Snapshots of City Life: Our Top Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Cities Need More than Big Data

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thinking About Homelessness (Without Thinking About Poverty)

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

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

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

The Haven building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There Goes the Neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small town evening (4691861030)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The City of Big Data—Is It Enough?

Part 1 of the series Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data 

During 2013, 6,922,484 tweets originated in Chicago. That same year, members of the city’s Divvy bike-sharing program logged 750,000 rides and 633,647 callers reported abandoned vehicles, potholes, and rodent infestation through the city’s 311 program. These numbers represent just a fraction of all of the data collected in, by, and about Chicago last year. So I learned at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s exhibition, “Chicago: City of Big Data,” which allows visitors to discover the role of information technology in cities by interacting with data on urban life at the individual, block, and city levels.

2009-09-18 3060x1020 chicago skyline.jpg
2009-09-18 3060×1020 chicago skyline” by J. Crocker – J. Crocker. Via Wikimedia Commonshttp://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2009-09-18_3060x1020_chicago_skyline.jpg

During my visit, I also explored my “personal data trail,” a record of online purchases, social media engagement, and movement. After analyzing my average monthly bike-sharing use, music and movie streaming, online purchases, and social media use, a computer told me that I am a “Power User” whose data trail is highly valued by public and private interests alike: “You are the Alpha of the data pack. You rely on your digital devices, generating and consuming data likes it’s your job. Much of your data trail is visible to anyone who’s interested.”

As it happens, a lot of people are interested. In terms of marketing, my data is worth about five hundredths of a penny. That may not sound like much, but to public agencies in Chicago, my data aggregated with that of others can help improve the delivery of city services. It turns out that tweets and bike-share rides are rich in information that can help city agencies become more responsive and efficient.

The Array of Things

Visitors to the exhibit also saw examples of data collection infrastructure specially manufactured for the urban environment. The Array of Things is a network of sensors shielded by hardened enclosures, wrapped in protective composite tubing, and attached to city light posts. Touted as a “new urban infrastructure,” the AoT may prove to be as vital to a thriving urban future as highways, bridges, and power supplies. When completed, the AoT will collect data on temperature, humidity, light, precipitation, wind, vibration, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, volatile organic compounds, sulfur oxides, and particulate matter. Along with these environmental indicators, the sensors will analyze ambient noise and the number of Bluetooth and WiFi-enabled mobile devices within a certain radius. Eventually, the data could be used to target the application of road salt during winter weather and to help pedestrians identify the safest routes home.

“Chicago: City of Big Data” also demonstrated how city planners and architects combine “sophisticated computer models with growing pools of data” to discover and elucidate patterns that might otherwise remain unknown or opaque. These patterns can inform urban design and policy, as well as assist in building more sustainable, equitable, and efficient cities. According to the 2014 Chicago Council on Global Affairs Emerging Leaders Perspectives report, The Emerging Power of Big Data: The Chicago Experience, big data can lead to reliable and sustainable energy, predictable and efficient public transit, successful and accountable education, and targeted and effective law enforcement.

The use of data in urban design, planning, and policy is nothing new. In Chicago, especially, data collection has a long history. In the months leading up to the 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition, architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham, the fair’s lead planner, collected vast amounts of information regarding land and water-based transportation in an effort to make the fair as accessible and profitable as possible. In every corner of the world, cities have used data for planning and design. How tall must bridges be to accommodate boat traffic, how many high-school students graduate in a certain district? What are the links between poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness? How many tourists vacation in the city? How many pilgrims visit and venerate a holy site? Cities use such information to learn from the past, respond to the present, and plan for the future.

So what is new about the use of data in urban planning, policy, and design? Unlike in the past, we now have access to an unprecedented stream of data; information that is rapidly available and of mind-boggling variety. We also now have the ability to study massive data pools for relationships that hadn’t previously been visible. In addition, we can employ tools such as cluster analysis and other data mining techniques to discern patterns that we didn’t even know to look for before. Beyond the size, depth, and range of data, we now have even greater expectations of what we can learn from it. For some, the goal of Big Data is to make the whole city more responsive, giving us instant access to information we can hold in one hand, turning the city into a device. By harnessing big data, we suppose we may harness the power of urbanization and the city itself—a force with few rivals in history.

