Architecture and the Built Environment: Talking With William Sherman—Part 2

Last week, we featured Part 1 of my interview with William Sherman in which he discussed the consequences of a poorly-designed built environment. In Part 2, Professor Sherman goes on to explain why and how architecture matters for cities. In this segment, he highlights the ways buildings are interwoven into the fabric of urban life.

William Sherman Part 2 from IASCulture on Vimeo.


Urban Renewal Syndrome—Part 1

Perhaps no federal program looms larger in our collective memory than ham-fisted and costly  attempts at urban renewal. Created in the Federal Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 and lasting to the 1970s, urban renewal programs sparked a nationwide enthusiasm for revitalizing decaying inner cities. Often these projects resulted in urban redevelopment schemes distinguished by their harsh modernism and daunting scale.

Urban renewal programs, along with the social welfare policies of the Great Society, became a symbol not just of the collapse of urban America but also of the failure of progressive government action—perhaps even of liberalism itself. For nearly fifty years, the United States has shied away from comprehensive urban policy, almost as if we were suffering from a malaise similar to the so-called Vietnam syndrome.

While few would deny urban renewal’s role in eroding faith in government and aiding the fragmentation of progressive policymaking, a group of recent urban development histories suggests areas where our collective memory on this issue is significantly flawed. This faulty collective memory was largely shaped, I’ll argue in a later post, by subsequent forms of urbanism and political opportunism that have profoundly limited the range of national policies aimed at fighting social inequality, poverty, and urban blight.

Flawed Memory #1: Urban Renewal’s Advocates Were Primarily Elites.

The first wave of literature on urban renewal explored the program’s impact on the distribution of power, highlighting the emergence of municipal “growth coalitions”—elite public-private partnerships—that guided its implementation. To be sure, these interests dominated local administration of renewal programs, but as Nathan D.B. Connolly argues in his forthcoming book,  A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, this emphasis on chamber of commerce types misses other interests whose support also lent the program a great deal of legitimacy.

In his rich discussion of postwar Miami, Connolly shows how and why middle-class black homeowners, civil rights organizations like the NAACP, and progressive groups such as the League of Women Voters actively supported urban renewal especially when it came to slum clearance. Federal policymakers and these groups all considered urban policy to be essential economic components to spatial desegregation mandates handed down in cases such as Shelley v. Kramer (1949) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Vital to this vision of what Connolly terms “Sun Belt civil rights” was the belief that slum clearance would offer residents of substandard, socially and morally degenerative, and unhealthy city center housing the opportunity to move to the fringes of the city where they would own homes in racially homogenous suburbs.

As Connolly shows, however, these advocates unwittingly supported a program that, as he puts it, underwrote “the modernization of White Supremacy.” It is doubly tragic that urban renewal hastened the economic and spatial marginalization of the poor and minorities, since its original intent was to broaden economic opportunity through homeownership. With the exception of deregulating mortgage securities, the United States has never again attempted such a bold, if deeply flawed, housing-based assault on economic inequality.

Flawed Memory #2: Urban Renewal’s Housing Projects Were Socialistic.

It’s tempting to look at urban renewal housing projects and equate them with mid-century high modernism and European socialist planning (even if they did share intellectual roots). Yet in his book Manhattan Projects, Samuel Zipp uses urban renewal projects in New York City as a window onto American Cold War political culture and economic thinking. Zipp illuminates the degree to which renewal advocates construed the city’s full gamut of projects— from Lincoln Center to affordable housing—as a “weapon” in “the Cold War struggle for hearts and minds.” “Public/private urban renewal,” Zipp contends, “could operate as a potential immunization against the threat, a way to beat the Soviets at their own game.” By cultivating private sector partners, public officials believed they had found a means by which public policy could underwrite the material prosperity needed to demonstrate the superiority of democratic capitalism.

Flawed Memory #3: Urban Renewal Stifled Private Sector Action.

Martin Anderson’s The Federal Bulldozer (1964) focused on the waste of taxpayer dollars and called for a reintroduction of free enterprise to solve the nation’s worsening housing crisis. He argued that the private sector could deliver the promised fruits of urban renewal far faster than the federal government. Further, it was also in 1964 in the speech that launched his political career that Ronald Reagan referred to urban renewal as “assault on freedom.” It is true, as the federal planners argued, that without massive subsidies, the private sector was unlikely to undertake significant any new commercial or residential urban developments.

While these arguments helped popularize zero-sum appraisals of public- and private-sector initiatives, but they also fundamentally overlooked a critical aspect of urban renewal. In his recent work Insuring the City, Elihu Rubin demonstrates how urban renewal programs provided vital financing for a major private-sector development that would not have otherwise seen the light of day, such as Boston’s massive Prudential Center. In opting to push public funding to the private Prudential Insurance Company, Rubin argues that Boston planner Ed Logue, was deeply “attuned to the concept of momentum: large projects had a catalytic effect on the public’s attitude . . . toward renewal and boosted the city’s self-perception.”

