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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