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). 

Public Health and the City: Talking With Nisha Botchwey—Part 2

Last week, we featured part 1 of my interview with Nisha Botchwey of Georgia Institute for Technology where she explained the benefit of a multi-sector approach to public health. In part 2, Professor Botchwey continues the discussion on how cities can promote public heath by focusing on the interrelationship between the built environment and human well-being. In this segment, she highlights three touchstone areas of good urban design.

Nisha Botchwey Interview — Part 2 from IASCulture on Vimeo.


Do Cities Tear Us Apart?

Part One: When Sociologists Feared Cities

If you live in an urban setting, your relationships with others may be entirely impersonal, superficial, and transitory.

Or so sociologists thought in the early twentieth century.

City markets like this one in Seattle have united neighborhoods in ways that early urban theorists might not have predicted.


At that time, most sociologists were grappling with how modern, highly-differentiated societies would maintain their social order. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theorists like Émile Durkheim, Charles Cooley, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and Robert E. Park all examined particular dimensions of social life in modern contexts. Drawing on the work of German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, several scholars traced out a transformation from gemeinschaft (community) to gesellschaft (society). In gemeinschaft settings, people were united by personal and intimate relationships, many were interrelated by blood or marriage, and most felt a permanent connection to the land and group. In contrast, more modern gesellschaft settings were an “artificial construction” of humans merely coexisting together, interacting primarily out of calculated self-interest.

Tönnies believed modern societies would simultaneously feature both types of groups and settings. Early urban sociologists, however, saw modern cities as almost entirely gesellschaft-ordered social worlds. What emerged was a theory of “urbanism determinism”: a belief that urban settings necessarily produce outcomes of social disorganization, interpersonal estrangement, and personality disorders. Writing in 1903, Georg Simmel described modern cities as full of “impersonal contents and offerings” which overwhelmed the individual psyche, requiring an intentional distancing and withdrawal to survive. Chicago sociologist Robert Park, who studied with Simmel in Berlin, concluded that American urban environments undermined face-to-face relationships and local ties, thereby removing structures necessary for personal restraint and inhibition. Park developed an “ecological theory” of urban human behavior: modern cities were impressing a harmful moral order upon their inhabitants that generated higher crime and instability.

The urbanism-determinist view was further developed in a 1938 article written by Louis Wirth, a student of Park. The distinctive features of urban life for Wirth are the “weakening bonds of kinship, the declining social significance of the family, the disappearance of the neighborhood, and the undermining of the traditional basis of social solidarity.” The result was the loss of “spontaneous self-expression, the morale, and the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society…essentially the state of anomie or the social void.”

Nearly all social historians and urban sociologists now recognize that this uni-linear notion of social change lacks supporting evidence. In a comprehensive critique of the “loss of community” myth, historian Thomas Bender argues counter-evidence to the urbanism determinist view was already mounting when Wirth wrote his article, and even Park recognized that some groups—particularly enclaves of inner-city immigrants—seemed able to maintain strong senses of gemeinschaft within urban settings. Drawing on both national and placed-based survey data, Claude Fischer has argued for nearly five decades that urban environments play host to all sorts of dense networks, strong subcultures, and meaningful interpersonal relationships. Urban ethnographies like William F. Whyte’s Street Corner Society reveal no shortage of connectedness, shared values, and common life even in poorer inner-city areas. The death of gemeinschaft, it seems, had been greatly exaggerated.

So why did early urban sociologists mistakenly overstate this sharp dichotomy? Was it merely a conservative romanticism for pre-modern and rural societies? While scholars are not immune to such tendencies, there may be another reason: disciplinary legitimation.

The “dangers of urbanization” myth served sociologists in providing a “social problem” which only sociology, as a newly emerging discipline, could solve. Sociologist Robert Meier argues in a 1982 American Journal of Sociology article that the “theoretical problem of social order” in cities allowed sociologists to take up the task of uncovering mechanisms that could “assume the nurturing influence” once held by families and face-to-face relationships. Meier argues that alongside sociology’s scientific aspiration was a particular moralizing impulse: urban sociologists tended to contrast the “natural” social control of rural, more homogenous settings with the social pathologies that needed corrected in cities. Sociology then legitimates itself as the study of social control and its threats.