Prudential in turn sold the development as a risky private-sector bet on Boston’s future. Indeed, in working hard to secure public subsidies, the Company emphasized the “civic” aspects of their $100 million development. A mere quarter of the redeveloped land, officials contended, would be devoted to private enterprise, with the rest available to the public in green space and plazas. In this way, as Chester Hartman puts it in his study of renewal in San Francisco, “the private investment community” came “to be seen as performing functions in the public interest.” In cities across the country, then, urban renewal became a stimulus to encourage private sector players to act in the public’s interest.

Brownstones in Brooklyn

Flawed Memory #4: Urban Renewal Signified the End of Urban Liberalism. 

To be sure, much about urban renewal caused Americans to lose faith not only in the government but also in progressive public policy. But as Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn demonstrates, urban renewal also inspired a new version of urban liberalism: white, urban professionals. Excavating the history of Brooklyn’s gentrifying neighborhoods, Osman offers a cultural history of a “new middle class” that took shape in direct response to the “Manhattanizing” programs of urban renewal that threatened their neighborhoods. In opposition to centralized redevelopment plans, these self-consciously liberal gentrifiers were also “privatist, celebrating the sanctity of home, small shops, bootstrap renovation, and freedom from city intervention. In the fight against Urban Renewal,” Osman contends, “they celebrated the free market, extolling the authentically organic cityscape and lambasting abstract regulation.”

These gentrifiers, while they might have preferred to be following in the footsteps of Jane Jacobs, soon discovered that their vision for equitable housing options caused them “unintentionally [to] become bedfellows with an emerging New Right critique of government intervention.” This would seem to be a classic case of modern liberalism’s lip service to the fight against inequality coming up against its inability to muster robust forms of collective action. The Urban Renewal syndrome lives on.

A subsequent post will take up why the Urban Renewal Syndrome persists and will argue for why it is so important to set the record straight on urban renewal.

Brent Cebul is an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Architecture and the Built Environment: Talking with William Sherman—Part 1

At the recent Thriving Cities conference, I sat down with William Sherman, Professor of Architecture, at the University of Virginia.  As an architect and an expert on the built environment, Professor Sherman examines how misguided building design over the past century has inhibited urban thriving. At the same time, Professor Sherman offers key insights into how architects can facilitate a more just and socially aware built environment. 

In part 2 of the interview, Professor Sherman will explain the particular role that architecture plays within the larger urban ecosystem.

Urban Thoughts in a Medieval City

Second World Congress of Environmental History meets in Guimarães, Portugal

What makes a thriving city?  One way the Thriving Cities Project seeks to explore this question is  by comparing a selection of cities across the United States, relying on expert analysis from those who best know their local communities. But cities beyond the United States also experience similar challenges. The globe-spanning history behind cities and their relationship to the natural environment was a major theme at the recent Second World Congress of Environmental History (WCEH) in Guimarães, Portugal. Held in early July, the conference brought together scholars from around the world to present the latest research on different aspects of environmental history.

 Strolling in the old town section of Guimarães

Presentations included histories of environmentalism in the developing world, research on environmental decline in settings as diverse as pre-colonial Africa and the Soviet Union, environmental thought in Czech urban planning, environmental disasters and memory in Latin American cities, various urban efforts at nature conservation around the world, and historical perspectives on contemporary urban ecological problems in China. Across these diverse topics, presenters stressed a number of important and recurring themes: the regional and often global nature of urban problems; the complex and peculiar ways in which urban life sparks environmental thinking; the reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world; ecological limits to urban sprawl and growth; and the many ecological consequences—pollution, for example—of urban living.

This perspective was particularly notable at the WCEH because urban life has not always played a large role in the field of environmental history. Early environmental histories often focused heavily on the “natural”—that is, wilderness spaces and their protection—and less on the built environment of cities. For many decades, historical scholarship on cities largely remained in the domain of cultural, political, economic, architectural, or social perspectives.

Inspired by the pioneering scholarship of Joel Tarr, Martin Melosi, and William Cronon, historians have developed innovative new lines of inquiry into the relationship between cities and the environment.  In the United States, for instance, Tarr and social historian Clay McShane have shown how environmental forces such as animals and pollution have shaped the course of urban life. Environmental historians Chris Sellers and Adam Rome stressed how urban and suburban experiences shape our ideas and definitions about “nature.” And Cronon’s scholarship revealed the many overlapping material connections between cities and their rural surroundings.