The City of the Big Shoulders

It is telling that the exhibition title, “City of Big Data,” riffs on one of Chicago’s most famous nicknames. Carl Sandburg dubbed Chicago the “City of the Big Shoulders” in his eponymous 1916 poem. Sandburg opens by addressing the city directly:

“Hog Butcher for the World
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders”

In its industrial heyday, the “City of the Big Shoulders” symbolized the gritty determination required to build a metropolitan giant from what author Donald L. Miller described as a “pestilential swamp.” Chicago has always had a reputation for swagger and resilience, returning even better after the devastating 1871 fire and outpacing competitors to land the 1893 World’s Fair. Becoming a railroad hub and transfer point for people and goods moving from the west to the east further enhanced the city’s fortunes—and its reputation. Sandburg captured Chicago’s confidence:

“Bareheaded
Shoveling,
Wrecking
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing!”

Sandburg sees Chicago as an ignorant young fighter who hadn’t yet tasted defeat—not a city that knows it can do anything, but a city that doesn’t yet know what it can’t do. What he identifies in the poem is a kind of naïveté that can be inspiring for cities, but one that can also lead to over-confidence and a tendency to overlook urban problems and limitations. After all, for all its industrial success, the City of the Big Shoulders has always been plagued by many forms of social ills.

Likewise, the City of Big Data may also experience over-confidence. This exhibition invited us to consider whether or not Big Data is any more promising than, so to speak, Big Shoulders. Is data-mining the key to flourishing urban communities? What, if anything, might Big Data contribute to a thriving urban future? And if Big Data alone is not enough, what more do we need?

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

 

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Was there ever a truly natural city? The Byzantines thought so.

Constantinople mural, Istanbul Archaeological Museums; Wikimedia Commons

A medieval mural in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums depicting the seaward walls of the Byzantine capital; Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AConstantinople_mural%2C_Istanbul_Archaeological_Museums.jpg

In an age that emphasizes sustainable urbanization and green growth in cities across the globe, it makes sense to look to the past to see if human beings have ever really attempted, much less achieved, a truly “natural” city—one in which the human and the natural were connected so that both would thrive. As it turns out, new research suggests that Constantinople may have been such a city, at least in the aspirations of its inhabitants.

From ancient times, the Greeks believed humans could achieve their full potential only within the context of a city, and perhaps no city built by Greeks more fully reflected their ideal of the polis as the crucial element of paideia (the formation or education of the citizen) than Constantinople. The heart and soul of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was the nexus of East and West, Empire and Church, heaven and earth, man and nature, the old and the new. Even after the Muslim Turks conquered the city in 1453 and up to the present, Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, has been a bridge between two worlds, whether it is Europe and Asia, the Islamic world and the West, or the modern and the traditional. Although the Byzantine capital ceased to exist more than five centuries ago, the legacy and spirit of Byzantium have continued and may even have important lessons for city dwellers today.

In The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible,  Bruce Foltz asks whether Constantinople was in fact such a “natural city.” Foltz, a professor of philosophy at Eckerd College, examines not just the built environment and the civic structures put in place by the Byzantines, but also the deeper cultural and philosophical systems that formed  their vision of what a city should be. Constantinople, he points out, was founded as a “sacred city” that celebrated the connections among the divine, human, and natural realms as an integrated whole. Foltz says that for Byzantine Christians,

[T]he Fall is a disorder of the whole cosmos…[and] redemption…[is] a restoration of humanity and nature alike…returning them to their paradisiacal state….Humanity [is to be]…that being through which the divine image within all creation becomes fully realized, the nodal point through which creation apprehends and consecrates its own inner divinity.

For Orthodox believers, there was an intimate connection between man and nature expressed and experienced not just on the individual or even communal level but also through the imperial city itself. Constantinople, the golden city, shone as the beacon and the paradigm for those living throughout the Byzantine realm and beyond.

Contemporary view of Hagia Sophia; photo by Murat Taner; #166989598 / gettyimages.com

 

The focal point of Constantinople was Hagia Sophia, Church of the Divine Wisdom, considered by many to be one of the great wonders of the world because of its scale, complexity, and beauty. The function of this architectural wonder was to symbolize the Byzantine understanding of the relationship among God, man, and nature, and to reveal their coming together in space and time. As  Foltz describes it,

The Divine Wisdom is the eternal Logos, seen as shaping the cosmos and holding it together. It is thus also the inner logos of each being that, when fully realized, joins it to the whole in a love that must be understood ontologically.… The Great Church of the Divine Wisdom, then, itself serves to bring together all elements of the cosmos in a transfigured form, making manifest the inner glow of their divine beauty.

