Last week, Common Place featured the first part of an interview with Chris Yates in which he shared his insights on how the arts contribute to the life and vitality of cities. Here, Chris provides examples of how cities are engaging their art communities and vice versa.
Once upon a time, society had a pressing need for metrics that could gauge and track complex phenomena like the health of our national economy. Out of that need arose, as one expert puts it, Data 1.0—metrics on national prosperity. Soon after, Data 2.0 arrived focusing on local and regional economies as well as other non-economic factors, e.g., health and education. Now we have entered the era of Data 3.0 with indicators that capture the wide-ranging detail of places on multiple scales and dimensions.
Today, the problem is not a lack of metrics but an overabundance. There is an unparalleled enthusiasm for measuring every urban issue and subsequent problem. From employment numbers to high school graduation rates, metrics abound to track a community’s progress and well-being. This desire for assessment leaves very few aspects of our communities not destined for measurement in some way. A pressing challenge then for city departments, community organizations, philanthropies, and government agencies is to navigate a crowded marketplace of indicators and metrics. Despite the growth of sophisticated tools, there is little guidance in assessing context as well as determining the appropriate metrics, often resulting in ad hoc or even misguided strategies. But at the most practical level, the vexing problem facing practitioners is the most basic: so what?
These themes were part of the discussion at the tenth annual Community Indicators Consortium (CIC) Impact Summit held last month in Washington D.C. Organizations and cities not only shared the ways they were updating their tools with more detailed maps, better tracking, and improved digital analysis but also explored the challenges and limits of assessment. For example, one group shared how poverty levels in their city had declined in recent years—and they had the statistics to prove the point. However, on closer inspection, this organization discovered that the poor had actually moved away due to rising housing costs. Where one set of stats revealed progress, a deeper look revealed what one attendee referred to as an example of “the dangers of data.” Although the images of our cities can become clearer and more precise, contextual, local knowledge still matters.
Indicators then are contextual as well as normative. They involve (often unseen) interpretative questions: Which indicators should we choose and how should we understand our findings? Further, the reliance on indicators highlights an even deeper and equally important problem addressed previously on Common Place: What can and should be measured? Most if not all community organizations are pressed for time and resources and so may choose those indicators that best fit their needs. The language used and the surrounding context inevitably frame the debate in powerful and often invisible ways.
Many conference attendees—city officials, community practitioners, and even data enthusiasts—openly acknowledged this fact, and most everyone admitted their indicators are dynamic entities constantly in need of refreshing, clarifying, and institutional connecting. Yet oftentimes, most community organizations and indicator projects with limited resources can only focus on specific spheres, such as education, healthcare, or sustainability. Very few practitioners have the time or scope to focus on the comprehensive nature of their communities. Although organizations such as STAR do incorporate a multi-sector framework, those groups that are focused on a comprehensive approach are largely aggregative attempts rather than integrative projects.
Finally, as most ardent supporters of data will admit, even the most sophisticated indicator needs something more: community buy-in. No amount of graphed data will persuade an apathetic public or civic leadership, if the indicator is not compelling. Therefore at the conference, the thematic issue centered on turning data into action.
Conference speakers and workshop groups shared their insights and experiences on using data for collective good and social impact. In turn, attendees told of their own struggles and success. One community organization in Austin, Texas, Ready by 21 uses an online dashboard to communicate goals and to connect stakeholders. The group Sustainable Calgary petitions its council members for change. Two sessions focused on improving data consumption by showing how to use enhanced graphs and engaging presentations. In another session, Pittsburgh Gazette’s Doug Heuck shared the importance of making statistics come alive by embedding them within stories and narratives.
Despite the obvious benefits of benchmarks for community organizations and practitioners (and their funders)—clear insight on their progress, accountability to stakeholders, details on the nature of the problem, and the subsequent confidence to address it—in the end, concerns about the efficacy of data in promoting community commitment persisted. At the same time, the demand for more data and the supply of better tools will only increase. The context of a place—its history, its capacities, its institutions, and its aspirations—will need to be front and center if even the best indicator is going to be applicable. Equally significant, in this age of political diversity, will be the empowering and motivating of citizens for the common good. In short, getting them to care about and be engaged with the problems of their communities is more important than ever.
