Monthly Archives: July 2014

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.

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Assessing Urban Complexity: Thriving Cities Conference Recap

TCP

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.

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The Magic of Mayors?

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Comment Magazine, a publication of CARDUS. Available by subscription at www.cardus.ca/comment.

 

If Mayors Ruled the WorldWhen identifying potential leadership for global challenges, we often neglect history. Specifically, we tend to forget that the nation-state is a relatively new kid on the block, a political entity much younger than the city and yet one we take to be the basic unit of society. We assume that power resides in presidents and prime ministers, not mayors and municipal managers.

For a “cosmopolitan urbanist,” someone who believes that cities and their mayors are poised to provide much-needed leadership on global challenges, the relationship between the ancient city and the upstart nation-state is more fraught. From this perspective, the nation-state is like the sorcerer’s apprentice, having set into motion a number of global dynamics that it cannot control or stop. In Goethe’s masterpiece, the apprentice conjures a broom to assist with his chores, but the broom actually makes the mess worse. Unable to undo the spell, the apprentice breaks the broom instead.

The broom then multiplies, which only exacerbates the problem. When the apprentice is beyond hope, the sorcerer returns, breaks the spell, and restores order. Mayors, cosmopolitan urbanists might say, are like the sorcerer himself: they have an ancient and untapped magic to address global challenges that defy the capabilities of the nation-state. Indeed, this is the daring thesis of Benjamin Barber’s recent book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. In his manifesto for urban leadership in an increasingly interconnected world, Barber proposes to leverage the potential of cities and urban leadership through a worldwide “Parliament of Mayors.” “Can cities save the world?” Barber asks. His answer is clear: “I believe they can . . . they should . . . and they already do.” But is this hope justified? Can cosmopolitan urbanism deliver what it promises?

Taller Borders, Eroding Democracy

Barber argues that nation-states, having initiated and fuelled contemporary global dynamics, are now constitutionally incompetent to channel those dynamics for the common good. At stake is not only material wellbeing, but also the credibility and practice of democracy.

For Barber, the problem is rooted in the distinctive notion of sovereignty that reserves for the nation-state absolute, independent, and exclusive authority over a given territory. Since the seventeenth century, sovereign nation-states, more than other institutions, have used their authority to cultivate space for democratic practice. While democracy may have been conceived in the ancient polis, modern nation-states have been responsible for maturing democratic practice.

However, according to Barber, global challenges expose limitations and contradictions built into the strengths of the nation-state system. As he writes, “The dysfunction of nation-states as global cooperators arises at least in part out of their virtues.” Sovereignty does not preclude collaboration, but it does hinder effective governance of  transnational matters. Simply put, accountability beyond the borders of the state is an affront to sovereignty. Therefore, faced with actors, issues, and contexts that are not territorially bound and may demand transnational accountability—greenhouse gases, for example, need no visas, and the atmosphere is a commons shared by everyone—the sovereignty of the nation-state betrays the common good.

As if pandemics and ecological catastrophes that defy the capabilities of the nation state are not bad enough, Barber’s greatest fear is the erosion of democratic governance. Hanging over his analysis is the specter of authoritarianism. For all his discussion of environmental and social challenges, Barber is most concerned with the ways in which those challenges indirectly threaten democracy by exposing the incompetence of the nation-state.

Barber worries that the formal, but ineffective, authority of the sovereign nation-state, to date the most fertile ground for democracy, may be superseded by the emergence of more competent, but undemocratic, forms of governance—either a global government or, more likely, multinational corporations. Like greenhouse gases, such actors span borders and thus trump sovereignty, but their empowerment also undermines meaningful democratic practice.

So it is that we stand at something of a crossroads. Climate change and other global challenges combine with the emergence of effective but undemocratic institutions simultaneously to undermine material  wellbeing and threaten hard-won practices of self-governance. Barber sees the city as a way out of this mire.

The Return of the Polis

Barber’s proposal for a worldwide Parliament of Mayors is audacious. Three times per year, the leaders of 300 cities would meet to consider challenges facing our increasingly urban world. To ensure consideration of challenges faced by megacities and modest towns alike, each meeting would include 50 cities of more than 10 million inhabitants, 125 cities with populations between 500,000 and 10 million, and another 125 with populations under 500,000. In matters requiring a vote, each city would cast one “city vote” along with one demographic vote for every 500,000 inhabitants. In any given year, each of the three meetings would include a different set of cities, with the exception perhaps of a small cadre of permanent members.

The Parliament of Mayors would primarily be what Barber calls “an Audiament—a chamber of listeners” in which urban leadership from around the world would gather to be updated on the challenges faced and solutions developed by their peers. Only occasionally would the parliament vote on a measure, the passage of which would require a majority in three consecutive parliamentary sessions.

Barber thinks that the Parliament of Mayors will work because cities share four characteristics that predispose them to both democratic governance and successful collaboration on global challenges. First, the scale of cities enables participation, opening their “civic logic” to the possibility of bottom-up governance.