Despite these early sociologists overstating the effects of urbanization, what can we learn from them today? First, as Richard Sennett observes, early urban studies theorists were all working against purely economic explanations of modern social life that ignored the complex and creative dimensions of the human experience. As they rightly observed, the spatial, cultural, social, and institutional arrangements of cities all hold irreducible causal power that should be accounted for in evaluating urban settings.

Second, as Fischer affirms throughout his work, these theorists were not mistaken in seeing immediate social relations­—one’s “primary group” or “reference group”—as extremely central in shaping an individual’s sense of reality and ability to integrate into wider society. Decades of sociological research have confirmed Park’s observation that people of similar tastes and temperaments frequently associate together, providing “not merely a stimulus but a moral support for the traits they have in common.” This “homophily” tendency—the likeness of those like ourselves—continues to shape urban life today.

Finally, early urban sociologists, in their most moralizing moments, worked from a particular philosophical anthropology that recognized human development as an irreducibly social process. Their moralizing impulses were largely driven by an assumption that an individual’s wellbeing and flourishing hinged on particular social configurations in which the individual is embedded. It logically followed that, if a transformative phenomenon like urbanization drastically reordered or eradicated that arrangement, the viability of moral order and a shared moral life becomes a crucial area of sociological exploration.

Today, as sociologists and urban planners work within even more diverse and globalized settings, the challenge of evaluating rapidly changing social arrangements will likely persist for the foreseeable future. Perhaps a central shortcoming of the urbanism-determinist thesis was an imaginative shortsightedness regarding the variety of social configurations capable of producing vibrant and flourishing urban life. What was needed then—and is still needed today—is a robust, multidisciplinary approach to urban studies that gives attention to basic human needs, the primacy of social connectedness, and the recurring conditions of human flourishing.

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. 

Public Health and the City: Talking With Nisha Botchwey—Part 1

At the recent Thriving Cities Project conference, I sat down with Nisha Botchwey, an Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As an expert in public health, the built environment, and community engagement, Botchwey examines the intersection between urban life and healthy living.

In the first part of our interview, we talked about how cities can promote public health.

Nisha Botchwey Interview Part 1 from IASCulture on Vimeo.

In part 2 of the interview, Professor Botchway will discuss how thoughtful urban design facilitates healthy living.


Thriving Cities Featured Again on Milwaukee Public Radio

David Flowers, Katherine  Wilson, and Pastor Willie B. Davis Credit: Susan Bence Pictured

David Flowers, Katherine Wilson, and Pastor Willie B. Davis
Credit: Susan Bence

A few months back, we reported a story by Milwaukee Public Radio, WUWM, that featured David Flowers and his work for the Thriving Cities Project. For the past year, Flowers has been researching and writing a profile of Milwaukee— one of the four pilot cities for the Thriving Cities Project. At the same time, he has also been working with Katherine Wilson, director of the Zeidler Center for Public Discussion, in developing community forums for Milwaukee citizens to express their commonalities and differences. This week in a follow up post, Flowers was again featured by WUWM detailing his and Wilson’s progress.

You can listen to the program here.

California’s Flyover Country

San Francisco and Los Angeles are the famous faces of California. The San Joaquin Valley, inland and between these two sprawling metro regions, is mostly unknown. On a satellite image, the Valley is the big, flat, green stretch in the middle of the state. By population, it is about the size of Oregon. Yet if you pick up a California guidebook, major newspaper, or state politician’s schedule, the Valley hardly appears. It is California’s flyover country.

Photo Credit: Steven Garber

San Joaquin Valley, photo: Steven Garber

While the Silicon Valley was becoming Silicon Valley and Hollywood was becoming Hollywood, the San Joaquin Valley was becoming the most productive agricultural region in the world. Clearly, this is not the kind of achievement that brings a region fame these days. Indeed, it has been a pretty bad time in American history to be good at farming. The Valley is now one of the poorest and its residents some of the most poorly educated, scoring near Appalachia and the deep south on most human development indices. The Valley has half the college graduates per capita that the rest of California has. The gap has been widening. A somber August 1, 2013, article in The Economist, “Down on the Farms,” moved through the region’s many challenges before trying to end on an (almost as damning) hopeful note. “The valley is unlikely ever to enjoy the wealth of its coastal cousins. But… it may be able to offer its children a brighter future than their parents had.”