Chora Church/Museum, Istanbul,fresco,Anastasis, by Gunnar Back Pedersen, Wikimedia Commons

Anastasis, or Resurrection of Christ, icon from the funerary chapel at Choral Church, an outstanding example of Byzantine architecture and iconography in Istanbul; Wikimedia Commons

When the citizens of Constantinople came together in worship, they entered a space intended to bring together heaven and earth, and they  prayed “on behalf of all [living things] and for all.” Their liturgies were not only for the spiritual edification of individuals in the congregation but also for the renewal of a vision of the natural order, indeed of the entire cosmos, as something sacred, a gift from God given to mankind to treasure and protect. It was a bringing together of both present time and the future Kingdom of God in which humans and all of nature would reach their fullest potential in the image of the divine. Byzantine worship, through its mystical music and elaborate symbolism, also depicted the city as Heavenly Jerusalem, one that the earthly city of Constantinople was to emulate and that Byzantine rulers and citizens alike should strive to achieve. The belief was that a strong, vibrant, and (to the extent possible in this fallen world) “holy” Constantinople, a truly “natural” city, could link humans and nature, the divided races of man, and Heaven and Earth.

The practical ramifications of this ideal play out in a number of ways. For example, historians Stephen Barthel and Christian Isendahl have demonstrated that Constantinople’s urban gardens, agriculture, and water management systems were more efficient than those of many modern cities, in large part because of “the close connection between urban people and their life-support systems,” a concept which they argue must be reignited among urban dwellers today.

There were multiple reasons why this grand urban experiment eventually came to an end, as Steven Runciman and Donald Nicol have chronicled so well in their now-classic works on the subject. The Constantinopolitan model for a city may also be a hard sell in today’s world, particularly in the secularized West where the Byzantine concept of symphonia—a system in which  political and religious leaders work in unity to provide the material and spiritual needs of the people—is rejected outright. Still, to the extent that it can serve as a model of a natural city, Constantinople remains a useful paradigm for us today. Foltz may be right when he concludes that:

Byzantium may nevertheless remain for us in the West, heirs to both Athens and Jerusalem, the exemplary bridge between the secular and the sacred, the temporal and the eternal, between the visible and invisible: the once and future natural city.

The true lesson of the Byzantines, so crucial to us today, is their understanding of the connection between mankind and nature. We can learn from Constantinople that the world around us is composed of living things, not just dead matter for us to take and exploit to make products that we then set before ourselves in an elusive search for meaning and happiness.

Andrew Sharp is Research Scholar at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, where he serves as the Thriving Cities Project Manager, and Affiliate Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. His publications are in the areas Eastern Christianity, Islam, and Muslim-Christian relations and his book is Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age (Brill, 2012).

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The Village Effect—An Interview With Susan Pinker

 

Final jacket_Pinker (2)

In her new book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter (Spiegel & Grau), psychologist Susan Pinker argues for the power and importance of human interaction. In an age of rapid mobility and digital communications, Pinker uses evidence and stories to remind the reader of the need for socializing and its effects on our physical and mental well-being. Although most people would certainly recognize the importance of relationships, Pinker highlights in our interview the profound implications for nurturing and neglecting our social lives.

 

 

Common Place (CP): In your book, you give several reasons for the importance of face-to-face contact. Why then does physical contact matter so much for building personal relationships?

Susan Pinker (SP): In person, interaction sparks a cascade of psychological and biochemical events that foster trust and promote empathy. Although they often pass under our radar, making eye contact and synching one’s body posture and tone of voice to someone you’re talking to face-to-face deepens mutual understanding. For example, job applicants who subconsciously mirror their interviewer’s gestures are often offered higher starting salaries. Athletic teams who are encouraged to pat each other’s backs and give high-fives and fist-bumps tend to score more goals. We are a social species that has evolved for close contact; when we’re in close proximity to others, hormones and neurotransmitters are released that help us solve problems, damp down stress, feel safe, and stave off loneliness. This has the added effect of reducing deleterious effects on our long-term health. Interestingly, research shows that without face-to-face contact, relationships decay. If you haven’t seen someone within the last two to five years, your place in his or her circle has likely been replaced with someone else.