Although many of the presentations suggested that urban environmental history is now thriving as a discipline, more work along these lines is vital, as urban thriving today continues to be defined by a city’s material surroundings. Guimarães offered a unique setting for this kind of project. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the historic city has been associated since the twelfth century with Portugal’s rise as a world empire; in 2012, Guimarães served as European Capital of Culture promoting urban development amid cultural diversity. As a center of commerce and business, the city was also one of the earliest to be shaped by urban planning. In addition, with its proximity to fertile farmlands, hills, and two rivers, it is a vivid instance of the reciprocal relationship between the natural world and city development. Guimarães is a city of many layers, from its well-preserved medieval castle and city walls to its dilapidated, industrial-era factory spaces and sleek, modernist hotels. Like a palimpsest, its historical layer reveal the cumulative past attempts to alter and build on the rugged, hilly landscape in order to protect its people and allow them to prosper.

As the Thriving Cities Project continues to ask what makes a thriving city, it would do well to keep in focus the central insights of the WCEH: that many urban problems are now global in scope and that there are ongoing historical and modern challenges in reconciling city life with the non-human world.

Stephen Macekura is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Do Cities Tear Us Apart?—Part 2

Two Trends Changing Urban Communities Today


Many cultural observers once believed cities and religion simply would not mix. One early twentieth-century sociologist famously depicted peasant farmers abandoning their Catholic faith the moment their feet touched the ground in Paris’s Montparnasse train station. Even as late as the 1960s, theorists like Peter Berger and Alasdair MacIntyre believed the experience of industrialized urban life was simply too fragmented to sustain a coherent religious belief system.

Today, these generalizations seem less plausible. Millions of city inhabitants—many coming from some of the world’s most religious places—have found ways to combine modern urban living with devout religiosity. Strongly religious subcultures and diasporas have also thrived within densely populated pre-industrial, industrial, and now post-industrial urban centers.

So why did so many thinkers believe in an inherent conflict between religion and urbanization? In part one of this series, we looked at how many sociologists at the turn of the twentieth century believed that cities eroded interpersonal relationships, damaged traditional ways of life, and left people with a sense of anomie. With a cultural transition of this magnitude, then, the disappearance of religion seemed inevitable.

Although scholars have now moved beyond this “urbanist-determinism” theory, it has still drawn attention to the basic question of social cohesion in urban settings. Contemporary inquires locate similar concerns in citizenship activism and ethics as well as in broader areas such as architectural design and city planning where the goal is to prioritize organic interactions and to facilitate access to public goods.

To this end, I want to outline two trends that demographers and sociologists find to be prevalent across urban environments today. While hardly deterministic, these trends will unquestionably contribute to how cities preserve and develop social cohesion in coming decades.

The Rise of the Single-Person Household

As sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues, the world likely has more urban single-person households now than at any other time in history. Atlanta, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Denver, and Chicago are all made up of between 35 and 45 percent one-person households, compared to the national average of 28 percent. For Manhattan, the rate is about 50 percent, same for London, Paris, and Tokyo. Perth and Stockholm both top 60 percent. Urban areas in Southeastern Asia have some of the fastest growing rates of single-households. Seoul, South Korea, now at 24 percent is expected to top 33 percent in 2035; its popular trendsetting Gangnam district is already at 30 percent. While Singapore’s rate is at a modest 9.2 percent, it has doubled in only a generation and will likely continue to increase.

What this means for social cohesion has yet to be seen, but more conservative-oriented and “social capital” scholars—focusing mainly on the rise of adults forgoing marriage and family—argue that the transition to the family life-stage has historically been crucial for communal life, taming anti-social behavior and embedding individuals in the shared life of playgrounds, schools, PTAs, and kids sports leagues. At least in the twentieth-century context, this stage in the US has also meant a turn (or return) to active involvement in religious congregations, a central generator of social capital. Thus, urban contexts with fewer households of families will likely lack key institutional resources that have historically been major avenues of interconnectedness.

Other thinkers tie this trend to the increasing power of market forces to mold societies into largely-detached household units. Highly-demanding careers—often filling the void that opens in the absence of familial ties—may drive emotional energy toward the workplace rather than toward civic and neighborhood involvement. Reinforcing this trend, advertisers seize upon the higher discretionary incomes of single-dwelling households to pitch lifestyles that often preclude meaningful ties to others. From this perspective, urban communities made up of single households could become, in Zygmunt Bauman’s words, “shared physical spaces of consumption…without having any actual social interaction.” Here not only the community health but also the mental health of residents may suffer, particularly among the elderly.

At the same time, this trend does not penetrate all subcultures or social classes with equal effects. And even in places where single households are growing, Eric Klinenberg has argued against the caricature of the socially withdrawn loner. While we may not yet know its full effects, the rise of urban communities of single-person households will likely create a demand for new forms (or reforms) of civic institutions that bring people together.