From the Dust Bowl refugees dramatized by The Grapes of Wrath to the Latino farm workers made famous by César Chávez’s organizing efforts, the Valley has long been a place where the ambitious and hard working can get a start. But those rare public glimpses of the region can make poverty appear more of a historical constant than it has been. In 1951, Life ran a story marveling at the wealth of “shirt-sleeve millionaires,” entrepreneurial Valley farmers (some of them children of the Dust Bowl) who were applying new agricultural technology to this ancient silt-bed and producing record yields. In the mid-twentieth century, the communities that grew up around these farms were as prosperous as the rest of the state, with similar home values, incomes, and education levels. Economist Enrico Morreti’s book The New Geography of Jobs, which explores the connections between place and economic prospects, begins by noting how economically similar the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley were in the 1960s.

Photo Credit: Sasha Saldana

Orchard in the San Joaquin Valley; photo: Sasha Saldana

Economic geography has shifted since. There is some disagreement about how and why, but it is clear that education is central to the story.

Urban studies theorist Richard Florida explains that some cities are now consumption magnets to those whose tastes have been shaped by the cosmopolitan, bohemian, sub-cultures of universities. Tolerant, progressive cities rich in the arts, organic markets, and historic buildings are simply more attractive to highly educated, high-income consumers who have choices about where to live.

Enrico Moretti and others counter that causation goes the other way. It is production that matters most. People in the most highly-compensated sectors of the economy increasingly work with ideas. Ideas improve most quickly face-to-face. Clusters of talented people attract and create businesses and generate the disposable income to support the restaurants, architecture, and events that make a place appealing.

I take an interest in these things as a partisan. I returned home to the Valley. I love this place and have high hopes for it, knowing that we are very much underdogs. To me,  the theoretical differences of Florida and Moretti are less important than the fact that both the consumer and producer forces they describe are working relentlessly against us.

A few hard truths are unavoidable for a Valley partisan like me.  First, failure to produce or attract an educated workforce will cripple a region’s economic development efforts. Second, places with low education levels are at a severe disadvantage in attracting talent from the outside (as both Florida and Moretti show). Third, this leaves us with the underdog’s bittersweet dividend of clarity. There is no option but to invest in the education of our children.

In other words, the much-lamented “brain drain” is not the problem here. It’s true that some of our graduates leave and never return. But, worrying about the top students who leave distracts from the more fundamental problem that there are far too few top students to begin with. Children in the coastal areas are about 50 percent more likely to be reading at grade level in the third grade. By high school, coastal students are almost twice as likely to take the SAT and those who take it are twice as likely to score above the fiftieth percentile. Coastal areas produce almost five times as many top Advanced Placement test scores per high school senior as the Valley. Not surprisingly, local colleges have high remediation and low graduation rates. The main state universities (in Fresno and Bakersfield) graduate less than 20 percent of their students in four years and only half in six years. Underdeveloped potential hurts much more than any kind of brain drain.

Communities in the Valley and places like it, can ill-afford to leave education at the margins of economic and community development efforts. It should be central. In a future post, I’ll write about how one small town is responding to this challenge—without the help of the state or major philanthropists—and, increasingly, finding success.

David Franz is Director of the Shafter Education Partnership at the City of Shafter and a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.



Snapshots of City Life: Parking Lots, Urban Farming, 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—urban farming, drug use, measuring civic institutions— they highlight in their own way different questions and challenges related to urban thriving.

How parking lots became the scourge of American downtowns

With more people taking a renewed interest in the downtown areas of their cities—whether to just shop or even live—urban transportation takes on new life, a topic that we cover here on Common Place. And over the past century, the car, for better or for worse, has been the focal point for urban planners. This article features a short film detailing the ways parking lot locations in different cities have unwittingly hollowed out and segregated downtown areas. Even something as banal as a parking lot offers us much to consider about how cityscapes thrive or fade.

European cities’ sewer water exposes use of cocaine, cannabis, meth and ecstasy

Recently, urban researchers began testing sewer water in several European cities to track often-elusive drug-use trends. According to CNN journalist Ben Brumfield, “Lab tests on sewage water to detect chemicals excreted after drug use turned up high levels of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, meth and other amphetamines.” Since urban areas are often the center of drug epidemics, officials hope these tests will give them the tools to assist both municipal authorities and public-health experts. Better tracking not only sharpens the diagnosis but can also better aid in knowing where to begin prevention.