CP: Most people recognize the significance of family and close friends, yet you argue that “weak bonds” can be just as important for individuals and communities. How so?

SP: We know from several excellent, long-term demographic studies (including those by Harvard’s Lisa Berkman and Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University) that having an integrated social life is the best predictor of health and longevity. People with varied social connections—not just individuals with a few close relationships, but those regular interactions with the larger communities in which they live—have a distinct survival advantage. Joining groups that allow you to form those weak bonds helps individuals in two ways. It promotes regular social contact with a diverse group of people, which we know is protective, not only from an immunological point of view, but also cognitively: People who have a large variety of social commitments are less likely to suffer from dementia. In addition, weak bonds provide a source of helpful tidbits of information that strong bonds often don’t. The reason? We often share the same background and types of knowledge with our close friends and family members. People who are more distantly connected to us have access to different banks of information. The social scientist, Mark Granovetter, refers to the advantages that accrue to those with an expansive social circle as “the power of weak bonds.”

And communities are stronger when different types of people feel connected to it— when they feel that they belong and care about what happens to the people in the group beyond their own intimate connections. Without the cohesion of weak bonds, a community would just be an agglomeration of individuals and family units with no common goals, and nothing tying them together. Actually, it wouldn’t be a community at all.

CP: You wrestle at length with the tension between the promise of technology and its limit in our lives. From your research, what are some helpful ways to think about the role of smart devices in our social lives?

SP: Digital devices can’t be beat when it comes to searching for information, classifying it, and storing it. Clearly, smartphones, laptops, and tablets are cheap and convenient communication tools, too. But they can’t compete with the human brain when it comes to expressing and understanding human emotion, both of which are key to establishing empathy and social cohesion. Evidence is also emerging that cognition and emotion are not distinct neurological events, as psychologists used to think; processing human feeling and responding appropriately are faculties that are tightly linked to the ability to learn and perform. As a result, these devices also have limitations during nuanced human exchanges, such as in the context of complex problem-solving or when teaching kids.

So, the key is not to conflate various modes of communication. When it comes to our social lives, our devices are perfectly designed for logistics: for researching and helping people arranging when and where to meet, and even facilitating those meet-ups. There are lots of apps that are designed to help people with similar interests get together, which is an ingenious melding of the technological with the interpersonal. For example, when I found myself in Berlin for a week between two conferences, I found a communal workspace—a “hub”—that allowed me to meet other writers and creators there. Online searches were indispensable for that entry into a new social world.

But there are individual differences in how people use their devices. Personality plays a big role in whether smart devices bring people together or drive them apart. We’ve all seen couples or friends in restaurants who are focused on their screens instead of on each other. The research confirms that people who are not that comfortable or skilled at interacting face-to-face use their devices to create distance, and, more to the point, to replace more intimate interactions. There are data showing that the more time people spend on social media, the less real involvement they have with their own communities, for example. Research by Dutch social scientists shows that shy or learning disabled kids are less likely to use their digital devices to meet up with friends, whereas outgoing kids use their devices to arrange get-togethers. And while online communication has been a huge boon to those on the autistic spectrum, communicating online has not been shown to reduce their loneliness, or to help them build real offline friendships, something that is often a real challenge to people in this “community.” Studies of cancer support groups have unearthed the same information versus emotional support dichotomy. People who participate in online support groups are far more likely to feel lonely and depressed than those in face-to-face support groups. Although I presume both groups foster the sharing of information, only the face-to-face support groups reduce the existential dread and distress caused by the challenges of a chronic disease.

CP: Speaking of technology, there is, for better or for worse, a vocal call for cities to be smarter and more data-centric. What advice would you offer city planners as they think about and design our cities?