The Skyboxification of America

As a second demographic trend, today’s cities bring into near proximity places of sharply-contrasting life outcomes and well-being. Richard Florida has described this as the unprecedented rise of “compressed inequality” where well-maintained gated communities exist mere blocks away from blighted neighborhoods. A recent Washington Post article provides the means to locate one’s own neighborhood amidst surrounding zip codes representing different educational and income levels.

Called the “skyboxification” effect, this trend means most daily urban experiences are likely dominated by interactions with those who demographically are most like us, in our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our grocery stores, our schools, our religious communities, and our choice of leisure activities. Chicago sociologist Robert Park was already observing this effect in 1925, noting that a city population tends to “segregate itself… in accordance with its tastes and temperaments.” But scholars from across disciplines (and from across the political spectrum) have come to agree that American “skyboxification” has intensified in recent decades due to rising income inequality combined with deeply entrenched “neighborhood effects” that perpetuate negative life outcomes for certain areas. I will explore this narrowing of the urban community experience (the “homophily effect”) in greater detail in part three of this series.

Rather than viewing these phenomena as some new form of urbanist-determinism, city planners and urban scholars should consider how these trends might shape communal life within the cultural and historical context of particular cities. As we saw in part one of this series, this multi-dimensional approach to cities—keeping the focus on the well-being and fulfillment of the people who make up a city—is one of the most valuable takeaways in the synthesis of earlier theories on the power of cities to shape our daily lives and interactions with others.

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. 

Snapshots of City Life: Music, Commuter Cycling, and Other Stories

Gathered from around the web, these articles should interest every Common Place reader. Though each story touches on different facets of city life—music, urban farm stands, and biking— they highlight different questions and challenges related to urban thriving.

How a Tiny Record Label Jump-Started One Midwestern City’s Arts Economy

A city’s music scene oftentimes refers to its smoky dive bars,  screaming concert halls, or even the local bands eager to breakout. Yet, the indie record label, Asthmatic Kitten, has been quietly transforming the way Indianapolis engages its musicians. In addition to creating creating local venues for artists, Asthmatic Kitten’s manager, Michael Kaufmann, helped establish a city music council. “Made up of a diverse cross-section of music professionals,” journalist Michael Seman explains that “the council includes representatives from local blogs, indie labels, the chamber of commerce, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and educational institutions. Its goal is to influence city policies that might foster growth for the music scene while also developing the city’s creative economy.” Music not only brings together crowds for concerts, but also, as this article details, brings together urban leaders for the good of the city.

To Cool Cities, Build Them Tall and Shiny

As the world continues to warm, the city with its jungle of concrete and steel is particularly susceptible. This article details how one scholar, Lei Zhou, is seeking to understand the complex factors that contribute to what is known as the “urban heat island effect.” That is, urban areas that are hotter than the surrounding countryside. Although Zhou’s findings indicate that a city’s humidity is the largest factor, urban design certainly is important. Urban design then requires not just accounting for social variables but also, increasingly, environmental factors.

Farm stands turn your backyard kale into cold, hard cash

Although a common feature on America’s back roads, farm stands, according to this article, are now beginning to pop up all across our cities. Yet, the produce sold is grown in city backyards and community food plots, rather than the open acres of rural farmland. Despite some resistance from city governments, this nascent trend is indicative of a larger urban-food movement that only continues to grow.  It also shows that people can grow healthy food in and for cities while also making a little bit of money.

Restaurants Really Can Determine the Fate of Cities and Neighborhoods

In other urban-food related news, this article reports on a new survey that argues that restaurants play a role in urban renewal. According to journalist Anthony Flint, “Restaurants are the leading force behind reclaimed waterfronts and regenerating neighborhoods, and are a key component of mixed-use development and urban retail. When a part of the city puts itself on the map, it’s often because of wave of trendy eateries have opened there.” Although elements of gentrification are at play, organizations and governments intent on urban thriving would do well to recognize the cultural power of food—a topic that we have explored here.

How Low-Income Commuters View Cycling

Although cycling is often touted for its environmental and health benefits, it has yet to make a dent in urban transportation. One reason that is often cited is the disparity of use between affluent and poor residents. Survey data by researchers in Washington, D.C., found that commute times are oftentimes longer for low-income workers thus making the option to bike seem impractical. In turn, researchers suggest that along with building more biking infrastructure, cities should continue to improve upon preexisting public transportation. We are reminded again that even good urban policies such as encouraging bike use still need to account for everyone’s needs.