Second, cities are now home to more than half of the world’s population, a percentage that demographers predict will only increase over the coming decades. So, quoting Las Vegas urban reformer Tony Hsieh, Barber concludes: “If you fix cities, you kind of fix the world.”

Third, Barber claims that cities are predisposed to cooperation because they have never been self-sufficient, but have always depended upon their hinterlands and other cities to meet their needs. Barber ignores the important fact that this dependence has not consistently resulted in cooperation. At its height, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was the definition of a regional hegemon, demanding tribute from its hinterland. And our largest contemporary cities are not known for cooperation at the metropolitan level, much less at the global level. The fact that cities need resources from beyond their territorial boundaries does not mean that cities will play nice to get them.

Fourth, Barber claims that cities are inherently disposed toward pragmatism, rather than ideology, and are therefore more likely to face up to the practical challenges of globalization. There is some truth to this claim, but Barber ignores the history of entanglement between corruption and what he describes as an urbanpreoccupation with practical challenges. Ignoring both ideas and personalities in favor of “getting it done” has played a major role in the history of machine politics, which depends to an extent upon preserving the status quo and thus changes very little about the city, much less the world. So this cuts against the grain of Barber’s proposal more than he admits.

The Future of Cosmopolitan Urbanism

The high hopes shared by Barber and other cosmopolitan urbanists are to a certain extent grounded in existing realities. Cities are already exercising leadership on global matters. Transnational municipal networks are addressing issues such as climate change, food security, and economic development. Cities in these networks are sharing best practices, diffusing policy agendas, and operationalizing norms in innovative ways. They don’t yet constitute Barber’s Parliament of Mayors, but if transnational municipal networks are the future, then the future is already here.

There is, however, the matter of inequality, not only within cities but also within the emerging global urban system. It isn’t entirely clear that the relative prosperity of New York, London, and Tokyo is unrelated to the relative vulnerability of Nairobi, Lagos, and Tacloban. These inequities are reflected in the shape of already existing networks and might be exploited if and when the Parliament of Mayors takes shape. To borrow a line from William Gibson, whose dystopian Sprawl Trilogy Barber confusingly cites as an example of the future he envisions, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Nonetheless, Barber makes an important contribution by navigating the strait between idolatry of the city, on the one hand, and what theologian Edward Farley describes as “social Manicheanism,” on the other. Unlike purely boosterist accounts of cosmopolitan urbanism, Barber is at least aware of urban challenges. He insists that mayors must get their own houses in order even as we “rediscover the polis tucked into the core of cosmopolis.”

Indeed, cosmopolitan urbanists as a whole seem to have high expectations for what Farley describes as “theonomous sociality.” Theonomous sociality “has to do with how a society manages and transcends its . . . natural centrisms . . . not by repudiating ‘location, territory, or specific cultural content,’ but by taking up the aims and goods of particularity into agendas oriented to the well-being of broader environments.”

Unfortunately, cosmopolitan urbanists offer only very thin accounts of why cities would do this and, in particular, why they would do it better than other institutions. Barber’s particular account only goes so far in this direction. He makes a case—drawing briefly upon Edmund Burke, who Barber spins into a sort of “grounded cosmopolitan”— that urban leaders should take into account the global common good. But Barber offers no account of the motivations that might drive such a commitment on the part of cities, their urban leadership, and their citizens.

Still, whatever their motivations, these cities exist. But will they make a difference? Can mayors and other urban leaders save us from social and ecological catastrophe and keep democratic governance viable? One thing’s for sure: mayors won’t be able to go it alone as global leaders. If cities are to experiment not only with social and ecological innovations but with new governance models that can couple effectiveness with self-rule in service to the global common good, then we will all have to reconsider the ways in which we inhabit our communities. If there is any magic to be recovered in the polis, then citizens, and not just city managers, will have to manage and transcend their natural centrisms in favor of the common good.

 

Noah Toly currently serves as Director of Urban Studies and Associate Professor of Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College. He has taught various courses in environmental politics and policy, urban politics, and ethics. He is also a member of the Thriving Cities Project steering committee.

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Whole Foods in Richmond

Whole Foods is headed to Richmond proper. In early May, Whole Foods Market announced that it had signed a lease for a 40,000 square foot store in the Sauer Center, a planned mixed-use development on the north side of Richmond’s historic Fan District. Although a Whole Foods has been firmly ensconced in the burgeoning suburb of Short Pump since 2008, a swiftly-developing area about 7 miles west of the city in Henrico County, this store at the Sauer Center will be the first taste of the chain within the city limits.

