Monthly Archives: June 2014

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.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.


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.



. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

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.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

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.”

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.