Assessing Urban Complexity: Thriving Cities Conference Recap


According to the World Health Organization, seven out of ten people will live in a city by the year 2050. Other projections have put the figure as high as 75 percent. The practical implications of this reality are great and present challenges in any number of distinct areas, including, among others, issues related to housing, public health, education, transportation, and law.

These figures present a deeper challenge: how to understand cities as more than just a set of discrete problems in need of isolated solutions. Rather, because problems are multi-faceted and interrelated, the real challenge is to see the city as a complex whole. Only by doing so are to see cities as places constituted by webs of interrelationship—sometimes fleeting, sometimes enduring, but always possessing immense social energy that can be cultivated and channeled for the public good.

Several decades ago in her celebrated book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs articulated this holistic vision of a vibrant city. In her last chapter, “The Kind of Problem a City Is,” she observed, “Cities happen to be problems in organized complexity, like the life sciences. They present ‘situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.’”  It was with this picture of cities in mind that the Thriving Cities Project (TCP) hosted a two-day working conference with more than 40 attendees from around the country and Canada to explore what it might mean—and take—to thrive in today’s cities. Josh Yates, the project director for TCP and conference speaker, set the stage for the conference in stating that the twin dilemmas facing any city is how to negotiate the sheer complexity of social life today and the tremendous normative diversity of its inhabitants.

With TCP having completed its first year of commissioned research, the aim of last month’s conference was to bring together scholars and practitioners from diverse fields and backgrounds, to present initial research, and to discuss it in open forum.  On the first day, presentations covered six areas of strategic importance to any city—beauty, prosperity, governance and justice, sustainability, education, and moral order. Subsequent discussions dealt with their interconnections. Each presenter offered a unique perspective on the meaning of thriving,  along with an assortment of questions and potential problems.  For example, what roles do the arts play in the city? Are they economic, political, or purely aesthetic?

Again, inspired by Jane Jacobs’s notion of “organized complexity,” the TCP team is convinced that answers to such questions have profound implications for understanding the various facets of urban life. The challenge then of a thriving city is to sort through the implications of each strategic area (which TCP calls an “endowment”), while at the same time connecting one to the other—arts to education, education to business, business to sustainability, and so forth. Although TCP is in its initial research stages, conference participants were pleased to note particular related themes around methodology and implementation emerge across different sessions.

Anna Kim presents her research on the role beauty in cities.

Anna Kim presents her research on the role of beauty in cities. Photo: Stephen Assink

One area of central interest to the project has to do with how we assess or measure the well-being or thriving of a city. With the rise of big data, there seems to be no shortage of quantitative metrics and measurements that a city could gather about its health and well-being—a topic Common Place previously discussed. We see this trend toward measurements as only part of the answer. No single type or quantity of data can eliminate the difficulty of answering interpretative questions. That is, there are always cultural assumptions implicit in the questions cities ask and the data people gather. Additionally, there are important capacities and qualities of city life that, although difficult to quantify, are essential. During one panel discussion, we heard an example that illustrated this reality. Recently, the United States Forestry Service created an extensive map of urban tree coverage. This type of map for Baltimore shows a region with very limited arboriculture near the city’s center. One could assess the data and conclude that Baltimore needs to improve its environmental standards. Yet, a deeper, more qualitative analysis of the situation reveals that many local residents in fact do not want tree coverage in their neighborhoods because it could increase crime.

The point of this illustration is straightforward: Simply having data is not enough. In line with this idea, a significant part of the conference was spent discussing what should be measured, why, and how to use information effectively to promote thriving in cities. It was noted that identifying certain “keystone variables,” that is, particular metrics that influence social life more than others for thriving would be at the center of the project, although further research and discussion would be required to identify these.

A central claim of the Thriving Cities Project is that thriving in an urban context is deeply contextual, requiring an intimate knowledge of the geography, history, and social layout of a particular city. For this reason, day two of the conference featured four profiles of individual cities—Orlando, Milwaukee, Portland (OR), and Richmond—presented by the researchers who wrote the initial city profiles. Although following a general structure, each profiler used varying methodologies and frameworks to present the data about their respective city, highlighting the unique aspects of each.

This mix led to interesting results: The Richmond profile highlighted the continuing legacy of slavery and race in a city that was once the capital of the confederacy; the Portland profile pointed out its unique “DIY” (“Do it yourself”) economy and culture; the Orlando profile described the city’s ambivalent relationship with Disney and theme-park-based tourism; and the Milwaukee profile celebrated a promising asset-based method of community conversation despite the city’s deeply partisan character in recent years. The profiles showed that each city has its share of troubles and triumphs, and underscored the notion that the final recommendations of the project must not be too abstract, but grounded in the specific history and adaptable to the local context and accessible to practitioners, city leaders, and citizens alike. All participants agreed to focus the next phase of TCP research on developing a framework for assessment that is up to the challenges of our particular urban contexts today.

