Monthly Archives: October 2014

How Cities are Engaging the Arts: An Interview With Chris Yates—Part 2

Last week, Common Place featured the first part of an interview with Chris Yates in which he shared his insights on how the arts contribute to the life and vitality of cities. Here, Chris provides examples of how cities are engaging their art communities and vice versa.

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The Pursuit to Turn Data Into Action

Once upon a time, society had a pressing need for metrics that could gauge and track complex phenomena like the health of our national economy. Out of that need arose, as one expert puts it, Data 1.0—metrics on national prosperity. Soon after, Data 2.0 arrived focusing on local and regional economies as well as other non-economic factors, e.g., health and education. Now we have entered the era of Data 3.0 with indicators that capture the wide-ranging detail of places on multiple scales and dimensions.

Today, the problem is not a lack of metrics but an overabundance. There is an unparalleled enthusiasm for measuring every urban issue and subsequent problem. From employment numbers to high school graduation rates, metrics abound to track a community’s progress and well-being. This desire for assessment leaves very few aspects of our communities not destined for measurement in some way.  A pressing challenge then for city departments, community organizations, philanthropies, and government agencies is to navigate a crowded marketplace of indicators and metrics. Despite the growth of sophisticated tools, there is little guidance in assessing context as well as determining the appropriate metrics, often resulting in ad hoc or even misguided strategies. But at the most practical level, the vexing problem facing practitioners is the most basic: so what?


Community Indicators Consortium 2014 Conference Logo

These themes were part of the discussion at the tenth annual Community Indicators Consortium (CIC) Impact Summit held last month in Washington D.C. Organizations and cities not only shared the ways they were updating their tools with more detailed maps, better tracking, and improved digital analysis but also explored the challenges and limits of assessment. For example, one group shared how poverty levels in their city had declined in recent years—and they had the statistics to prove the point. However, on closer inspection, this organization discovered that the poor had actually moved away due to rising housing costs. Where one set of stats revealed progress, a deeper look revealed what one attendee referred to as an example of “the dangers of data.” Although the images of our cities can become clearer and more precise, contextual, local knowledge still matters.

Indicators then are contextual as well as normative. They involve (often unseen) interpretative questions: Which indicators should we choose and how should we understand our findings? Further, the reliance on indicators highlights an even deeper and equally important problem addressed previously on Common Place: What can and should be measured? Most if not all community organizations are pressed for time and resources and so may choose those indicators that best fit their needs. The language used and the surrounding context inevitably frame the debate in powerful and often invisible ways.

CIC Conference

Minnesota Compass’s Craig Helmstetter shares his insights on indicator strategies at the 2014 CIC conference.

Many conference attendees—city officials, community practitioners, and even data enthusiasts—openly acknowledged this fact, and most everyone admitted their indicators are dynamic entities constantly in need of refreshing, clarifying, and institutional connecting. Yet oftentimes, most community organizations and indicator projects with limited resources can only focus on specific spheres, such as education, healthcare, or sustainability. Very few practitioners have the time or scope to focus on the comprehensive nature of their communities. Although organizations such as STAR do incorporate a multi-sector framework, those groups that are focused on a comprehensive approach are largely aggregative attempts rather than integrative projects.

Finally, as most ardent supporters of data will admit, even the most sophisticated indicator needs something more: community buy-in. No amount of graphed data will persuade an apathetic public or civic leadership, if the indicator is not compelling. Therefore at the conference, the thematic issue centered on turning data into action.

Conference speakers and workshop groups shared their insights and experiences on using data for collective good and social impact. In turn, attendees told of their own struggles and success. One community organization in Austin, Texas, Ready by 21 uses an online dashboard to communicate goals and to connect stakeholders. The group Sustainable Calgary petitions its council members for change. Two sessions focused on improving data consumption by showing how to use enhanced graphs and engaging presentations. In another session, Pittsburgh Gazette’s Doug Heuck shared the importance of making statistics come alive by embedding them within stories and narratives.

Despite the obvious benefits of benchmarks for community organizations and practitioners (and their funders)—clear insight on their progress, accountability to stakeholders, details on the nature of the problem, and the subsequent confidence to address it—in the end, concerns about the efficacy of data in promoting community commitment persisted. At the same time, the demand for more data and the supply of better tools will only increase. The context of a place—its history, its capacities, its institutions, and its aspirations—will need to be front and center if even the best indicator is going to be applicable. Equally significant, in this age of political diversity, will be the empowering and motivating of citizens for the common good. In short, getting them to care about and be engaged with the problems of their communities is more important than ever.

Together, these challenges necessitate not only a different kind of assessment—one that privileges a holistic context—but also a new art for civic life. And here is where the Thriving Cities Project (TCP) together with Common Place is exploring the meaning and mode of community thriving.  Stay tuned for subsequent posts that will discuss the promising avenues and methods that TCP is exploring that would be useful to an association like Community Indicators Consortium and its members.