Cleveland crops: Training people with disabilities to farm

From Brooklyn to San Francisco, city farming is sprouting in virtually every large urban district. Cleveland has come up with an urban agriculture program that also employs residents with disabilities. According to journalist Hannah Wallace, “Traditionally, Clevelanders with developmental disabilities would have been trained for jobs in the manufacturing sector, but those jobs have been waning for decades, while urban farming is on the upswing.” This creative solution provides food and helps people on the margins of employment gain dignity from work as well as important transferable job skills. Rather than being a onetime “silver bullet,”— something that Cleveland knows well— the program took years of hard work, planning, and community commitment.

Finally, clear performance data for comparing the world’s cities

With the rise of big data, cities and governments are looking for the best ways to capture the vitality of their metropolitan areas. This article details the establishment of new international standards that then can be used to compare cities around the world. The desire for assessment is popular trend in city planning; yet as we have discussed here on Common Place, it comes with its own challenges and blindspots.

Faith in the City: Part III, City Soul—An Interview with Cardus’ Milton Friesen

Milton Friesen is Program Director for Social Cities with Cardus, “a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture” based in Hamilton, Ontario. He directs a new project area within Social Cities called City Soul. I spoke with him recently about this effort and how he believes faith-based organizations can contribute to the life of neighborhoods. 

Q: What is the City Soul project and why did Cardus initiate it?

City Soul is an effort to explore the possibilities of connecting faith-based organizations with long-term planning in cities. This came about as Cardus sought to look for ways to encourage city leaders to place more emphasis on human factors such as social interaction, purpose, meaning, belonging—emphases that we believe foster full human flourishing rather than engineering or marketplace efficiencies that minimize costs and maximize private returns on investment. We think it is important to consider the social return on investment in cities, and that this is maximized when faith-based institutions are part of the equation.

Q: It seems faith-based organizations are already quite involved in their cities. Why is this project needed?

A wide range of social care and service-level involvement is typical of the faith-based sector, but what is more rare is involvement in thinking about and planning for the spatial arrangement of neighbourhoods and cities. There needs to be a more disciplined approach to thinking about the social infrastructure of cities, particularly the institutional landscape that includes religious organizations along with the more normal considerations such as businesses, schools, government organizations, and non-profits.

Q: What has been the response from city leaders?

So far, there has been a real interest in this type of interaction with faith-based organizations. Cites are beset today with many social challenges in their communities, and local government does not have the resources to address them adequately. Whether it is the aging population, increasing social isolation, economic hardship, the loss of the middle class, or increased globalization, the social stresses in urban centers today require that every possible resource is used to offset worrying trends by building up the social fabric of cities. There is simply a pragmatic realization that religious institutions in their varied forms are to the social fabric of cities what swamps and bogs are to the ecological landscape. Cities that are serious about attending to the various social challenges in their communities can’t afford to be snobbish about a scarce resource.

Q: Are there concerns or fears about faith-based organizations partnering with local governments?   

Yes, at times, and we hope City Soul will help change current perceptions. Our contemporary sophistication and anti-religious vogue attitudes incline many to minimize the potential contributions of faith communities toward the common good. Some fear simply the mix of religion and government. However, having faith-based organizations more involved in long-term planning in cities does not require religious commitments or the adoption of a theocratic view of governance.

Q: What are the key challenges to getting faith-based organizations more involved in the city planning process?

The difficulties of connecting faith-based organizations and city structural planning are significant. Cities run with the help of highly organized, bureaucratic (in a good sense), and secular (in the sense of serving a diverse public interest) administrations. Faith-based organizations typically operate with smaller administrations, depend heavily on relational rather than formal organizational ties, and are oriented to something other than purely secular commitments. The balance required to design more effective communication and learning between city and faith-based organizations faces the perils of all new initiatives: that misunderstanding, assumptions, and established prejudice on all sides will undo the effort before its full measure can be taken. Most of the infrastructure (social and institutional) is not in place. City-planning processes do not regularly or consistently engage with faith-based organizations in longterm design—they are assumed irrelevant to such processes. This is not intended to be a direct criticism. City planners often overlook faith-based organizations because these organizations have had so little involvement in the formal processes of planning-related deliberations.

Q: What are the barriers to getting faith-based organizations to work with each other and together with city leaders?