In the coming weeks, Common Place will feature more details about the research of TCP to date as well as several video interviews that were filmed at the conference on a variety of important topics.

The Magic of Mayors?

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Comment Magazine, a publication of CARDUS. Available by subscription at


If Mayors Ruled the WorldWhen identifying potential leadership for global challenges, we often neglect history. Specifically, we tend to forget that the nation-state is a relatively new kid on the block, a political entity much younger than the city and yet one we take to be the basic unit of society. We assume that power resides in presidents and prime ministers, not mayors and municipal managers.

For a “cosmopolitan urbanist,” someone who believes that cities and their mayors are poised to provide much-needed leadership on global challenges, the relationship between the ancient city and the upstart nation-state is more fraught. From this perspective, the nation-state is like the sorcerer’s apprentice, having set into motion a number of global dynamics that it cannot control or stop. In Goethe’s masterpiece, the apprentice conjures a broom to assist with his chores, but the broom actually makes the mess worse. Unable to undo the spell, the apprentice breaks the broom instead.

The broom then multiplies, which only exacerbates the problem. When the apprentice is beyond hope, the sorcerer returns, breaks the spell, and restores order. Mayors, cosmopolitan urbanists might say, are like the sorcerer himself: they have an ancient and untapped magic to address global challenges that defy the capabilities of the nation-state. Indeed, this is the daring thesis of Benjamin Barber’s recent book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. In his manifesto for urban leadership in an increasingly interconnected world, Barber proposes to leverage the potential of cities and urban leadership through a worldwide “Parliament of Mayors.” “Can cities save the world?” Barber asks. His answer is clear: “I believe they can . . . they should . . . and they already do.” But is this hope justified? Can cosmopolitan urbanism deliver what it promises?

Taller Borders, Eroding Democracy

Barber argues that nation-states, having initiated and fuelled contemporary global dynamics, are now constitutionally incompetent to channel those dynamics for the common good. At stake is not only material wellbeing, but also the credibility and practice of democracy.

For Barber, the problem is rooted in the distinctive notion of sovereignty that reserves for the nation-state absolute, independent, and exclusive authority over a given territory. Since the seventeenth century, sovereign nation-states, more than other institutions, have used their authority to cultivate space for democratic practice. While democracy may have been conceived in the ancient polis, modern nation-states have been responsible for maturing democratic practice.

However, according to Barber, global challenges expose limitations and contradictions built into the strengths of the nation-state system. As he writes, “The dysfunction of nation-states as global cooperators arises at least in part out of their virtues.” Sovereignty does not preclude collaboration, but it does hinder effective governance of  transnational matters. Simply put, accountability beyond the borders of the state is an affront to sovereignty. Therefore, faced with actors, issues, and contexts that are not territorially bound and may demand transnational accountability—greenhouse gases, for example, need no visas, and the atmosphere is a commons shared by everyone—the sovereignty of the nation-state betrays the common good.

As if pandemics and ecological catastrophes that defy the capabilities of the nation state are not bad enough, Barber’s greatest fear is the erosion of democratic governance. Hanging over his analysis is the specter of authoritarianism. For all his discussion of environmental and social challenges, Barber is most concerned with the ways in which those challenges indirectly threaten democracy by exposing the incompetence of the nation-state.

Barber worries that the formal, but ineffective, authority of the sovereign nation-state, to date the most fertile ground for democracy, may be superseded by the emergence of more competent, but undemocratic, forms of governance—either a global government or, more likely, multinational corporations. Like greenhouse gases, such actors span borders and thus trump sovereignty, but their empowerment also undermines meaningful democratic practice.

So it is that we stand at something of a crossroads. Climate change and other global challenges combine with the emergence of effective but undemocratic institutions simultaneously to undermine material  wellbeing and threaten hard-won practices of self-governance. Barber sees the city as a way out of this mire.

The Return of the Polis

Barber’s proposal for a worldwide Parliament of Mayors is audacious. Three times per year, the leaders of 300 cities would meet to consider challenges facing our increasingly urban world. To ensure consideration of challenges faced by megacities and modest towns alike, each meeting would include 50 cities of more than 10 million inhabitants, 125 cities with populations between 500,000 and 10 million, and another 125 with populations under 500,000. In matters requiring a vote, each city would cast one “city vote” along with one demographic vote for every 500,000 inhabitants. In any given year, each of the three meetings would include a different set of cities, with the exception perhaps of a small cadre of permanent members.

The Parliament of Mayors would primarily be what Barber calls “an Audiament—a chamber of listeners” in which urban leadership from around the world would gather to be updated on the challenges faced and solutions developed by their peers. Only occasionally would the parliament vote on a measure, the passage of which would require a majority in three consecutive parliamentary sessions.