Together, these challenges necessitate not only a different kind of assessment—one that privileges a holistic context—but also a new art for civic life. And here is where the Thriving Cities Project (TCP) together with Common Place is exploring the meaning and mode of community thriving. Stay tuned for subsequent posts that will discuss the promising avenues and methods that TCP is exploring that would be useful to an association like Community Indicators Consortium and its members.
Much of what we enjoy about modern living, especially modern urban living, is the transformation of once-laborious tasks, such as collecting drinking water or discarding trash, into simpler—largely thoughtless—routines. Having replaced the communal well with individual faucets, it is that much easier to distance ourselves from the larger natural ecosystem. Yet, environmentalists have sought to dispel that temptation by constantly pointing to the inseparable intricacies of water, air, and soil and how these elements bind together cities and their environs. As William Cronon in his book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, points out:
Each new improvement [for the city means] a shift in the regional geography—a dredged harbor here, a canal or road there— so the advantages sustaining the city [come] to have an ever larger human component. A kind of “second nature,” designed by and “improved” toward human ends, gradually [emerges] atop the original landscape—“first nature.”
Last week, the New York Times featured a video short on New York City’s water supply. “A Billions Gallons a Day” wonderfully highlighted not only why it is important to maintain a sound urban infrastructure, but also how the needs of cities are interwoven into the fabric of their surroundings. And with the world’s population rapidly moving to cities, sustainability issues such as energy, water, and food, will increasingly be urban concerns.
Recognizing that our urban projects and amenities are always implicated in the larger natural world should drive us to build and use with care—something that “A Billion Gallons a Day” reveals can certainly be done.
Recently at the Thriving Cities conference, I sat down with Chris Yates, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. As an artist and philosopher, Chris illuminates the human significance of art, aesthetic experience, and the vital roles that art plays in cities and communities.
In Part 2, Chris will talk in more detail about the particular ways that artists engage with their communities.
View of the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall
Credit: Architect of the Capitol’s Office; licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Understanding urban policy today—or public policy more generally—requires understanding how policymakers use economics and public finance to reach conclusions or make suggestions. The goal of public policy is to ensure that social costs of producing goods or services are equal to their social benefits. When social costs exceed social benefits, this suggests a market or government failure that requires a public-policy intervention. In turn, policy interventions often focus on getting the right price for a particular good or service in order to arrive at an efficient market outcome.
The pricing of traffic congestion is a good, if oversimplified, example of public-policy thinking. (Those from anywhere on the political spectrum will likely find many things to disagree with in the parsed-down analysis that follows.) Traffic congestion is a result of the overconsumption of roadways and a sign of economic vitality, and the highest rates of congestion occur in America’s largest and most productive cities (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C.). However, traffic congestion, left unchecked, can increase the societal cost of traveling and ultimately reduce economic productivity.
One explanation for the overconsumption of roads is that drivers are not paying for the true costs of our streets and highways. Research indicates that current user payments account for only about eighty to ninety percent of the government’s cost. To make up the difference, gas taxes would need to increase by twenty to seventy cents per gallon. This underpricing of roadways encourages overconsumption. The result is a market inefficiency known as a negative externality—an effect that imposes costs on society that are not accounted for in the private costs involved in a particular transaction.
One public-policy solution to reduce or eliminate this negative externality is to change the price of roadway usage in order to reflect its true costs. To decrease congestion, we could increase the price it costs drivers to use highways. The price of using the congested highways thus represents the negative externality that was not included in the market mechanism.
Raising the price of highway usage reduces traffic congestion. Some drivers will elect to find alternative ways to get around or travel less while others will have no choice but to pay the increased cost of using highways. Assuming benefits and costs are captured, getting the prices right leads to a socially optimal outcome—reduced traffic congestion and the internalization of the spillover effect. If users, not society, pay for the cost of overconsumption of the roads, then social costs equal social benefits. Or so the theory goes.
However, it’s famously difficult to model complexity in the market. The challenges of implementation—coalition building, juggling public opinion, navigating politics—seldom fit neatly into a model. And since congestion pricing has yet to be implemented at a large scale in any American city, it remains a theory in spite of its predominance in debates among urban-policy analysts.
Further, a strict market perspective on public-policy issues downplays Jane Jacobs’s notion of “organized complexity.” As Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley point out in their book The Metropolitan Revolution, the federal government and state agencies are “hyper-political and partisan, hopelessly fragmented and compartmentalized, frustratingly bureaucratic and prescriptive.” Thinking only in terms of prices, market, and government failure narrows our perspective. Instead of recognizing the critical concept of interdependency when crafting effective urban policy, Washington is too often divided in hardened silos and separate camps.
The charge that Washington is too insular is nothing new, but it is especially true when it comes to the field of urban policy. Analysts who head straight for urban policy jobs in Washington without first working within their own local communities are probably not going to be able to understand the perspective on the ground, or what real communities need. The market-based perspective is useful for thinking about communities in the abstract and works well with Washington’s tendency to view all problems from high in the air. But effective policymakers need to understand how American communities work.
Urban policy is ever-changing. There are countless numbers of actors—lobbyists, associations, think tanks, foundations, academics, and government officials at all levels—who influence urban policy. But the future of urban policy will be determined by communities, not by think tanks. My next post will take a closer look at the different groups in Washington and how they inform urban policy. I hope to illustrate how the complexity of Washington can position a community to take a stronger role in its future.
Malcolm McGregor is a graduate student at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. He has interned at the Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration, in Washington, D.C.
In Part III of the Faith in the City series, Common Place interviewed Milton Friesen about City Soul, an initiative by Cardus to help faith-based organizations better contribute to the life of neighborhoods. In Part IV of this series, Alexander Massad considers how the historic growth of urban American Islam has led some Muslims to respond in innovative ways to the issues and challenges of urban life.
From the image of the melting pot to the motto e pluribus unum, the United States has been portrayed as a nation that successfully incorporates different cultures, religions, and languages to produce a unified American identity transcending these differences. History presents a different picture. Since its inception, America has constantly negotiated and renegotiated religious pluralism and liberal democratic principles in an attempt to clarify what it means to be “American.” The current media focus on Islam has drawn the American Muslim community into the ongoing debate over the terms of religious pluralism and liberal democracy. The issues are summed up in two broad questions: What does a growing urban Muslim population mean for religious pluralism and democratic participation in America? And how can American Muslims enrich and advance what it means to be American today?
Although Muslims first came to North America through the slave trade, two later historical periods contributed to the growth of urban American Islam. The first period, roughly between 1860 and 1940, involved large-scale African-American migration from the South to the North, rapid urban industrialization, and white prejudice. New urban centers in the Midwest perpetuated the dominant American identity matrix, which a priori rejected African-American culture. As Muslim scholar Kambiz GhaneaBassiri has pointed out, Islam provided a response by asserting Afro-Islam against Anglo-Protestantism as an alternative matrix for African-American social and economic advancement. This led to the formation of urban Muslim organizations such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam.
The second major event was the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which significantly increased the number of non-European and non-Christian immigrants to the United States. These new Muslim immigrants were drawn to urban centers such as Chicago and Detroit by their long-established American Muslim communities and institutions. This influx enlarged these urban communities to the point that currently ninety-four percent of American Muslims live in urban areas. As the American Muslim community grew, David Machacek explains, it began to, “renegotiate the terms of American social and cultural life.” This renegotiation was not a rejection of an American identity but rather a reinterpretation of it through “a process of active cultural [and religious] renegotiation and institutional reform,” says Machacek.
The most dynamic renegotiation and institution-building by Muslims has occurred at the local level—and it has not always been easy. In 2000, the Illinois city of Palos Heights offered Al Salam Mosque Foundation $200,000 to walk away from purchasing a local church and then there was the 2011 uproar over the building of an Islamic and interfaith community center in lower Manhattan. Then there was the controversy over the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that cost the local community nearly $350,000 in legal fees alone.
Despite these headline stories, there are numerous examples of Muslims taking the initiative for positive change in American cities, where Muslim communities themselves are faced with challenges such as poverty, crime, and social unrest. Addressing the violence of Chicago’s south side, for example, Rami Nashashibi established the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) as a transformative force to counteract conflict and poverty in these neighborhoods. Propelled by his faith, Nashashibi and his organization have sought to bring together the seemingly disconnected segments of their community for urban development. IMAN has received financing and support from Muslim small-business owners, which has enabled it to provide a free community health clinic, to organize voter registration, and to convert abandoned property into environmentally friendly housing. The organization’s most publicized event is “Taking It to the Streets,” a “Muslim-led festival where artistic expression, spirituality, and urban creativity inspire social change.” IMAN has been a model for similar ventures in other major urban cities like Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Baltimore.
On more of a multi-city level is Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). Patel acts on Islam’s core tenets of mercy, compassion, and the dignity of human beings, beliefs that motivated him to bring together different religious groups for community service in cities and on college campuses across the country. The goal is to cultivate a practice of interfaith cooperation on civic projects that would influence future generations. IFYC asserts that religion is one of the most powerful motivators for action and seeks to tap into its potential for civic good amidst religious pluralism.
America has been, and continues to be, a nation that constantly renegotiates its identity. IMAN and IFYC are just two examples of how Muslims have tried to show that Islam can be a powerful force in civic life, joining other religious and non-religious organizations in bringing positive, long-term solutions to the problems faced by our cities.
Alexander Massad is a Ph.D. student in Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University, working on Religious Pluralism. His research focuses on the socio-political effects of Christian and Muslim epistemology within religiously diverse communities.
Last month, Jonathan Chait wrote an article for New York Magazine titled “Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments.” Chait argued that, contrary to certain received political ideas, local governments are often more intrusive, arbitrary, and ineffective than their state and federal versions. Worries people typically have about big, centralized governments, might be better directed at relatively small organizations, covering a tiny geographic area, and serving few people—the cities, counties, and school districts that make up local government in America. He has a point. From economic protectionism to police brutality to plain old corruption, small governments get into a lot of big brotherish kind of trouble. Bad government is not always big government.
There are, however, a few points to be made in favor of these smaller governing bodies.
First, if local government is sometimes bad, the alternative is not always better. One advantage of a city government or a school board is that their responsibilities are relatively clear when you elect them and when you want to complain. When authority is shifted away from these bodies, it rarely goes directly to a state or federal agency, but to a regional hybrid of appointed commissions and boards with a mix of local elected officials from the region. This system of regional boards dilutes and confuses responsibility, distancing voters from decisions through bureaucratic complexity as much as physical space. You might not know your senator or your city councillor, but you may know both better than your regional transportation board representative.
Second, local governance is more effective than the stories of failure would suggest. Take school districts, for example, and their widely ranging sizes. In one sense, school districts are all “local,” in that they have specific boundaries and elected representatives who live in the district. However, local also tends to imply small or at least at the scale of community identity (not Los Angeles). Districts are a great testing ground for questions of scale. For one thing, they vary so much in size, from a district of a single school with a few dozen students to, for example, Los Angeles Unified, a massive operation with a student population larger than the total populations of some small states. For another, the appropriate scale of school governance has been a topic of practical and academic interest for decades. Finally, the data on the performance of schools, while not perfect, is far better than in any other area of local government.
In theory, the advantages of size in school districts are obvious. A school system that buys and manages more of everything—buses, cafeterias, curricula—can specialize and make improvements in each area. A big system can accommodate students and teachers with niche interests in languages, trades, or musical instruments. Large school districts promise efficiency, opportunities, and insulation from small-town politics.
In fact, however, bigger is not better. Studies consistently find that districts become less effective beyond a relatively modest size of 5,000–10,000 students. Size is not the only factor, of course, but all else being equal, students in large districts perform worse on standardized tests and have lower attendance, and the parents of these students are less satisfied. In short, large districts tend to experience diseconomies of scale—they are actually less efficient in the delivering the same services.
Size has its own challenges. Coordinating the work of so many employees is difficult and costly. It also becomes more difficult to cultivate empathy, loyalty, and commitment from parents and other community members. As economist William Fischel argues in Making the Grade, school systems breed political engagement and social capital. School districts provide civic education to parents, and smaller districts seem to do this better.
A third point is less in favor of local government and more about the inevitably of our attachment to it. As Chait acknowledges the “myth of localism is rooted deep in our political psyche.” Our attachment to localism is not ultimately about effectiveness, and it is probably not something we can shake easily, rooted as it is in our tradition of local self-governance. When conditions allow, we regard having authority over our own affairs as right and good. Sometimes, we prove incapable of doing that.
The failures of local governments are neither universal nor random. They stem from deeper economic and social problems. Financial crises, political drama, and a general lack of accountability to an informed public are symptoms of deeper issues. In isolated cases, we can bring in outside agencies to help stave off the worst results of that failure. But we should hope that the need for this does not become the rule. We need small government to govern well because there is no structural solution to a democratic people that cannot govern themselves.
David Franz, Director of the Shafter Education Partnership for the city of Shafter, California, is a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
Editor’s note: In May, Whole Foods announced that it was opening a new a location in Richmond, VA—a pilot city for the Thriving Cities Project. Shortly after this news, Richmond native and pastor Nelson Reveley appeared as a guest blogger on Common Place, analyzing what this development might mean for the citizens of Richmond. Here, local farmer and director of Shalom Farms, Dominic Barrett offers his own perspective on the matter.
Above: Farmers come in all ages at Shalom Farms.
Although my nonprofit Shalom Farms has received grants and support from Whole Foods, the upscale food chain will likely be my direct competitor. At the same time, we receive ongoing support from local grocers Ellwood Thompson and Little House Green Grocer. I am also an active member of the yet-to-be opened Richmond Food Co-op. While all of this might suggest that I have a conflict of interest in exploring the impact of Whole Foods on Richmond, it also affords me a unique perspective.
It’s hard to find a true “bad guy” in the natural/organic/local food scene. The question for me is not whether Whole Foods moving in is a good thing. Rather, I am more interested in understanding the scope of the potential impact, what gaps may remain, and what models may be better solutions.
Although I have yet to see full details of the Sauer Center (proposed home of Whole Foods), it seems a fine addition to an evolving part of Richmond’s inner core. It may even, as Nelson suggests, support in a small way the viability of a much-needed Rapid Transit project connecting the city’s East and West Ends. And, as Nelson touches on, another profitable Whole Foods in our region will mean at least a percentage of those profits are likely to end up back in the community—supporting local school gardens and other worthy projects via Whole Foods’ charitable work.
Some have expressed concern over what Whole Foods might mean for the burgeoning local grocery scene. When the doors open on Ricmond’s newest Whole Foods, it will be two miles from Ellwood Thompson’s (the biggest guy on the local grocer block), three miles from Little House Green Grocer (a smaller but relatively new and promising local option), and less than one mile from where the Richmond Food Co-op plans to open a full service grocery co-op in the next two years. Without looking at any market data, my gut feeling is that Whole Foods will not pose a threat to these local establishments.
Why not? Because of the 550 and counting members of the opening co-op and the many loyal patrons of Little House and Ellwood Thompson’s. In spite of the presence of Whole Foods, many of these shoppers will continue to seek options that will both maximize the local impact of their dollars and increase their access to locally sourced products, supporting local growers and producers.
