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.
To learn more about Phil and the work of the Polis Institute, visit their website at http://www.polisinstitute.org.
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Above: Jane Jacobs (third from right in glasses) and architect Philip Johnson (far right) stand with picketing crowds in 1963 outside New York’s Penn Station to protest the building’s demolition. Walter Daran/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Sometime soon, opera fans will be transported to Manhattan in the 1960s, when a white-gloved activist took on the city’s most powerful urban planner. The still-untitled opera will follow the famous struggle between Jane Jacobs, inspirational forerunner of the New Urbanism, and Robert Moses, the so-called “master builder” of New York City. According to the opera’s website, the piece will chronicle “the fate of Washington Square Park and lower Manhattan in the 1960s. When Jacobs’s neighborhood was threatened by Moses’s highway development plans, she mounted community opposition that successfully halted Moses’s actions and weakened his hold on urban policy.”
Today, the issues surrounding transportation remain a vital part of urban development. In 2013 alone, more than $64 billion was spent on mass-transit projects in the United States, ranging from light rail to buses. In 2014, the projected investment is expected to reach $81 billion. Maintaining viable transportation links remains an important aspect of city governance.
Yet, in addition to the usual problems surrounding infrastructure—cost, timing, political will, local opposition—something new appears to be brewing. Historically, transportation debates, like the one between Jacobs and Moses, have been primarily local or regional affairs. More and more these days, basic questions of urban transit are subject to outside political forces and desires.
In a development that has generated some press, Nashville’s popular public transportation project, AMP, appears to be on the ropes because of outside political pressure. The AMP would encompass 7.1 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT) that would connect Nashville’s East and West Ends and would cost $174 million to build. Funding would be shared between federal, state, and local governments, with up to $75 million coming from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program. According to The Transport Politic:
From a pure public transportation perspective, the line makes perfect sense: It serves the city’s central east-west spine. Within a half-mile of its stations are 33% of the county’s jobs (132,000 of about 400,000) and 5% of its population (32,000 people), and it is currently undergoing something of a building boom. It would link several hospitals, Vanderbilt University, the downtown core, the transit center, and several tourist attractions. And it would offer transit service speeds similar to those available for private automobiles today.
Above: View of the Nashville skyline across the Cumberland River, Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Until recently, the project appeared to be close to getting off the ground with support from city hall and local businesses. But in early April, Nashville’s mayor Karl Dean, in a concession to community concerns over traffic, eliminated dedicated lanes for the buses along the western route due to fears of congested lanes. What happened?
Although local opposition to the project already existed, the tipping point came from state legislators who recently passed a bill in the state senate requiring approval from the state as well as prohibiting public transit from using the center lanes of streets for loading and unloading passengers—a significant feature of the AMP project. The House bill would allow center-lane transit but only with State approval. The bills have yet to be reconciled before gubernatorial approval.
A lot of the attention concerning the AMP’s future has focused on the Koch brothers, the politically active billionaires who have contributed large sums to conservative causes. Shortly after the passage of the Senate bill, The Tennessean reported that Americans for Prosperity, the brothers’ think tank and lobbying organization, had played a role. Many Tennesseans were both puzzled and annoyed that outsiders like the Kochs (who operate from Kansas and New York) had been meddling in state and local affairs. As Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce put it:
The AMP Yes coalition is a coalition of local businesses, local individuals and local organizations that live in the community and have a dedication to finding the answers that make this community a great community to live in. These are the people that drive these roads every day, need the alternative transportation opportunities, know where Nashville’s headed and know what kind of community they want Nashville to be.
Others share Mr. Schulz’s anxiety about Americans for Prosperity’s intervention in Nashville, and the Kochs’ involvement has promoted a host of other alarmed voices. Those critical of the Kochs worry about outside influence on local public affairs and what it might mean for other cities. Are these concerns overblown? To answer this, raises the broader question of the significance of cities today.
Recently, two books have addressed this question and praised the virtues of urban democracy. Peter Levine’s We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For and Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World argue that in an age of overheated partisanship on Capitol Hill, cities can take the lead in addressing our most pressing issues, such as inequality and climate change. The authors contend that city officials and their constituents—those closest to the problems—are more likely to be civic-minded and to think in terms of the common good rather than party ideology. Associate Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, Michael McQuarrie sums up this view nicely in his book review:
[B]ecause the relationship between governments and citizens are closer in cities, they are more democratic. So, while cities suffer from contemporary global problems, they are also in a better position to deal with them. In contrast to nation-states, cities are centers of commercial and cultural activity that attract migrants with their economic opportunity and tolerance.
Urban citizens are worldly, making them not only sensitive to global problems but also well-equipped for cooperation across lines of state sovereignty. They are pragmatic problem-solvers, unlikely to be diverted by ideology or unnecessarily resistant to modifying their views.
If Levine and Barber are right, local civic engagement appears to offer a way forward in our current political climate. Yet as recent events in Tennessee show, even a local transportation project with widespread support from citizens across the political spectrum is not immune to disruptive partisanship. As millennials with their heightened awareness of environmental sustainability flock to cities, city officials need to find ways to keep ideological debates from sidetracking important issues and projects. Failure to do so could not only imperil civic services like public transportation, but also prevent cities from addressing the big challenges of our time.
Unlike Robert Moses, who considered transportation little more than traffic control, Jane Jacobs saw such infrastructure as the lifeblood of a city—connecting neighborhoods and encouraging urban diversity. Through community rallies and public marches, she fought and eventually defeated the highly influential transportation bureaucrat because she knew if Moses had his way it would destroy vibrant communities. Her struggle received national attention, but it was her grassroots efforts that had the greatest impact. Jacobs’s fight proved that certain urban issues like transportation are best handled as a local (or metro area) affair. Perhaps the next time there is an opera based on a municipal dispute, it will involve a cadre of frustrated urbanites making local politics a nationwide concern.
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Not many things identify a city like its cuisine or its art. At their best, they bring together vastly different people in a variety of common places—restaurants, museums, farmers’ markets. And in an era of entrenched urban divisions and diminishing public spaces, they can be powerful mediums of connection and unity.
A new wave of artists, farmers, chefs, and patrons is now consciously cultivating ways food and art can connect rather than divide. At a recent forum in Charlottesville, Virginia, New City Arts devoted three days to exploring the relationship among art, food, and community. The conference featured speakers intent on fostering community in what some might consider unlikely ways. Each panel included a person connected to food as well as one in the art world. This event created an opportunity for the two different spheres of cultural activity to exchange ideas and develop a common vocabulary.
During one panel, Lee O’Neill a farmer in Central Virginia, and Laura Zabel, a community arts director from St. Paul, Minnesota, discussed ways community-supported models of agriculture and art can creatively engage city residents. O’Neill and Zabel described how by purchasing a farm or art share prior to production or completion, customers become stakeholders in the process rather than mere consumers. Their stories and work become integrated into their community, and in doing so, they are able to connect with their buyers on a different level.
Another panel featured Kate Daughdrill, an artist who converted several vacant lots in Detroit into an urban farm shared with nearby foreign-born residents. According to UIXDetroit.com, “The farm serves not only as Daughdrill’s creative hub, but also as a social hub for the neighborhood. Weekly meals are hosted there for neighbors and all sorts of people have become involved.”
In the concluding session, Joanna Taft, an art director in Indianapolis, and Tom Madrecki, an in-home chef in Washington, D.C., explained how they each created hospitable spaces for patron engagement. Taft discussed how exhibits in her art gallery educated audiences by purposely involving them. Madrecki spoke of using his own apartment as a restaurant to bring together strangers over a carefully crafted meal.
While critics decry the loss of public space, many cities are imagining new—and reviving old—forms of community-centered events focused on food and art. These events range from “pop-up” farmers’ markets to Shakespeare plays in parks. In Richmond, Virginia, the RVA Street Art Festival transformed an abandoned bus depot into a neighborhood treasure. With its colorful outdoor murals, the former depot became a magnet for community activity and celebration that featured local food and beverages. In fact, RVA Street Art boasted that “the converted neighborhood eyesore became one of the city’s most shared social media events of the year.”
More notably, perhaps, cities are producing authentic collective activities in physical places at a time when virtual life supposedly rules. Although digital technologies constantly vie for our attention and can perpetuate urban isolation, the act of eating and sharing art in public together forces us out of our digital cocoons.
Cities are remarkable at producing these kinds of shared public spaces. And although urban life can be divisive, the inescapable embodiment found in art and food compels physical connections and community. Rather than thinking of art as superfluous or food as merely utilitarian, we should consider them critical in shaping a city’s identity and fueling its dynamism. Whether one is a chef, a painter, or simply a lover of good food and art, cities offer rich opportunities for experiencing such pleasures as well as combining them.
Stephen Assink is the Content Curator for the Common Place blog as well as a research assistant at the Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture.
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