Barber thinks that the Parliament of Mayors will work because cities share four characteristics that predispose them to both democratic governance and successful collaboration on global challenges. First, the scale of cities enables participation, opening their “civic logic” to the possibility of bottom-up governance.

Second, cities are now home to more than half of the world’s population, a percentage that demographers predict will only increase over the coming decades. So, quoting Las Vegas urban reformer Tony Hsieh, Barber concludes: “If you fix cities, you kind of fix the world.”

Third, Barber claims that cities are predisposed to cooperation because they have never been self-sufficient, but have always depended upon their hinterlands and other cities to meet their needs. Barber ignores the important fact that this dependence has not consistently resulted in cooperation. At its height, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was the definition of a regional hegemon, demanding tribute from its hinterland. And our largest contemporary cities are not known for cooperation at the metropolitan level, much less at the global level. The fact that cities need resources from beyond their territorial boundaries does not mean that cities will play nice to get them.

Fourth, Barber claims that cities are inherently disposed toward pragmatism, rather than ideology, and are therefore more likely to face up to the practical challenges of globalization. There is some truth to this claim, but Barber ignores the history of entanglement between corruption and what he describes as an urbanpreoccupation with practical challenges. Ignoring both ideas and personalities in favor of “getting it done” has played a major role in the history of machine politics, which depends to an extent upon preserving the status quo and thus changes very little about the city, much less the world. So this cuts against the grain of Barber’s proposal more than he admits.

The Future of Cosmopolitan Urbanism

The high hopes shared by Barber and other cosmopolitan urbanists are to a certain extent grounded in existing realities. Cities are already exercising leadership on global matters. Transnational municipal networks are addressing issues such as climate change, food security, and economic development. Cities in these networks are sharing best practices, diffusing policy agendas, and operationalizing norms in innovative ways. They don’t yet constitute Barber’s Parliament of Mayors, but if transnational municipal networks are the future, then the future is already here.

There is, however, the matter of inequality, not only within cities but also within the emerging global urban system. It isn’t entirely clear that the relative prosperity of New York, London, and Tokyo is unrelated to the relative vulnerability of Nairobi, Lagos, and Tacloban. These inequities are reflected in the shape of already existing networks and might be exploited if and when the Parliament of Mayors takes shape. To borrow a line from William Gibson, whose dystopian Sprawl Trilogy Barber confusingly cites as an example of the future he envisions, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Nonetheless, Barber makes an important contribution by navigating the strait between idolatry of the city, on the one hand, and what theologian Edward Farley describes as “social Manicheanism,” on the other. Unlike purely boosterist accounts of cosmopolitan urbanism, Barber is at least aware of urban challenges. He insists that mayors must get their own houses in order even as we “rediscover the polis tucked into the core of cosmopolis.”

Indeed, cosmopolitan urbanists as a whole seem to have high expectations for what Farley describes as “theonomous sociality.” Theonomous sociality “has to do with how a society manages and transcends its . . . natural centrisms . . . not by repudiating ‘location, territory, or specific cultural content,’ but by taking up the aims and goods of particularity into agendas oriented to the well-being of broader environments.”

Unfortunately, cosmopolitan urbanists offer only very thin accounts of why cities would do this and, in particular, why they would do it better than other institutions. Barber’s particular account only goes so far in this direction. He makes a case—drawing briefly upon Edmund Burke, who Barber spins into a sort of “grounded cosmopolitan”— that urban leaders should take into account the global common good. But Barber offers no account of the motivations that might drive such a commitment on the part of cities, their urban leadership, and their citizens.

Still, whatever their motivations, these cities exist. But will they make a difference? Can mayors and other urban leaders save us from social and ecological catastrophe and keep democratic governance viable? One thing’s for sure: mayors won’t be able to go it alone as global leaders. If cities are to experiment not only with social and ecological innovations but with new governance models that can couple effectiveness with self-rule in service to the global common good, then we will all have to reconsider the ways in which we inhabit our communities. If there is any magic to be recovered in the polis, then citizens, and not just city managers, will have to manage and transcend their natural centrisms in favor of the common good.


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

Whole Foods in Richmond

Whole Foods is headed to Richmond proper. In early May, Whole Foods Market announced that it had signed a lease for a 40,000 square foot store in the Sauer Center, a planned mixed-use development on the north side of Richmond’s historic Fan District. Although a Whole Foods has been firmly ensconced in the burgeoning suburb of Short Pump since 2008, a swiftly-developing area about 7 miles west of the city in Henrico County, this store at the Sauer Center will be the first taste of the chain within the city limits.


