Monthly Archives: March 2014

What’s the Matter with GDP?

Criticism of GDP—Gross Domestic Product—has grown dramatically over the last few years. By definition, GDP is simply an expression of the value of all goods and services produced within a nation in a given year. Yet many critics argue that it is much more than that, and that our use of the statistic requires serious rethinking just as the statistic itself needs revision. Scholars, activists, and policy experts have charged that it no longer effectively captures how economies function; that it is far too reductive to be of much use; that it has proven far too susceptible to errors of counting; and, most pressingly, that it has led to misguided aspirations and destructive values.

Three books published in the past year—Diane Coyle’s GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, Zachary Karabell’s Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World, and Lorenzo Fioramonti’s, Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World’s Most Powerful Number—have now entered into these debates. They each ask the same set of vital questions: Why did GDP arise? What’s wrong with it? And what should be done? While all the authors present very similar explanations for the concept’s creation and its pitfalls, they offer starkly different suggestions for what we should do about it.

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Faith in the City: Part II, Will the New Urban Evangelical Change Cities?

9780415779364Those intrigued by the apparent shift among evangelical Christians toward a greater emphasis on cities would be well-served to read a fascinating collection of essays edited by Nezar AlSayyad and Mejgan Massoumi in The Fundamentalist City? Religiosity and the Remaking of Urban SpaceAccording to AlSayyad, the project was an attempt to study “the relationship between fundamentalism as a concept and urbanism as lived reality.” It was an ambitious interdisciplinary effort with a global scope—encompassing case studies among urban Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, including American evangelicals—in light of “the unanticipated resurgence of religious and ethnic loyalties [that have] given new meaning to religion in the public life of many communities.” One result was Omri Elisha’s article, “Taking the (Inner) City for God: Ambiguities of Urban Social Engagement among Conservative White Evangelicals,” which sheds some light on what is driving the new focus on cities among American evangelicals today:

Renewed engagement in the field of urban ministry on the part of suburban evangelicals entails both the realization that the fate of the city is irrevocably tied to their own, and the recognition that the city remains a problematic place where they do not intuitively belong.

Elisha points to the evolving nature of the evangelical view of the city. Previously the “progressive” lifestyle, temptations, and crime of the modern city made it an unappealing place to live for many evangelicals. Some evangelical leaders would even compare it to the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Over the past decade, however, and especially with the younger generation, this has begun to change. New urban churches are springing up across the country. This pattern can be seen in the “fundamentalist” strands within many of today’s world religions, as other chapters in The Fundamentalist City show.

This new, softer image of the urban evangelical, who offers service to city dwellers with no strings attached, has been difficult for some to accept. For example, in reaction to Joy Allmond’s article (see Part I of this series) that claimed evangelicals were leading a New Great Awakening in New York City, Anthony Bradley asked, “Are evangelicals really that important?” In an article for the Acton Institute, he made the case that religious communities other than white (formerly suburban) evangelicals might see things differently:

After reading Allmond’s article one might get the sense only evangelical Christians are thriving in the city. But what about the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, traditional Black Church, Latino/Hispanic, and Asian/Asian-American congregations? Many of those churches have been far more active in New York since World War II than evangelicals have been. It seems to be if God was going to ‘awaken’ New York, or any major city west of the Mississippi River, he would do so by using a coalition of Christians across the traditions who are already there to bear witness to work and person of Christ.

It is hard to argue with Bradley on this point. He and many others are waiting to see if the new urban evangelical movement is going to make a lasting impact on cities. It seems the real test will be whether evangelicals consistently partner with “Christians across the traditions,” who, unlike many evangelicals, stayed in the inner city and consistently maintained ministries to the urban poor.

A larger question in all of this is the extent to which religious groups should be taken seriously as a force for positive, lasting change in cities. More than ever, faith communities need to be part of the conversation when it comes to urban planning, capital expenditures, educational priorities, and other decisions of lasting impact upon a city. Far too often over the past century the major decisions that have left a legacy on cities—from the built environment to the landing of big business deals—have been made by a very small club of individuals, in which religious leaders have either been denied entry or refused to join. This needs to change, and perhaps the new engagement of evangelicals in cities is a positive sign that this is already happening. Looking at this issue globally and inclusive of other faith traditions can again shed light on the changing significance of religion in cities. In an article in The Fundamentalist City about what she calls “post secular urbanisms” in Delhi—where Hindus, Muslims, and Christians have played an important role—Mrinalini Rajagopalan gets to the heart of the matter:

Conventional definitions of modernity have relegated religious belief to the realm of the private and have attempted to abrogate its public appeal by privileging scientific temper and rational thought…. Undoubtedly, and like many other imaginations of modernity, this is an artificial divide that has been questioned by those who offer valuable insights into alternative or multiple modernities.

The usual suspects in city leadership need not fear faith communities and would do well to give them a seat at the table when it comes to those important decisions to address their city’s problems. An important study by Cardus, a think tank in Canada, has recently shown that the key to success is to “improve structural engagement” between “faith based organizations and city planning departments.” Will city leaders in the US be willing to take faith-based organizations seriously? Will religious leaders among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others be able to come together to share common goals for their city and speak with one voice if city leaders give them a seat at the planning table? Time will tell, but I have a strong suspicion that a city’s ability to thrive will largely depend on the community’s ability to say yes to both.

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Faith in the City: Part I, The Evangelicals are Coming!

This is the first in a series of posts from different perspectives on the role of religious communities in cities. 