 

With a mix of new construction and historic buildings, the Sauer Center will include not only the 133,000 square foot former Virginia Department of Taxation (previously the home of the Stephen Putney Shoe Company), but also the 103-year-old C.F. Sauer Co. spice factory and headquarters. The 20-foot by 60-foot animated “Sauer’s Vanilla” sign still lights up the night sky. Whole Foods has not yet announced a target opening date or its specific location in Sauer Center, but the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Whole Foods will likely replace the storefront presently occupied by Pleasant’s Hardware, another longtime family-run Richmond establishment until its purchase by the C.F. Sauer Company in 1989.

Although Whole Foods is infamous for devouring whole paychecks in exchange for its environmentally sustainable, animal friendly, fair-trade fare, it promises to be a large draw to the nearby affluent Fan neighborhood. Richmond is fast becoming a city that supports businesses that provide well-crafted food, sourced in a sustainable and ethical manner—particular specialties of Whole Foods.

The Fan Opens Up

More to the point, the Fan has been coalescing into a neighborhood with businesses that draw customers from morning through the evening hours. Roughly two miles west of the planned Sauer Center Whole Foods stands Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, a thriving local store dedicated to organically grown from nearby farmers. In addition, local restaurants and watering holes, like Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, encourage evening foot traffic.

While Whole Foods prides itself on being responsive to meeting consumers’ demands, it will be entering an increasingly competitive local grocery market, where new stores are seeking to fill the vacuum left by the closing of the regional chain Ukrop’s in 2010. The influx of grocery stores is projected to outpace, if it has not already, the city and the surrounding counties’ capacity to consume.

At the same time, a recent mayoral Food Policy Task Force report noted that Richmond contains about 40 neighborhoods that are food insecure—that is, with low-income residents who live more than a mile from the nearest grocery store. Most of these neighborhoods lie on the city’s South Side, although large pockets of low-income and low-access residents are also found  in the East End and North Side of the city. The projected Whole Foods will likely do little to address issues of food insecurity in Richmond, because it will not be near neighborhoods in need or provide food at in the low-income price range. Indirectly, however, Whole Foods can potentially raise the city’s tax base by attracting further development nearby. In addition, Whole Foods can be become a key donor to the nearby Central Virginia Food Bank.

View of downtown Richmond; credit: Montes-Breadley, iStockphoto.com

View of downtown Richmond; credit: Montes-Bradley, iStockphoto.com

In terms of the competition in Richmond’s grocery market, the Sauer Center Whole Foods will be positioned to do well. Aside from a Kroger a half-mile to the east, Whole Foods will be the only grocery store within reasonable walking and easy biking distance of the Fan. What’s more, this location lies enticingly close to the proposed route for Richmond’s Bus Rapid Transit, a proposed bus system that would travel a dedicated lane roughly from downtown Richmond to the recently revamped Willow Lawn Shopping Center along the city’s western edge. (Although Richmond was home to the first trolley system in the United States in the early 1900s, it currently ranks 92 out of 100 top U.S. cities in public transit access, according to a 2011 Brookings Institute study.)

Increasing Accessibility

Nevertheless, Whole Foods and the Sauer Center will be vital components of a commercial hub that could develop along the Rapid Transit line in the future. Furthermore, the RVA Bus Rapid Transit itself raises the hopeful prospect of increasing the economic, political, and social cohesion of the entire Greater Richmond Area. Reliable transportation could boost employment and education opportunities primarily available to those with cars in affluent zip codes. Such a blossoming of regionalism and accessibility would require the city and surrounding counties to bridge historically deep racial and economic divisions.

The Sauer Center’s Whole Foods also has the potential to be a boon to the health and future of many Richmond residents given its close proximity to institutions of learning. Whole Foods has a well-deserved reputation for increasing people’s access not only to healthy food but also to food education through its Whole Kids Foundation and Whole Cities Foundation. Two public elementary schools, one public middle school, and one public high school lie within a mile radius of the planned Whole Foods, and beyond that is a public middle school, a high school, two private high schools, and a private middle school. Two institutions of higher learning are also nearby: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) along with its medical school and Virginia Union University (VUU), one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges.

With FeedMore (the Central Virginia Food Bank combined with Meals on Wheels) a mere mile away and urban gardening movements growing through the work of Shalom Farms, Tricycle Gardens, and the William Byrd Community House, the opportunities abound for collaborative efforts at cultivating awareness and engagement on issues of food justice and land use. Many houses of worship and faith communities also stand close by, ready for deeper theological engagement and outreach on these fronts.

While Whole Foods at the Sauer Center could simply end up being a stop for affluent consumers, there are good reasons to think it will eventually boost employment and general area investment. With the resources, power, and social commitment that Whole Foods has, the possibilities for profound community enrichment are palpable.

 

Nelson Reveley lives in Richmond and is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on theological ethics in relation to the economy as well as the environment. He is also an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). 

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

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

Nisha Botchwey Interview — Part 2 from IASCulture on Vimeo.

 

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Do Cities Tear Us Apart?

Part One: When Sociologists Feared Cities

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

Or so sociologists thought in the early twentieth century.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nisha Botchwey Interview Part 1 from IASCulture on Vimeo.

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

 

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