We find ourselves at a unique moment. Growing acceptance of the challenges of climate change has coincided with the trendiness and “cool factor” of the local food movement. Yet, turning these forces into brick and mortar, topsoil and tractor, can feel slow. In any given season, local vendors may one moment find themselves unable to meet customer demand for an item, yet days later unable to move a local product quickly enough. Similarly, local, sustainable farmers find themselves struggling to find viable business models, unable to scale up to meet potential institutional buyers or to pay the bills adequately by relying on direct-to-consumer sales. But for many growers, and the consumers looking for a local product they can feel good about, Whole Foods is not likely to be a game changer.
With months to go before Whole Foods opens its doors, hundreds of Richmonders have demonstrated a commitment to finding a better way: the Richmond Food Co-op. They have invested $150 each to be a part of a community driven and owned grocery option—a commitment so strong that investments are coming in even before the Co-op location has been finalized. Co-ops work because they can harness economies of scale, resulting in lower prices for consumers, larger margins for the producers, and maximum flexibility for local growers. They also allow members a voice in the decisions of the store.
However, despite the lower mark-ups made possible by a member-owned model, even co-opers like myself admit that it may be only a modest improvement for those Richmonders who lack the means—economic or transportation—to access to the highest quality, sustainably grown local produce. For many, particularly those living in the East End, South Side, and North Side, quality affordable grocery options will continue to be hard to come by. For these folks, a co-op will be a small improvement, and a Whole Foods on West Broad Street will be of little consequence. But here again, a forthcoming local business may fill in the gap.
Jim Scanlon, a 40-year veteran of the grocery business, resigned just last week from his role as Regional Vice President of Martin’s Food Marts where he oversaw all of Martin’s 34 stores in Virginia. In his new venture, he is pursuing a plan that he has been quietly developing for the better part of a decade. In 2015, he hopes to break ground on Jim’s Local Market in Richmond’s East End, less than a mile from the bulk of Richmond’s public housing units. His store will leverage his expertise and relationships in the grocery industry to provide the same variety, quality, and prices of national chains, something small independents are not typically able to do. Meanwhile, his independent community-focused store will have the freedom to source from small local providers, provide incentives for low-income shoppers, and partner with the local health experts to provide educational programming. Finally, community members will help determine how a percentage of the pre-tax profits are returned to the neighborhood.
For both the Richmond Food Co-op and Jim’s Local Market, it is the local element that provides the most promise and may be what most separates these models from a company like Whole Foods. More than ever we need locally based solutions to transform our communities, and nowhere is this more clear or powerful than with our food.
Dominic Barrett is director of Shalom Farms, an initiative of United Methodist Urban Ministries of Richmond.
Tom Krattenmaker is Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a contributing columnist for USA Today. He has just completed writing an in-depth profile of Portland for the Thriving Cities Project (anticipated publication in 2015).
Common Place: Just this week, the New York Times published an article on the city of Portland, “Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young?” In it, Portland is described as a sort of slacker’s paradise. Would you agree with that assessment?
Tom Krattenmaker: That’s pretty close to the truth, but I would push back on that term “slacker.” I don’t think the hip young adults crowding this city are generally lazy or directionless. Many of them are ambitious and super busy with all sorts of creative projects—maybe their bands or their art or some political cause or nonprofit they’re involved with. The “paradise” part is pretty close to the truth. I have never been in a city that comes so close to matching a certain kind of ideal. The combination of creative energy, natural beauty, liberal politics, and sustainability is really quite amazing. For some people, it’s probably more like a hell, but if you’re a certain type of person, Portland is as close to urban paradise as you’re likely to get.
CP: In the article, a lot of attention is given to the dearth of well paying jobs with too many overeducated people. Do you see this aspect of Portland as a problem? Is there something else going on besides New York Times version of the story?
Sure, it’s a problem, but probably not of the magnitude one might think. A lot of Portland people aren’t interested in conventional jobs. The lower incomes also keep costs of living relatively low. Also mitigating this problem is the existence of an alternative artisan economy that has little interest in business as usual and in personal acquisition. These are people who create and consume hand-crafted goods and cultivate shared experiences and spaces that give them a form of “social wealth” that isn’t captured by conventional economic measures. Some will tell you that this is the upside of the scarcity of corporate headquarters in Portland. The absence of Fortune 500 companies leaves space for this kind of alternative economy to grow and flourish.
CP: You just finished writing an in-depth profile on Portland for the Thriving Cities Project. What did you learn that surprised you?
As you can tell from my answers above, I’m a fan of these “Portlandia” aspects of our city, and I love the ways in which Portland is different from other places. However, doing all this thinking and research and writing about Portland over recent months has opened my eyes to something to which I had not given enough attention previously—namely, the way we tend to skip some of the fundamentals that might not be in sync with the Portlandia dream but that are essential for a city’s long-term thriving. These are things like a solid public education infrastructure, support for families, race equity, and—yes—conventional economic strength, which is necessary to finance the whole thing and to keep our population from becoming too much of a one-dimensional caricature.
CP: What is often overlooked in discussions of Portland are the city’s racial challenges. How would you describe them?
In my Portland profile, I sometimes refer to Portland living the “green dream.” It’s also a white dream in that Portland is the least diverse major city in the United States. But for some, Portland is nothing close to a dream. Especially for people of color, it can be tough place. All of us liberals out here are for racial justice in principle. But for a whole complex set of reasons, we don’t always put our money where are mouths are. If you look at the metrics, whether it’s income or health outcomes or high school graduation rates or any number of other measures, you find big disparities. I’m hopeful, though, that we are in the early stages of an evolution whereby the city begins to live up to its progressive values in this area, too.
CP: Would you say Portland is a thriving city?
In many ways, yes. No place is utopia, and that’s certainly true of Portland. But a lot of what’s happening here is very good and is conducive to residents having an urban experience with less of the grind that you find in most big cities, and with more sheer pleasantness and cheerfulness (despite the gray skies and rain). It’s telling that so many smart, educated young people—people with lots of options—continue to endorse the place by moving here.
The Coy Divisions of Post-Industrial Cities
One of the most critical measures of city well-being over the next century may be an unexpected one: friendship ties. For thinkers interested in the “social ecology” and sense of connectedness of urban areas, this measure may capture the real story of how cultural and economic forces are transforming our day-to-day interactions with those around us.
Why would city scholars care about whom we consider our friends? Surveys of friendship ties reveal the homogeneity or diversity of personal social networks: They can pinpoint how these networks become closed-off “bubbles” of sameness along class, race, or status lines. According to a diverse set of thinkers, closed-off bubbles are becoming the central story of social life in post-industrial societies. Thinkers like Robert Putnam, Bill Bishop, Claude Fischer, and Charles Murray have mapped a rising divide or “coming apart” between the social worlds of educated-class and working-class populations in the last fifty years. For urban contexts, following the work of William Julius Wilson and Robert Sampson, this divide is magnified in areas where concentrated disadvantage has locked in social and economic disconnectedness for multiple generations. Studies of social ties tell the same story: The number of Americans with “bridging” ties across education levels has decreased since the 1980s, even while ties bridging race lines have increased.
Why does this matter? Two reasons, which are deeply interconnected. First of all, upending the arguments of earlier city studies, the challenge of cities does not seem to be some lurking threat of anomie or isolationism. Urban contexts in late-capitalist society provide no shortage of subcultures and leisure activities bristling with social ties. The greatest challenge today follows a more Tocquevillian concern: an individualism that involves withdrawing into enclaves to “willingly abandon society at large to its own devices.” As a result of technological and transportation developments of the last century, insular social worlds now coexist in concentrated areas, a change sociologist Douglas Massey labels the “unprecedented spatial intensification of both privilege and poverty.” While divides along ethnic, class, or neighborhood lines have always characterized cities, today’s enclaving is unique in how it reinforces itself through grocery stores, schools, churches, medical care, restaurants, and leisure activities. A recent Washington Post article labeled this the “skyboxification” of American life. In skyboxified America, social ties across social worlds—such as middle-class professionals knowing manual laborers or ex-cons knowing college graduates—become far rarer.