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Cities, Water, and the Fabric of Sustainability

Much of what we enjoy about modern living, especially modern urban living, is the transformation of once-laborious tasks, such as collecting drinking water or discarding trash, into simpler—largely thoughtless—routines. Having replaced the communal well with individual faucets, it is that much easier to distance ourselves from the larger natural ecosystem. Yet, environmentalists have sought to dispel that temptation by constantly pointing to the inseparable intricacies of water, air, and soil and how these elements bind together cities and their environs. As William Cronon in his book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, points out:

Each new improvement [for the city means] a shift in the regional geography—a dredged harbor here, a canal or road there— so the advantages sustaining the city [come] to have an ever larger human component. A kind of “second nature,” designed by and “improved” toward human ends, gradually [emerges] atop the original landscape—“first nature.”

Last week, the New York Times featured a video short on New York City’s water supply. “A Billions Gallons a Day” wonderfully highlighted not only why it is important to maintain a sound urban infrastructure, but also how the needs of cities are interwoven into the fabric of their surroundings. And with the world’s population rapidly moving to cities, sustainability issues such as energy, water, and food, will increasingly be urban concerns.

Recognizing that our urban projects and amenities are always implicated in the larger natural world should drive us to build and use with care—something that “A Billion Gallons a Day” reveals can certainly be done.

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Why Cities Need the Arts: An Interview With Chris Yates—Part 1

Recently at the Thriving Cities conference, I sat down with Chris Yates, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. As an artist and philosopher, Chris illuminates the human significance of art, aesthetic experience, and the vital roles that art plays in cities and communities.

In Part 2, Chris will talk in more detail about the particular ways that artists engage with their communities.

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Urban Policy: Part 1—Lessons From the District

Washington DC view1.jpg

View of the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall
Credit: Architect of the Capitol’s Office; licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Understanding urban policy today—or public policy more generally—requires understanding how policymakers use economics and public finance to reach conclusions or make suggestions. The goal of public policy is to ensure that social costs of producing goods or services are equal to their social benefits. When social costs exceed social benefits, this suggests a market or government failure that requires a public-policy intervention. In turn, policy interventions often focus on getting the right price for a particular good or service in order to arrive at an efficient market outcome.

The pricing of traffic congestion is a good, if oversimplified, example of public-policy thinking. (Those from anywhere on the political spectrum will likely find many things to disagree with in the parsed-down analysis that follows.) Traffic congestion is a result of the overconsumption of roadways and a sign of economic vitality, and the highest rates of congestion occur in America’s largest and most productive cities (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C.). However, traffic congestion, left unchecked, can increase the societal cost of traveling and ultimately reduce economic productivity.

One explanation for the overconsumption of roads is that drivers are not paying for the true costs of our streets and highways. Research indicates that current user payments account for only about eighty to ninety percent of the government’s cost. To make up the difference, gas taxes would need to increase by twenty to seventy cents per gallon. This underpricing of roadways encourages overconsumption. The result is a market inefficiency known as a negative externality—an effect that imposes costs on society that are not accounted for in the private costs involved in a particular transaction.

One public-policy solution to reduce or eliminate this negative externality is to change the price of roadway usage in order to reflect its true costs. To decrease congestion, we could increase the price it costs drivers to use highways. The price of using the congested highways thus represents the negative externality that was not included in the market mechanism.

Raising the price of highway usage reduces traffic congestion. Some drivers will elect to find alternative ways to get around or travel less while others will have no choice but to pay the increased cost of using highways. Assuming benefits and costs are captured, getting the prices right leads to a socially optimal outcome—reduced traffic congestion and the internalization of the spillover effect. If users, not society, pay for the cost of overconsumption of the roads, then social costs equal social benefits. Or so the theory goes.

However, it’s famously difficult to model complexity in the market. The challenges of implementation—coalition building, juggling public opinion, navigating politics—seldom fit neatly into a model. And since congestion pricing has yet to be implemented at a large scale in any American city, it remains a theory in spite of its predominance in debates among urban-policy analysts.

Further, a strict market perspective on public-policy issues downplays Jane Jacobs’s notion of “organized complexity.” As Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley point out in their book The Metropolitan Revolution, the federal government and state agencies are “hyper-political and partisan, hopelessly fragmented and compartmentalized, frustratingly bureaucratic and prescriptive.” Thinking only in terms of prices, market, and government failure narrows our perspective. Instead of recognizing the critical concept of interdependency when crafting effective urban policy, Washington is too often divided in hardened silos and separate camps.

The charge that Washington is too insular is nothing new, but it is especially true when it comes to the field of urban policy. Analysts who head straight for urban policy jobs in Washington without first working within their own local communities are probably not going to be able to understand the perspective on the ground, or what real communities need. The market-based perspective is useful for thinking about communities in the abstract and works well with Washington’s tendency to view all problems from high in the air. But effective policymakers need to understand how American communities work.

Urban policy is ever-changing. There are countless numbers of actors—lobbyists, associations, think tanks, foundations, academics, and government officials at all levels—who influence urban policy. But the future of urban policy will be determined by communities, not by think tanks. My next post will take a closer look at the different groups in Washington and how they inform urban policy. I hope to illustrate how the complexity of Washington can position a community to take a stronger role in its future.