Evangelicals are coming back to the city, both figuratively and literally. The big change, as they are heralding it, is that they are now focusing their energy and new ministries on America’s urban centers. Some have even moved out of the suburbs and into areas of the city where they would not have imagined themselves living just a few years ago. They have come to the city, and people have noticed. A striking example of this occured when the Luis Palau Association began sponsoring a “Season of Service” in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, garnering positive attention from a city famous for its secularism and progressive outlook. As USA Today columnist Tom Krattenmaker reported, churches were:

fanning out across the Portland area to feed and clothe the homeless, provide free medical and dental services, fix up local public schools, and support their low-income students with supplies, mentoring and other resources. All this with “no strings attached,” [as the organizer Kevin] Palau emphasizes, meaning the service comes without the proselytizing that is often associated with Christian missionary outreach.

Krattenmaker’s piece also points out that this led to unusual coalitions, thrusting “the area’s evangelicals into partnership with Sam Adams, who [the previous year had become] the first openly gay candidate elected mayor of a major American city.”

The Season of Service (now called CityServe Portland) was so well-received in Portland that the model has been replicated in Anchorage, Houston, Little Rock, Phoenix, Sacramento, and San Diego; within several evangelical denominations; and even in the State of New Jersey, where the Christie administration has called on citizens to volunteer “through local groups, houses of worship and civic organizations,” calling it a “season of service.”

(Credit New York City Leadership Center)

(Credit New York City Leadership Center)

Another signal of the shift toward cities among evangelicals is Movement Day.  Beginning in 2010, this has become an annual “gathering of leaders to catalyze gospel movements in their cities.” At the forefront of this effort has been Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a congregation of 5,000 in New York City.  This year’s Movement Day will highlight the efforts in Portland; Luis Palau, Kevin Palau (of CityServe Portland), and  Adams will all be plenary speakers.
Season of Service and Movement Day are just a couple among numerous examples that signal a shift, at least among a segment of evangelical Christianity, away from the kind of engagement with society epitomized by the Christian Right and similar movements toward the end of last century through the past decade. The significance of this new urban focus has led some, such as Joy Allmond of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, to speak of the next “Great Awakening.” Jay Tolson had previously reported the same term was being used to signify something slightly different by another strand of evangelicals, but either way it seems there is a big change on the horizon that is taking place in cities.  
The evangelicals are coming. Are cities ready?
In Part II of this series, we will talk about some of the responses to this trend and the divergent views about what it may mean for cities.  

 

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The Problem of Assessment: Part III

In our previous two posts, we identified some downsides and pitfalls to current methods of assessment.  So what might a more constructive approach to assessing urban life look like?

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Can Richmond heal its past to become a thriving city? An interview with Julian Hayter

(Credit: iStockphotos)

(Credit: iStockphotos)

I met up recently with Julian Hayter, Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at the Jepson School of the University of Richmond. A historian, Hayter focuses on municipal politics in the post-1945 South and specifically Richmond, Virginia. His research does more than interrogate Richmond’s past, he explained: “I’ve asked historical questions that beg contemporaries to think about Richmond presently.”

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 Richmond. How are you approaching this?

Outside of thinking about things within the ideological framework Thriving Cities champions, I’ve simply relied on many of the research techniques I use as an historian. I’m currently writing a book that ends in 1985—many of the sources I’ve used to uncover Richmond’s past aren’t that dissimilar from the data I’m using to understand Richmond now. 

Q: Do you think Richmond is a thriving city?

Frankly, portions of Richmond thrive. Other portions of Richmond, which were purposefully underdeveloped during the Jim Crow era, still struggle. Unfortunately, Richmond has struggled to overcome segregationists’ lack of long-term political vision.

Q: If we think of cities as having inheritances, what do you think is Richmond’s primary treasure that lends to its ability to thrive?

Richmond’s history, which has been its Achilles’ heel, might be used to turn a corner. This area occupies a special place in American history—Richmond and Virginia were central to the creation of the American democratic experiment, trans-Atlantic slaving, the establishment of the Confederacy, and much more. Richmond has inherited a special place in American heritage. Yet, this is a hotly debated space. History’s been used in this area to divide. I see no reason why Richmond’s history can’t be a unifying force.

Q: What is the biggest challenge or barrier to Richmond’s thriving as a city? 

Even more frankly, Richmond’s biggest challenge is poverty—it’s rampant and generational. Richmond’s poverty, unfortunately, is also closely linked to Jim Crowism. Yet, local policymakers are finally addressing this issue. (See the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission Report.)

Q: What is one thing that has surprised you about Richmond in your work so far? 

I’ve been studying Richmond’s relatively recent history for nearly a decade. My colleagues are local policymakers, social workers, organizers, and active citizens. Very little surprises me about this area.

(Credit: University of Richmond)

(Credit: University of Richmond)

 

To hear more from Julian, check out the opinion piece he wrote for Richmond’s Style Weekly (The Rest of the Dream) about the legacy of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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The Problem of Assessment: Part II

In our last post, we highlighted some of the recent historical changes surrounding assessments. How do all these measurements help us understand what it means to thrive in today’s cities?

Assessing Cities: Current Trends and Standard Approaches

To begin to answer that question, we must first examine the evolution of city assessments. Until very recently, efforts at city and community-level assessment lagged behind the attention paid to country-level assessments. Today, however, many experts, reformers, and city leaders are measuring the health of their cities and tracking efforts to improve the conditions of urban dwellers. These efforts underway in cities mirror those occurring within the surging world of social progress indicators more generally.

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