With a mix of new construction and historic buildings, the Sauer Center will include not only the 133,000 square foot former Virginia Department of Taxation (previously the home of the Stephen Putney Shoe Company), but also the 103-year-old C.F. Sauer Co. spice factory and headquarters. The 20-foot by 60-foot animated “Sauer’s Vanilla” sign still lights up the night sky. Whole Foods has not yet announced a target opening date or its specific location in Sauer Center, but the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Whole Foods will likely replace the storefront presently occupied by Pleasant’s Hardware, another longtime family-run Richmond establishment until its purchase by the C.F. Sauer Company in 1989.

Although Whole Foods is infamous for devouring whole paychecks in exchange for its environmentally sustainable, animal friendly, fair-trade fare, it promises to be a large draw to the nearby affluent Fan neighborhood. Richmond is fast becoming a city that supports businesses that provide well-crafted food, sourced in a sustainable and ethical manner—particular specialties of Whole Foods.

The Fan Opens Up

More to the point, the Fan has been coalescing into a neighborhood with businesses that draw customers from morning through the evening hours. Roughly two miles west of the planned Sauer Center Whole Foods stands Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, a thriving local store dedicated to organically grown from nearby farmers. In addition, local restaurants and watering holes, like Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, encourage evening foot traffic.

While Whole Foods prides itself on being responsive to meeting consumers’ demands, it will be entering an increasingly competitive local grocery market, where new stores are seeking to fill the vacuum left by the closing of the regional chain Ukrop’s in 2010. The influx of grocery stores is projected to outpace, if it has not already, the city and the surrounding counties’ capacity to consume.

At the same time, a recent mayoral Food Policy Task Force report noted that Richmond contains about 40 neighborhoods that are food insecure—that is, with low-income residents who live more than a mile from the nearest grocery store. Most of these neighborhoods lie on the city’s South Side, although large pockets of low-income and low-access residents are also found  in the East End and North Side of the city. The projected Whole Foods will likely do little to address issues of food insecurity in Richmond, because it will not be near neighborhoods in need or provide food at in the low-income price range. Indirectly, however, Whole Foods can potentially raise the city’s tax base by attracting further development nearby. In addition, Whole Foods can be become a key donor to the nearby Central Virginia Food Bank.

View of downtown Richmond; credit: Montes-Breadley,

View of downtown Richmond; credit: Montes-Bradley,

In terms of the competition in Richmond’s grocery market, the Sauer Center Whole Foods will be positioned to do well. Aside from a Kroger a half-mile to the east, Whole Foods will be the only grocery store within reasonable walking and easy biking distance of the Fan. What’s more, this location lies enticingly close to the proposed route for Richmond’s Bus Rapid Transit, a proposed bus system that would travel a dedicated lane roughly from downtown Richmond to the recently revamped Willow Lawn Shopping Center along the city’s western edge. (Although Richmond was home to the first trolley system in the United States in the early 1900s, it currently ranks 92 out of 100 top U.S. cities in public transit access, according to a 2011 Brookings Institute study.)

Increasing Accessibility

Nevertheless, Whole Foods and the Sauer Center will be vital components of a commercial hub that could develop along the Rapid Transit line in the future. Furthermore, the RVA Bus Rapid Transit itself raises the hopeful prospect of increasing the economic, political, and social cohesion of the entire Greater Richmond Area. Reliable transportation could boost employment and education opportunities primarily available to those with cars in affluent zip codes. Such a blossoming of regionalism and accessibility would require the city and surrounding counties to bridge historically deep racial and economic divisions.

The Sauer Center’s Whole Foods also has the potential to be a boon to the health and future of many Richmond residents given its close proximity to institutions of learning. Whole Foods has a well-deserved reputation for increasing people’s access not only to healthy food but also to food education through its Whole Kids Foundation and Whole Cities Foundation. Two public elementary schools, one public middle school, and one public high school lie within a mile radius of the planned Whole Foods, and beyond that is a public middle school, a high school, two private high schools, and a private middle school. Two institutions of higher learning are also nearby: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) along with its medical school and Virginia Union University (VUU), one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges.

With FeedMore (the Central Virginia Food Bank combined with Meals on Wheels) a mere mile away and urban gardening movements growing through the work of Shalom Farms, Tricycle Gardens, and the William Byrd Community House, the opportunities abound for collaborative efforts at cultivating awareness and engagement on issues of food justice and land use. Many houses of worship and faith communities also stand close by, ready for deeper theological engagement and outreach on these fronts.

While Whole Foods at the Sauer Center could simply end up being a stop for affluent consumers, there are good reasons to think it will eventually boost employment and general area investment. With the resources, power, and social commitment that Whole Foods has, the possibilities for profound community enrichment are palpable.


Nelson Reveley lives in Richmond and is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on theological ethics in relation to the economy as well as the environment. He is also an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA).