Is Portland for Slackers? An Interview With Tom Krattenmaker

MtTaborPortlandHood” by CacophonyOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Krattenmaker is Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a contributing columnist for USA Today. He has just completed writing an in-depth profile of Portland for the Thriving Cities Project (anticipated publication in 2015). 


Common Place: Just this week, the New York Times published an article on the city of Portland, “Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young?” In it, Portland is described as a sort of slacker’s paradise. Would you agree with that assessment?

Tom Krattenmaker: That’s pretty close to the truth, but I would push back on that term “slacker.” I don’t think the hip young adults crowding this city are generally lazy or directionless. Many of them are ambitious and super busy with all sorts of creative projects—maybe their bands or their art or some political cause or nonprofit they’re involved with. The “paradise” part is pretty close to the truth. I have never been in a city that comes so close to matching a certain kind of ideal. The combination of creative energy, natural beauty, liberal politics, and sustainability is really quite amazing. For some people, it’s probably more like a hell, but if you’re a certain type of person, Portland is as close to urban paradise as you’re likely to get. 

CP: In the article, a lot of attention is given to the dearth of well paying jobs with too many overeducated people. Do you see this aspect of Portland as a problem? Is there something else going on besides New York Times version of the story?

Sure, it’s a problem, but probably not of the magnitude one might think. A lot of Portland people aren’t interested in conventional jobs. The lower incomes also keep costs of living relatively low. Also mitigating this problem is the existence of an alternative artisan economy that has little interest in business as usual and in personal acquisition. These are people who create and consume hand-crafted goods and cultivate shared experiences and spaces that give them a form of “social wealth” that isn’t captured by conventional economic measures. Some will tell you that this is the upside of the scarcity of corporate headquarters in Portland. The absence of Fortune 500 companies leaves space for this kind of alternative economy to grow and flourish.

CP: You just finished writing an in-depth profile on Portland for the Thriving Cities Project. What did you learn that surprised you?

As you can tell from my answers above, I’m a fan of these “Portlandia” aspects of our city, and I love the ways in which Portland is different from other places. However, doing all this thinking and research and writing about Portland over recent months has opened my eyes to something to which I had not given enough attention previously—namely, the way we tend to skip some of the fundamentals that might not be in sync with the Portlandia dream but that are essential for a city’s long-term thriving. These are things like a solid public education infrastructure, support for families, race equity, and—yes—conventional economic strength, which is necessary to finance the whole thing and to keep our population from becoming too much of a one-dimensional caricature.  

CP: What is often overlooked in discussions of Portland are the city’s racial challenges. How would you describe them?

In my Portland profile, I sometimes refer to Portland living the “green dream.” It’s also a white dream in that Portland is the least diverse major city in the United States. But for some, Portland is nothing close to a dream. Especially for people of color, it can be tough place. All of us liberals out here are for racial justice in principle. But for a whole complex set of reasons, we don’t always put our money where are mouths are. If you look at the metrics, whether it’s income or health outcomes or high school graduation rates or any number of other measures, you find big disparities. I’m hopeful, though, that we are in the early stages of an evolution whereby the city begins to live up to its progressive values in this area, too.

CP: Would you say Portland is a thriving city?

In many ways, yes. No place is utopia, and that’s certainly true of Portland. But a lot of what’s happening here is very good and is conducive to residents having an urban experience with less of the grind that you find in most big cities, and with more sheer pleasantness and cheerfulness (despite the gray skies and rain). It’s telling that so many smart, educated young people—people with lots of options—continue to endorse the place by moving here.




Click here to follow Tom on his website. Also, check out his most recent book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know


Do Cities Tear Us Apart?—Part 3

The Coy Divisions of Post-Industrial Cities 

(Credit Creative Commons Zero)

(Credit: Creative Commons Zero)

One of the most critical measures of city well-being over the next century may be an unexpected one: friendship ties. For thinkers interested in the “social ecology” and sense of connectedness of urban areas, this measure may capture the real story of how cultural and economic forces are transforming our day-to-day interactions with those around us.

Why would city scholars care about whom we consider our friends? Surveys of friendship ties reveal the homogeneity or diversity of personal social networks: They can pinpoint how these networks become closed-off “bubbles” of sameness along class, race, or status lines. According to a diverse set of thinkers, closed-off bubbles are becoming the central story of social life in post-industrial societies. Thinkers like Robert Putnam, Bill Bishop, Claude Fischer, and Charles Murray have mapped a rising divide or “coming apart” between the social worlds of educated-class and working-class populations in the last fifty years. For urban contexts, following the work of William Julius Wilson and Robert Sampson, this divide is magnified in areas where concentrated disadvantage has locked in social and economic disconnectedness for multiple generations. Studies of social ties tell the same story: The number of Americans with “bridging” ties across education levels has decreased since the 1980s, even while ties bridging race lines have increased.

Why does this matter? Two reasons, which are deeply interconnected. First of all, upending the arguments of earlier city studies, the challenge of cities does not seem to be some lurking threat of anomie or isolationism. Urban contexts in late-capitalist society provide no shortage of subcultures and leisure activities bristling with social ties. The greatest challenge today follows a more Tocquevillian concern: an individualism that involves withdrawing into enclaves to “willingly abandon society at large to its own devices.” As a result of  technological and transportation developments of the last century, insular social worlds now coexist in concentrated areas, a change sociologist Douglas Massey labels the “unprecedented spatial intensification of both privilege and poverty.” While divides along ethnic, class, or neighborhood lines have always characterized cities, today’s enclaving is unique in how it reinforces itself through grocery stores, schools, churches, medical care, restaurants, and leisure activities. A recent Washington Post article labeled this the “skyboxification” of American life. In skyboxified America, social ties across social worlds—such as middle-class professionals knowing manual laborers or ex-cons knowing college graduates—become far rarer.

The second reason this matters may be obvious: Few thinkers see anything positive coming out of this trend. In fact, one finds a strong consensus among liberals, conservatives, communitarians, and libertarians that insular and homogenous social worlds present an obstacle to a just and flourishing society. Social enclaves bear consequences for every moral and political challenge of our time, from inequality, social justice, labor issues, human rights, education, and climate change. None of these challenges fails to be affected by our shrinking exposure to those around us who share in these issues’ outcomes.

So what might be done to reconnect insular social worlds? No magic bullet solutions have yet emerged. Nor can the problem be solved by clever social engineering or policy interventions. Social historians, however, can offer three evaluative criteria to evaluate change. First of all, efforts that fail to address multilayered dimensions of cultural, economic, and design-planning conditions will likely simply perpetuate rather than remedy skyboxification. For example, new urbanism has drawn criticism for the “latent suburbanism” lurking within much of its designed space. Many design efforts are rightly celebrated for producing more shared space and organic interactions, but designers rarely conceptualize how their engineered interactions alone can overcome economic and cultural divisions.

Second, efforts to reduce skyboxification will likely build from the contexts and settings that have historically bridged and bound otherwise separate social realms. This is where city leaders and others may need to take a deliberate lead, as few institutional leaders have responded to calls for change. Institutions of higher education—historically key places for exposing students to others of different backgrounds—have by and large ignored the growing calls to address their complicity in reproducing class divides. A better ally might be particular religious communities that pull together diverse members, such as the one highlighted by Carla Arnell in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. While many religious groups (along with non-religious civic groups) passively absorb the racial or class demographics of their surroundings, there are well-established traditions and groups that proactively pursue linkages across these lines.

Finally, reconnecting social worlds will require a critical assessment of how bonds and interactions do or don’t overcome insularity. “Token” friendship diversity likely won’t work. In other words, what sort of interactions would allow a social ecology to regain the good lost to skyboxification?

Three forms of social interaction are unlikely to breach the skybox walls: economic transactional activities, paternalistic benevolence, and experiential benevolence. The first fall under what Karl Marx labeled the “dull compulsion of economic relations”: consuming goods in shared space—or in Zygmunt Bauman words “collective consumerism”—or workers sharing the same employer in a radically stratified workplace. Those types of interactions bring people into close proximity while leaving insular social worlds intact.

A second type of interaction is a paternalistic form of benevolence that implicitly perpetuates power divides. Writing on class relations in early twentieth-century New York, historian David Huyssen details the harm committed by affluent activists and altruists in their involvement in labor organizing and philanthropy.

Today, many millennials have tried another apprach to benevolence: a subjectively meaningful “voluntourism,” or temporary immersion into the world of the disadvantaged.  Like the other approaches, this one may provide some impetus for further action, but in itself it does not really challenge the forces behind skyboxification.

A more promising mode identified by Huyssen is “cooperative relationships” that recognize power structures and inequality among actors. In its more political form, this entails organizing diverse groups and actors around shared communal needs: raising a community’s “collective efficacy” to address its own challenges. Studies suggest collective efficacy, while a social good in itself, can also offset demographic and economic conditions that otherwise predict crime and social disorder. But cooperative relationships can also take a more interpersonal form. These range from more organic cross-group (“bridging”) friendships to more intentional forms of solidarity with marginalized populations. Cooperative relationships would also include CEOs engaged in the wellbeing of workers’ families, middle-class churches taking on the needs of an under-resourced public school, or friends stepping in as a “voluntary kin” in cases of family-structure disruption. Cooperative relationships can reconnect disparate social worlds, ensuring public good and meeting human needs that might otherwise be ignored.

Discussions of inequality and opportunity are likely to continue, and the future may hold significant cultural or economic shifts that we can’t predict. But as we grapple with these questions, the reality of insular social worlds embodies the very personal and experiential dimensions of life in post-industrial settings. The flourishing of cities depends on conceiving new ways to overcome these divides, both as an end in itself and also as a means of achieving a just and thriving society.

Andrew Lynn is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. His interests include sociology of religion, social change, and the cultural logic of individualism in American culture.

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

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

William Sherman Part 2 from IASCulture on Vimeo.


Urban Renewal Syndrome—Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brownstones in Brooklyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Thoughts in a Medieval City

Second World Congress of Environmental History meets in Guimarães, Portugal

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

 Strolling in the old town section of Guimarães

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Cities Tear Us Apart?—Part 2

Two Trends Changing Urban Communities Today


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

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

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

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

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

The Rise of the Single-Person Household

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

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

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

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

The Skyboxification of America

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

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

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

Andrew Lynn is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. His interests include sociology of religion, social change, and the cultural logic of individualism in American culture. 

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

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

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

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

To Cool Cities, Build Them Tall and Shiny

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

Farm stands turn your backyard kale into cold, hard cash

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

Restaurants Really Can Determine the Fate of Cities and Neighborhoods

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

How Low-Income Commuters View Cycling

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

Assessing Urban Complexity: Thriving Cities Conference Recap


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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