Faith-based institutions and organizations are neither literate about city-planning process nor in any significant way coordinated with each other. The result is that they speak to planning-related issues in a highly fragmented way, if even at all. Weaving across this gap would require a regular and persistent structural approach that is not driven by any particular issue. What is needed is a steady and patient interaction rather than a volatile and episodic flurry. It is easier to generate interest in engagement when a particular cause or issue arises that captures the interest of faith-based organizations (changes to parking bylaws, for example), but support for such rallying causes tends to decline just as rapidly once decisions about the issue have been made. Another challenge is that faith-based organizations may insist on confessional alignment as a precondition for cooperation on city issues. It often seems to be the case that issue-driven or confessional comfort are the key drivers of cooperation. Just as businesses coordinate in a chamber of commerce on the basis of being commercial entities, faith-based organizations could explore ways of cooperating and coordinating on the basis of being faith-based organizations, that is, a particular type of entity in the larger urban landscape. I further explain this concept in a recent article for Comment magazine.

Q: What will it take to overcome these issues for both city leaders and faith-based organizations?

Pursuing this kind of meaningful engagement around long-term structural, social, and spiritual themes will require greater investment (or re-allocation) of resources, from both city and faith-based organizations. New work often requires investment ahead of concrete results. Investing social, intellectual, and financial capital in this framework of process requires an exploratory, pioneering mindset. We do not understand enough about the costs and benefits, but one effort that is emerging in Canada builds on the work of Ram Cnaan at the University of Pennsylvania who is examining the replacement cost of services that local faith groups provide to their neighborhoods. The early results show a substantial value to neighborhoods. Funding is not the only need, however. Equally important will be finding people willing to stick with the work even when cause-effect results are hard to see or perhaps not even possible in a full sense. This effort will entail a great deal of searching and persistence. Finally, communication will be key and the development of new tools, resources, strategies, and approaches will be essential.

2013 - 06 - PS - MFriesen



To learn more about Milton Friesen and his work, read his article in Municipal World,Social Infrastructure: Underpinning the success of cities” and his recent one in Comment, “The City is Complex: Lessons from The Wire.”

Is Orlando more than just a tourist destination? An interview with Phil Hissom

Phil Hissom is founder and president of Polis Institute, a research and education non-profit based in Orlando, Florida, that focuses on improving between organizations and their constituents. He received his Master of Divinity degree in 2009 from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.

Q: As part of the Institute for Advanced Cities in Culture’s Thriving Cities Project you’ve been asked to write a city profile for Orlando. How has your work with the Polis Institute given you a perspective on Orlando that you have been able to bring to your work on the TCP profile?

Polis has been actively researching Central Florida since 2006, particularly with regard to how well we are addressing poverty in our community. The work has put us in close contact with a wide range of constituents across all sectors as we work together to incorporate best practices to help our most vulnerable neighbors. This has been invaluable experience and has given us an informed perspective from which to contribute to Thriving Cities.

Q: Do you think Orlando is a thriving city?

Yes, generally speaking, I do think Orlando is a thriving city. Our population has more than quadrupled in the last 40 years. And while we have struggled at times to keep pace with this tremendous growth and to address certain social issues like homelessness, we demonstrate a willingness to course correct, work together, and try new things. These are certainly important aspects of a thriving city.  

Q: Orlando is consistently one of the country’s top travel destinations because of the Disney parks and other attractions. What impact has this had on the city and how its citizens think about their community?

As the most visited resort in the world and by far the region’s largest employer, the influence of Walt Disney World (WDW) can hardly be overstated. Many locals don’t feel a strong connection to WDW and other tourist destinations and some even resent how strongly outsiders equate Orlando with its theme parks. This has contributed to our somewhat muddled sense of identity and speaks to one of our current challenges—who are we as a city and who do we really want to be?

Q: Much has been made of Orlando’s development plans for Church Street. Do you think this could significantly strengthen Orlando and address any of the city’s long-standing issues?

The development plans along Church Street include more than a billion dollars of investment in sports and cultural venues. Most of the development goes through a historically poor and African-American community. So while the investment could be leveraged to bring real benefit to the residents—and there are plans to do just that—critics argue that this will simply be the next injustice. Time will tell which prevails.

Q: What would you say is one of Orlando’s greatest strengths that, if used wisely, could enable it to thrive over the next decade?

Orlando is hopeful. We build world class venues, destinations, universities, and businesses. We work hard to address our pressing social issues. We believe our efforts will succeed. If we employ our hope wisely, this success will not only come to fruition but also will mean success for people from all walks of life. We will thrive.  

(Credit: Polis Institute)

Phil Hissom, photo courtesy Polis Institute



To learn more about Phil and the work of the Polis Institute, visit their website at