SP: Cities that take into account the new data emerging from social neuroscience would focus on creating “third spaces”—the places where people feel comfortable enough to gather, places where small groups of people feel they belong. Right now that role has been assumed by commercial enterprises such as McDonald’s and Starbucks, because municipalities have left a vacuum when it comes to creating places where teleworkers, retired people, and young parents with children can meet and socialize. The emphasis that used to be placed on building parks, libraries, gazebos, and other friendly public spaces is now being subsumed by an enthusiasm for all things technological. There’s no going back, but it is worthwhile to deploy our technological prowess in discerning the places where people like to gather, and what their needs will be while they’re there. So while it’s great to have cities with free WiFi everywhere, without a place to sit in couples or in small groups, providing that access simply promotes more individual focus on individual screens. A more clever use of technology in cities would bring retired people together, for example, or allow municipalities to know exactly where their aging single residents live, so that if there’s an environmental disaster such as a heat wave or a flood, teams can contact the isolated. The data-crunching can be done digitally, while the contact can be done in person.

Although I don’t extoll bygone eras as superior, one reason why I gave the book the title The Village Effect is because the way traditional European villages are built necessarily fostered social interaction and a sense of belonging. There are squares in which to gather and locations for communal markets; towns and cities are designed so that people are forced to cross paths on their way between one place and another. Google has adapted that philosophy in designing the Googleplex. Although technology is the raison d’être for the place, the social requirements of the people who work there are not only not neglected, they’re prioritized. That perspective should be the way of the future. Use technology to bring people together, not to drive them apart.

 

SusaPinker author photo_SusieLowen Pinker is a developmental psychologist, columnist, and broadcaster who writes about social science. Her first book, The Sexual Paradox, was published in seventeen countries and was awarded the William James Book Award by the American Psychological Association. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The Times of London, the BBC, the CBC, The Economist, Atlantic Monthly, The Financial Times, Der Spiegel, and NBC’s Today show. She lives in Montreal.

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Urban Policy: Part 3—Lessons From History

Tracing the development of urban policy in the United States is an often-vexing affair in historical wayfinding. Urban policy in the United States has been, like our metropolitan areas themselves, something of a sprawling mess. Many areas—public health, housing, job creation, transportation, poverty, environment, and education—have been annexed into urban policy territory. Not surprisingly, the strongest critics of U.S. urban policy rightfully argue “there is no there, there.” Our metaphorical metropolis of urban policy has often been a mélange of uncoordinated policies without a vibrant center.

In part, this is due to our federalist system. It also has something to do with the fact that cities can be targeted and affected by both place-based policies and as well as by policies not explicitly about cities, but ones which affect them in distinctive and disproportionate ways.

U.S. urban policy is heavily influenced by professional public policy experts and by an approach that emphasizes the market in various ways. In the language of many critics, this makes for an urban policy that is “technocratic” and “neoliberal.” Has urban policy always been this way? Yes and no. Technocratic and market-oriented approaches to urban governance extend back to the nineteenth century, but the specific goals, methods, and policies employed have changed considerably.

Department of Housing and Urban Development.JPG
Department of Housing and Urban Development” by Photo: Kjetil Ree
Architect: Marcel Breuer – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Genesis of Urban Policy

The political scientist Paul Kantor has suggested that U.S. urban policy has two faces: A social face, concerned with providing social support, and a developmental face, focusing on the economic growth of cities. The social face of urban policy emerged and evolved over the twentieth century in response to crises and changes in political dominance, but the developmental face of urban policy has remained more or less constant.

Since the nineteenth century, American cities have competed vehemently in the areas of investment and industry, thus giving rise to a distinctly market-oriented urban policy. By the early 1900s, business interests contributed to an increasingly technocratic approach to city governance. Seeing city government as wasteful, corrupt, and beholden to immigrant and working-class interests, businessmen pushed municipalities, in the name of “efficiency,” to be organized like corporations and run by professional experts. This technocratic city reform resulted in policies and programs that often overlapped with the social and developmental goals of urban policy. For example, the expansion of sanitation policies aimed to improve the health of all city residents, including the poor, could be justified on both social reform and economic development grounds.

In the following decades, urban planning emerged as a technocratic influence on urban governance in its reliance on professional expertise and an engineering approach to both the physical and the social environment of cities. Through the 1950s, this technocratic approach was instantiated through static urban plans, with little attention to management and implementation, a view that reflected the belief that city dynamics would be forever unchanged.

But, as cities began losing people to the suburbs and feeling the effects of deindustrialization, urban planning and policy looked to incorporate more tools from a new systems science. This burgeoning science incorporated computers and large data collection while conceptualizing the city as complex, interconnected systems. Managers then used these models to understand potential future scenarios, such as traffic models, and how city plans and policies would respond to them.

Urban Policy and National Government

The changing relationship of cities to the national government also fueled a more technocratic approach to urban policy. In the post-war period, national policies that favored home-ownership in the suburbs and automobile transportation facilitated drastic changes in cities. In turn, national urban renewal policies attempted to deal with the decline of urban areas through a familiar combination of technocratic planning and business partnerships that bulldozed old, “blighted” neighborhoods in favor of redevelopment. These policies often hurt poor and African-American communities. The urbanist Jane Jacobs famously savaged urban renewal, among other common aspects of technocratic planning, in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Perhaps the strongest technocratic approach to cities, however, came with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society poverty policies. LBJ’s “War on Poverty” drew heavily on systems science from the military as well as relatively new public policy methods developed by economists that concentrated on program evaluation and budgeting. As in systems planning for cities, this approach to poverty involved collecting large amounts of data on individuals in order to identify the causes of poverty that would build a baseline for measuring policy effectiveness. This public policy strategy had the effect of marginalizing programs that did not have measures that could be easily evaluated.

The Great Society era was the high point of national involvement with urban policy, after which national urban policy retreated for various reasons. Republicans opposed many of the national urban policies, while many Democrats saw cities as lost causes that were becoming less valuable political assets. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration initiated the “New Federalism” that gave cities and states more control of federal funding. While national urban policy continued to decline under Reagan, funding decreased though by no means disappeared. The national government particularly rolled back the social face of urban policy, and what remained was oriented toward more market flexibility (such as Section 8 housing vouchers), public-private partnerships (such as housing corporations), and market incentives (such as Empowerment Zones that gave tax breaks to businesses locating in distressed communities).

Urban Policy Today

From the 1970s on, cities faced enormous economic stress and competition that pushed them toward market-oriented strategies and technocratic public-policy management. Suburbanization had drained a sizable tax base from cities while leaving them with expensive infrastructure and social obligations. Cities like New York neared bankruptcy and were pushed into public-policy austerity. As capital became more mobile in a global economy, cities faced greater competition to attract investment and jobs. With few funds, cities turned to instruments like Tax Increment Financing, which effectively subsidized development using future tax income.

Overall, the lack of a national urban policy has fostered a technocratic approach to urban policy. The United States toyed with the idea of a national urban policy as far back as the New Deal and the concept has reared its head several times since, although LBJ’s Great Society was the closest we ever came to implementation. Despite creating a cabinet-level agency with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the United States, unlike most European countries, never outlined a comprehensive national urban policy.

After the Great Society, national urban policy disaggregated even more, with many areas—environmental, crime, education, among others—having a strong effect on cities even without an overarching strategy. The siloing of these policies fields has perpetuated the application of powerful technocratic systems. With narrower objectives, policy analysts can collect more and better data, build more complex models, and offer more sophisticated policy solutions. But this vigorous pursuit of narrow goals and efficiency often provides little reflection on the broader purpose that those goals are supposed to serve, or the values that these aims embody and, indeed, often obscure. Urban policy, like all policy, is power over people’s lives, and it must always be questioned for whom and what it serves.

Leif Fredrickson is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Virginia, focusing on environmental, technological, and policy history.  His dissertation, “Metropolitan Mindscapes,” analyzes how the urban environment has shaped the bodies and brains of people in Baltimore in the 20th century.

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The Millennials Are Coming, But Who Cares?

Ready or not, 80 million millennials are coming. Born between 1980 and 2000, the largest generation in American history is leaving home (or moving back in), and everyone is watching.

For some time now, cultural commentators across the web have been intent on understanding the inner life of millennials, however harrowing that might be. Through stories on their engagement with technology or work, the goal of most articles has been to predict Generation Y’s future impact. In fact, there have even been stories about stories on millennials. (With all the attention that millennials are garnering, I can see why, as one myself, some would label us narcissists.)

 

Through it all, one notable conversation follows the movement of millennials back to cities, a trend that has already received a great deal of press over the past year. Recently, Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times discussed a new report by City Observatory that highlights this urban migration:

As young people continue to spurn the suburbs for urban living, more of them are moving to the very heart of cities — even in economically troubled places like Buffalo and Cleveland. The number of college-educated people age 25 to 34 living within three miles of city centers has surged, up 37 percent since 2000, even as the total population of these neighborhoods has slightly shrunk.

Depending on the perspective, commentary varies on the social implications. Some fear for the displacement of the urban poor through gentrification. Others worry that this shift will mark the last gasp in the protracted death of the small town. Transportation experts wonder if the millennials’ lack of interest in driving means the death of the car culture. Yet the bulk of the dialogue centers on the potential economic boom in the form of innovative products, new business, and the consumer power that millennials could bring to their cities. Again Miller:

“There is a very strong track record of places that attract talent becoming places of long-term success,” said Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard and author of “Triumph of the City.” “The most successful economic development policy is to attract and retain smart people and then get out of their way.” For every college graduate who takes a job in an innovation industry, five additional jobs are eventually created in that city, such as for waiters, carpenters, doctors, architects and teachers.

Following Richard’s Florida’s creative class argument, cities are encouraged to do what they can to attract young people to neighborhoods by providing amenities such as coffee shops, bars, bookstores, restaurants, organic grocery stores, condos, and even new forms of transportation. Or as The Atlantic’s Citylab puts it, cities should aim to look like Brooklyn.

Certainly, part of a city’s attractiveness are its cultural offerings, and capitalizing on them makes economic sense. Yet, focusing on Generation Y’s consumption patterns biases the conversation. First, the millennials that cities want are primarily understood as educated, mobile consumers with ample disposable income. They are not to be confused with Jen Silva’s working class young adults who are often jobless, isolated, and nominally educated—a group that does not fit neatly into the prevailing economic narrative surrounding urban revival.

Second, the urban condition largely becomes a matter of lifestyle or taste, a habitation predicated on the individual’s drive for self-actualization. Cities themselves, as urban historian Lewis Mumford frames it, “become consumable, indeed expendable.” Catering to the wallets of urban millennials reinforces the notion that fulfillment is largely about gratification or self-actualization via commercial consumption. Robert Bellah in his book Habits of the Heart labeled this cultural motif as expressive individualism—the desire not for self-disciplined material acquisition but the endless experience of novelty and technological wizardry. Not surprisingly, experiences for millennials matter more than the typical American dream of a house in the suburbs.

Once the millennials have arrived, the challenge for city leaders is to find ways to engage these new denizens as citizens as much as consumers. Collectively tackling tough urban issues like broken schools, equitable access to healthy food, and growing inequality requires strong civic involvement. Historically, institutions such as churches, volunteer organizations, and business societies facilitated this action. But with the decline of religious affiliation and even volunteerism among the young, what institutions will fill in the gap?

Fortunately, the dynamism of cities can facilitate the remaking of social bonds and groups—a phenomenon explored here on Common Place—and, in general, millennials do possess tremendous energy, creativity, and a strong desire to help others. Yet, will those emerging bonds be created by consumerism and individual desires, as the current conversation seems to suggest, or will millennials coalesce around a commitment to place and the common good?

At the same time, we millennials will need to reckon with our own values and desires. Granted, we are known to be socially aware and more tolerant of other lifestyles, as fellow writer Hannah Seligson notes:

Millennials might care a great deal about their own happiness, but they also care about other people’s well-being—considerably more than previous generations did. We are far less homophobic, sexist, and racist than our parents and grandparents. We are the generation that played a critical role in electing the first African-American president, and most of us believe gay marriage is a right that shouldn’t be denied to same-sex couples. Having grown up surrounded by so much racial diversity, those under 30 are emerging to be the most colorblind in U.S. history—nine in 10 18- to 29-year-olds say they approve of interracial dating and marriage, compared with 73 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds.

Through my own experience, my peers often speak of our generation’s commitment to social justice and equity, and I do know many people my age doing great work. Yet can tolerance motivate us to assume the kind of long-term commitment that cities need to face their most pressing problems? We are, after all, the generation that is fueling the rise of a form of libertarianism that valorizes the individual above all.

Whether the demographic trends are good or bad, millennials are going to continue to flock to cities. Cities should be doing what they can to welcome and encourage us while preparing for the inevitable challenges. Significantly, they will need to figure out how to transform their new residents into an active citizenry.

Finally, as millennials join in on the urban dialogue happening across the country, we too will need assess our own commitments and make sure that all members of our generation— especially the ones stuck in broken systems—are included. Therefore, the pressing questions are not what we will buy or whether we will bring innovation, or even which cities will “win” the millennial sweepstakes. Rather, the most important question confronting us and our new communities is will we even care about them?