The second reason this matters may be obvious: Few thinkers see anything positive coming out of this trend. In fact, one finds a strong consensus among liberals, conservatives, communitarians, and libertarians that insular and homogenous social worlds present an obstacle to a just and flourishing society. Social enclaves bear consequences for every moral and political challenge of our time, from inequality, social justice, labor issues, human rights, education, and climate change. None of these challenges fails to be affected by our shrinking exposure to those around us who share in these issues’ outcomes.
So what might be done to reconnect insular social worlds? No magic bullet solutions have yet emerged. Nor can the problem be solved by clever social engineering or policy interventions. Social historians, however, can offer three evaluative criteria to evaluate change. First of all, efforts that fail to address multilayered dimensions of cultural, economic, and design-planning conditions will likely simply perpetuate rather than remedy skyboxification. For example, new urbanism has drawn criticism for the “latent suburbanism” lurking within much of its designed space. Many design efforts are rightly celebrated for producing more shared space and organic interactions, but designers rarely conceptualize how their engineered interactions alone can overcome economic and cultural divisions.
Second, efforts to reduce skyboxification will likely build from the contexts and settings that have historically bridged and bound otherwise separate social realms. This is where city leaders and others may need to take a deliberate lead, as few institutional leaders have responded to calls for change. Institutions of higher education—historically key places for exposing students to others of different backgrounds—have by and large ignored the growing calls to address their complicity in reproducing class divides. A better ally might be particular religious communities that pull together diverse members, such as the one highlighted by Carla Arnell in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. While many religious groups (along with non-religious civic groups) passively absorb the racial or class demographics of their surroundings, there are well-established traditions and groups that proactively pursue linkages across these lines.
Finally, reconnecting social worlds will require a critical assessment of how bonds and interactions do or don’t overcome insularity. “Token” friendship diversity likely won’t work. In other words, what sort of interactions would allow a social ecology to regain the good lost to skyboxification?
Three forms of social interaction are unlikely to breach the skybox walls: economic transactional activities, paternalistic benevolence, and experiential benevolence. The first fall under what Karl Marx labeled the “dull compulsion of economic relations”: consuming goods in shared space—or in Zygmunt Bauman words “collective consumerism”—or workers sharing the same employer in a radically stratified workplace. Those types of interactions bring people into close proximity while leaving insular social worlds intact.
A second type of interaction is a paternalistic form of benevolence that implicitly perpetuates power divides. Writing on class relations in early twentieth-century New York, historian David Huyssen details the harm committed by affluent activists and altruists in their involvement in labor organizing and philanthropy.
Today, many millennials have tried another apprach to benevolence: a subjectively meaningful “voluntourism,” or temporary immersion into the world of the disadvantaged. Like the other approaches, this one may provide some impetus for further action, but in itself it does not really challenge the forces behind skyboxification.
A more promising mode identified by Huyssen is “cooperative relationships” that recognize power structures and inequality among actors. In its more political form, this entails organizing diverse groups and actors around shared communal needs: raising a community’s “collective efficacy” to address its own challenges. Studies suggest collective efficacy, while a social good in itself, can also offset demographic and economic conditions that otherwise predict crime and social disorder. But cooperative relationships can also take a more interpersonal form. These range from more organic cross-group (“bridging”) friendships to more intentional forms of solidarity with marginalized populations. Cooperative relationships would also include CEOs engaged in the wellbeing of workers’ families, middle-class churches taking on the needs of an under-resourced public school, or friends stepping in as a “voluntary kin” in cases of family-structure disruption. Cooperative relationships can reconnect disparate social worlds, ensuring public good and meeting human needs that might otherwise be ignored.
Discussions of inequality and opportunity are likely to continue, and the future may hold significant cultural or economic shifts that we can’t predict. But as we grapple with these questions, the reality of insular social worlds embodies the very personal and experiential dimensions of life in post-industrial settings. The flourishing of cities depends on conceiving new ways to overcome these divides, both as an end in itself and also as a means of achieving a just and thriving society.
Andrew Lynn is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. His interests include sociology of religion, social change, and the cultural logic of individualism in American culture.