfully an unpredictable source of obstreperous demands and assertions of rights?”

Like every other form of urban settlement, the smart city is a value-laden human creation enmeshed in cultural norms and political forces. Without hard work and attention to justice, this model could end up excluding those who would most benefit from it, or worse, divert funds from other distressed places. In India’s rush to transform, build, and even engineer entire new cities, critics are right to raise concerns about citizenship and access.

Even in US cities, especially places like Baltimore and Ferguson, we are confronting some of these same issues. In the same way India is wrestling with the social and ethical dynamics of the smart city, we need to equally be self-reflective about the ways we seek to improve our own cities. Every policy and plan for urban improvement need to be accompanied by difficult questions. And none are as pressing as the one confronting India at this moment: “Who is the smart city for?”

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The Triumph of the Farmers’ Market


Farmers’ market, Portland Oregon; by Peteforsyth (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nothing quite says springtime like a farmer’s table loaded with kale, mustard greens, and spinach. And with the arrival of warmer days, soon communities will be enjoying the benefits of fresh, locally grown produce. Though farmers’ markets are often criticized over affordability and exclusivity, the appetite for them has grown significantly. In 1994, there were 1,700 markets nationwide; now, there are more than eight thousand.

The proliferation of baby bok choy is indeed cause for praise. Markets help circulate dollars locally. More vegetables mean slimmer waistlines. And farmers’ markets can revitalize neighborhoods. These markets can also serve as a setting for what Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet,” a public space connecting people to each other. Their diverse functions—shopping, eating, or simply engaging neighbors—facilitate social interactions. In fact, the farmers’ market is unfortunately one of the few remaining civic places that facilitates such shared public encounters.

The decline of mixed public spaces can be traced back to the early twentieth century, when public officials began partitioning cities into areas based on functionality. At first, zoning was a public health initiative, especially in industrial cities plagued with unregulated pollution, rubbish disposal, and sewage handling. To keep factories and housing far apart, urban planners created restricted residential and industrial zones. However, a form of zoning logic, known as redlining, began to isolate populations of the city along lines of race and class. (The effects of redlining became more pronounced by the mid-twentieth century.) With the further help of the automobile and the suburbs, American cities became even more demographically and functionally divided.

Zoning has led to dispersed cities with low population densities, often with highly homogenized neighborhoods and voting districts. Political polarization between conservatives and liberals is geographical, not just cultural. Suburban sprawl may make it easier to live with (seldom encountered) difference, but it prevents a shared sense of identity and place.

Commercially speaking, zoning ended the traditional mixing of shops and homes, even making such mixed use illegal in most cities. The corner store disappeared and supermarkets and shopping centers appeared in other parts of town, supplemented by big-box retailers and malls in the suburbs. Increasingly, these private spaces have become places where customer behavior is scripted and highly monitored by data-driven retailers.  Although great for shopping, these homogenous spaces are ill-suited for fostering robust social interaction and local identity.

Farmers’ markets, on the other hand, operate under their own unique logic. As shared, fluid open spaces, they encourage novelty and flexibility. Vendors and wares come and go, customer traffic patterns are random and unscripted. These markets defy easy classification and regulation. According to the Project for Public Space, “Traditional public markets are about so much more than food. They are, like the cities that they support, about people. They are some of our most vital public spaces.”

The farmers’ market does not replace the local supermarket, but rather supplements it as a much-needed space for mediation and cohesion across communities inside and outside of the city. The vegetables grown at the farm down the road connect people to the particular nuances of their region. City markets represent an intersection between town and country. The urbanite and rustic become partners and purveyors in the same community. Ultimately, farmers’ markets make visible what has otherwise been rendered invisible by supply chains and clever marketing.

At the same time, it’s true that farmers’ markets reinforce social divisions. Community stakeholders, then, should stay attuned to the needs of the city and ensure that these markets remain open and equitable. While farmers’ markets won’t fix the polarization plaguing our cities, they do further the kind of communal spirit that is so often missing in urban locales. Our cities don’t just need farmers’ markets: They need more places like them.

Stephen Assink works for Thriving Cities Project. He also manages and curates the Common Place blog.

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The Power of Play in the Public Square

Photos courtesy of Eline ‘s Gravemade,

Above and below: Scenes from the Place de la République games kiosk, Paris; photo courtesy of Eline‘s Gravemade,

Paris is a city of grand projects. Its landmarks—the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysées, and Notre Dame cathedral—are massive public works of the grandest order. Designed by Frank Gehry, the newest museum in Paris cost $130 million and, while it is a private venture of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, it’s indicative of the scale of this market. That “pop-up beach” on the banks of the Seine each summer? Price tag: $2 million.

That’s why it was so gratifying to see, on a visit to Paris last year, a fantastic urban project that cost the city very little, but has produced big results. The Place de la République is one of the city’s most beloved public squares, presided over by a colossal statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic. (This statue was in the news recently, serving as the gathering place for those who marched after the Charlie Hebdo shootings.) The square, historically important as a place of protests large and small, has gone through several iterations in the last century and a half. For much of that time, it was a busy traffic circle with isolated park benches and walkways only reachable by dodging cars and motorcycles. In 2013, the city completed a costly renovation of the square, shifting the balance from two-thirds roadways to two-thirds pedestrian space. Cars have been pushed out to the edges of the three sides, with the rest as pavement interrupted only by benches, trees, and, of course, a cafe.

That sounds rather barren, but it is anything but. The architecture firm TVK wanted to preserve the full use of the square’s acreage without disrupting traffic flow or preventing groups from gathering under Marianne’s raised olive branch. The new square includes an attractive glass-walled cafe and an inviting “fountain,” where kids are free to play or ride bikes through the half inch of water covering the paving stones. In the evenings, the water is turned off, opening the space for strolling and weekend dances. The other side of the long square is a favorite place for skateboarding, which is wildly popular in Paris at the moment. The square is also wide enough to accommodate flâneurs, cyclists, or those hurrying to the underground République Métro station below the square.

Photo courtesy of Eline ‘s Gravemade,

Photo courtesy of Eline‘s Gravemade,

Also popular in the square is a games kiosk called “L’R de Jeux” (a play on the French word for playground). For me, it is the pièce de résistance. On first glance, it appears to be one of Paris’s ubiquitous newsstands or snack vendors. But this is a different kind of kiosk, one that stocks a surprisingly large selection of games and toys. Leave your name, address, and ID and pick up puzzles, card games, pull toys, or building sets. Or just walk up and enjoy the pile of Legos or the housekeeping corner. Staff people will show you how a board game is played or help you find an opponent if you need one. And yes, it’s all free.

So, the city provides a large stock of sturdy toys for all ages, an extremely safe, public place to play, conveniently located at the intersection of five Métro lines, an abundance of tables and chairs, and a small staff. What does Paris get in return?

People of all ages and classes congregate in the square. I believe it’s critical that there is no cost to play. Some users could afford a day trip to a museum, while others have very few toys in their own homes. Moreover, the nature of play makes it easy for cultures and nationalities to mingle. Chinese and Senegalese Parisians may shop in different grocery stores, but here they play the same games, regardless of their language proficiency. As my non-French-speaking son can attest, language is seldom a barrier when there’s a great game in progress. Other, perhaps more insurmountable barriers, like politics or religion, may be set aside by adults in need of a chess partner.

I don’t want to overstate what happens at the games kiosk. Without it, the square will still be criss-crossed by thousands daily, a few of whom will sit at the park benches or order at the cafe. But the presence of toys and games changes the character of the space. Suddenly it welcomes families, and friends of families; it speaks to our love of play and recreation. We’re not just using this space, we’re enjoying it. There is a huge benefit to introducing a palpable measure of regular happiness to the environment we already inhabit. Such feelings are a key element in neighborhood pride.

These payoffs spring from a simple but original idea. “Toy libraries” are not uncommon even in the United States, but they usually lend out toys to be taken home, reinforcing existing family relationships. The public nature of the games kiosk, on the other hand, introduces spontaneity and connectivity, putting pleasure and discovery on display.

While the Paris games kiosk may not succeed in every city, it’s the kind of idea that can be almost infinitely adapted: offer people a place to share musical instruments, art supplies, design tools, or kitchen equipment. Or take it in another direction and focus on the public spaces already in use by pedestrians or vendors or protestors. Are we missing low budget, high impact opportunities for positive civic interactions in these public spaces? How can we better utilize the common spaces that we already populate or are passing through regularly? If such spaces don’t exist, can we tinker with transit routes to make them happen? What would be the payoffs?

And what are the costs of not pushing these connections to happen?

Wendy Baucom is a recent transplant to Charlottesville from Durham, North Carolina. She has a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and currently volunteers at Central Virginia Restorative Justice.

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The Role of Faith Communities in the Flourishing City

This entry is part of Common Place’s  Faith in the City series.


Faith communities, their ministries and programs, and their congregants play a vital role in the health and vibrancy of our cities. These communities are full of people who want to contribute to their city’s success and flourishing. After all, charity toward those less fortunate is one of the ways the faithful are called on to act in a community. But what does it mean for the faithful to contribute to the successful flourishing of a city?

There are as many answers to this question as there are faith communities. For example, on  Instagram, I’ve witnessed suburban churches that mobilize their volunteers to drive to the “inner city” and help paint over graffiti or plant flowers in a playground. I’ve also watched volunteers show hospitality by distributing water bottles with a church’s business card as a way to invite strangers to worship services.

Good intentions are plentiful in faith communities, but how do we know that the good faith efforts in which we engage are actually helping those around us? Do our efforts reach those most in need? It is not enough for religious organizations and their volunteers to declare their love of a city without first considering the subtleties of the surroundings in which they live.

In her groundbreaking 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs investigated what social workers learned by talking with residents of a housing project in East Harlem. She learned that the social workers found that the tenants were indifferent to the physical condition of their apartments and the buildings overall. Crime was rampant and there was almost no evidence of neighbors caring for one another. In fact, the tenants hated the project housing. Why?

Tenants complained that the urban planners and architectural designers had built the projects without considering the context of the community. The non-native “experts” did not understand how the community functioned and their efforts essentially created an environment of isolation—segregating the residents from the social fabric of the surrounding neighborhood.

Even though the professional planners had good intentions, they were, in Jacobs’s eyes, too focused on rationalism and the City Beautiful tenets of orthodox urbanism. “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder,” Jacobs noted, “and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretend order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” Jacobs contended that in order to achieve a sense of thriving in a community, leaders must work first to understand the complexity of their communities—when it comes to urban planning, one size doesn’t fit all.

Faith-based organizations seeking to improve life in their cities may fall prey to this same “meaner quality.” A call to action is not enough. True affection for the city requires a virtue which David Brooks calls “epistemological modesty”—the ability to remain humbly open to the input and influence of others to ensure the best possible result in a given plan of action. In order to discern the needs of the city, faith communities should first learn about the history of the city and its residents, connect with those residents, and activate a communal call to collaborative improvement. How does the city work? How are decisions made? What are the benefits and consequences of the built environment within the principal city?

Questions like these have driven my interest in the Thriving Cities Project (TCP). By focusing on the history, culture, and institutional interconnections of a city, the Project allows practitioners and faith leaders to understand both the assets and the intricacies of a city. Further, TCP’s recognition of social connectivity highlights the ways all neighborhoods, ethnic groups, and faith communities collectively contribute to the common good.

Religious organizations must begin by building relationships with those outside of their immediate communities. As author and pastor Jay Pathak suggests, get to know the neighbors around where you live and worship. According to John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, leaders should also learn how to leverage the assets and strengths of a neighborhood by creating strong, multilayered networks of trust. When trust is established, religious groups will have a solid basis for long-term transformation in their cities.

Developing these networks of trust is also key. Working collaboratively, the members of the network may develop a plan of action. But don’t be daunted by the “tyranny of the urgent.” The realization of urban improvement plans may take years. When we as faith communities commit to learn all we can, to connect with each other, and to activate our networks for long-term change, we take meaningful steps toward realizing the flourishing and thriving of our cities.

Chris Meekins is a doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary who is interested in urban planning and the American Church. He is currently working with Mission Columbus to bring the Thriving Cities Project to Columbus, Ohio.

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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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