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Urban Policy: Part 2—Lessons for Small Towns

Navigating the Washington networks is fraught with difficulties. Although lobbyists are often characterized negatively, without their services those outside of the Beltway would be lost in the complexities of federal policy. Communities looking for government assistance or hoping to influence a particular policy need such experts. In fact, city leaders in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago maintain full-time offices of federal affairs in Washington just to keep an eye on measures that might affect their cities. But American metropolises are not the only ones vying for a piece of the federal pie.

Suppose a small city or town wants a grant to stimulate its economy. At my time at the Economic Development Administration (EDA) this summer, I was able to witness first-hand how a small Florida town tried to influence public policy in order to make its community more economically competitive. To do this, city officials hired a lobbyist who planned a trip to Washington for the mayor, city manager, and other high-level leaders. This lobbyist then put the city’s delegation in touch with well-placed employees at federal agencies such as the Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The lobbyist also scheduled meetings with the town’s Congressional delegation.

In talking with this lobbyist, I learned about other ways that municipal groups might share their concerns with Washington. For example, he suggested that city delegates might meet with representatives of the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, or other interest groups. In addition to their own lobbying efforts, these associations and interest groups also develop research that advances their goals—research that a city could adapt for its own needs. However, as my lobbyist friend pointed out, it is also important to find out who sits on the board for these groups and how much influence these individuals might have.

Cities might also try to persuade a foundation like the FordMacArthur or Rockefeller Foundation to pilot an innovative program in their communities. Lobbyists can provide assistance in contacting these foundations or putting city officials in touch with organizations like Living Cities—a philanthropic collaborative of 22 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions working to improve the well-being of cities.

In addition, cities might collaborate with trade groups and unions such as the National Home Builders AssociationAmerican Trucking Association, and United Transportation Union. Even though these groups may have different goals, their expertise can grant city officials access to resources and information that offers a better way to influence public policy outcomes.

Think tanks such as the Brookings InstitutionCenter for American Progress, and the Urban Institute also play a critical role in shaping the public-policy conversation. Through research and white papers, think tanks aim to inform and influence policy-makers and government leaders. In addition to their original research, think tanks often collaborate with academics and build on their ideas. Brookings’s well known urban-policy book, Metropolitan Revolution, applies many ideas from the Harvard Business School Professor and management guru Michael Porter to its own case studies.

In fact, the EDA is partnering with Porter to develop a Cluster Mapping Tool for communities. Similarly, EDA is working with a team of professors at Indiana University to create statistical tools known as Stats America to aide in economic development. Last summer, developers from both Harvard and Indiana University provided training sessions at EDA and the Brookings Institution to familiarize high-level staff with these new tools. Department of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has featured Cluster Mapping and Stats America in her recent speeches.

While EDA and the Department of Commerce support innovative public policy, they are also concerned with the political optics of assisting communities. That is, EDA dedicates a substantial amount of its time making Congress  aware of the benefits its grants and programs make to their home states. Talking with EDA officials who have worked under several administrations, I learned about their frustration over how the agency’s priorities and public policy have shifted with prevailing political currents. Too often, they told me, the EDA’s grant-making process serves as little more than a photo opportunity to burnish the administration’s image.

While working with lobbyists and meeting some of the District players is important, shaping policy in Washington basically comes down to money. It may make us uncomfortable, but money and policy ideas often have a symbiotic relationship. Foundations invest in ideas that they believe work or show promise.  At the same time, these same ideas might have been accompanied by monetary contributions to the foundation itself. The same is true for think tanks, trade groups, and associations like the National League of Cities, to name one group, who also rely on donors’ contributions.

The complexities of Washington and the role of money mean, for example, that the small town from Florida must find a different way to influence public policy. Engaging Washington can’t (and shouldn’t) be avoided, but trying to find a path through increasingly complex policy issues and protocols can be discouraging. Cities are learning that collaborating at the local and regional level is a more advantageous way to shape their communities for the better. Cooperation allows cities to pool their resources and influence in order to implement innovative solutions that might not otherwise be possible. The federal government recognizes this, too. While at EDA, I sat in on several meetings between small towns and senior EDA officials. The advice that I heard most often? “Have you tried working with your neighbor?”

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.

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