Malcolm McGregor is a graduate student at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. He has interned at the Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration, in Washington, D.C.

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Faith in the City: Part IV—American Muslims and the Civic Good

In Part III of the Faith in the City series, Common Place interviewed Milton Friesen about City Soul, an initiative by Cardus to help faith-based organizations better contribute to the life of neighborhoods. In Part IV of this series, Alexander Massad considers how the historic growth of urban American Islam has led some Muslims to respond in innovative ways to the issues and challenges of urban life.


From the image of the melting pot to the motto e pluribus unum, the United States has been portrayed as a nation that successfully incorporates different cultures, religions, and languages to produce a unified American identity transcending these differences. History presents a different picture. Since its inception, America has constantly negotiated and renegotiated religious pluralism and liberal democratic principles in an attempt to clarify what it means to be “American.” The current media focus on Islam has drawn the American Muslim community into the ongoing debate over the terms of religious pluralism and liberal democracy. The issues are summed up in two broad questions: What does a growing urban Muslim population mean for religious pluralism and democratic participation in America? And how can American Muslims enrich and advance what it means to be American today?

Although Muslims first came to North America through the slave trade, two later historical periods contributed to the growth of urban American Islam. The first period, roughly between 1860 and 1940, involved large-scale African-American migration from the South to the North, rapid urban industrialization, and white prejudice. New urban centers in the Midwest perpetuated the dominant American identity matrix, which a priori rejected African-American culture. As Muslim scholar Kambiz GhaneaBassiri has pointed out, Islam provided a response by asserting Afro-Islam against Anglo-Protestantism as an alternative matrix for African-American social and economic advancement. This led to the formation of urban Muslim organizations such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam.

The second major event was the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which significantly increased the number of non-European and non-Christian immigrants to the United States. These new Muslim immigrants were drawn to urban centers such as Chicago and Detroit by their long-established American Muslim communities and institutions. This influx enlarged these urban communities to the point that currently ninety-four percent of American Muslims live in urban areas. As the American Muslim community grew,  David Machacek explains, it began to, “renegotiate the terms of American social and cultural life.” This renegotiation was not a rejection of an American identity but rather a reinterpretation of it through “a process of active cultural [and religious] renegotiation and institutional reform,” says Machacek.

The most dynamic renegotiation and institution-building by Muslims has occurred at the local level—and it has not always been easy. In 2000, the Illinois city of Palos Heights offered Al Salam Mosque Foundation $200,000 to walk away from purchasing a local church and then there was the 2011 uproar over the building of an Islamic and interfaith community center in lower Manhattan. Then there was the controversy over the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that cost the local community nearly $350,000 in legal fees alone.

Despite these headline stories, there are numerous examples of Muslims taking the initiative for positive change in American cities, where Muslim communities themselves are faced with challenges such as poverty, crime, and social unrest. Addressing the violence of Chicago’s south side, for example, Rami Nashashibi established the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) as a transformative force to counteract conflict and poverty in these neighborhoods. Propelled by his faith, Nashashibi and his organization have sought to bring together the seemingly disconnected segments of their community for urban development. IMAN has received financing and support from Muslim small-business owners, which has enabled it to provide a free community health clinic, to organize voter registration, and to convert abandoned property into environmentally friendly housing. The organization’s most publicized event is “Taking It to the Streets,” a “Muslim-led festival where artistic expression, spirituality, and urban creativity inspire social change.” IMAN has been a model for similar ventures in other major urban cities like Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Baltimore.

On more of a multi-city level is Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). Patel acts on Islam’s core tenets of mercy, compassion, and the dignity of human beings, beliefs that motivated him to bring together different religious groups for community service in cities and on college campuses across the country. The goal is to cultivate a practice of interfaith cooperation on civic projects that would influence future generations. IFYC asserts that religion is one of the most powerful motivators for action and seeks to tap into its potential for civic good amidst religious pluralism.

America has been, and continues to be, a nation that constantly renegotiates its identity. IMAN and IFYC are just two examples of how Muslims have tried to show that Islam can be a powerful force in civic life, joining other religious and non-religious organizations in bringing positive, long-term solutions to the problems faced by our cities.

Alexander Massad is a Ph.D. student in Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University, working on Religious Pluralism. His research focuses on the socio-political effects of Christian and Muslim epistemology within religiously diverse communities.

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Schools and Local Government: The Best and Worst of Us


Last month, Jonathan Chait wrote an article for New York Magazine titled “Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments.” Chait argued that, contrary to certain received political ideas, local governments are often more intrusive, arbitrary, and ineffective than their state and federal versions. Worries people typically have about big, centralized governments, might be better directed at relatively small organizations, covering a tiny geographic area, and serving few people—the cities, counties, and school districts that make up local government in America. He has a point. From economic protectionism to police brutality to plain old corruption, small governments get into a lot of big brotherish kind of trouble. Bad government is not always big government.

There are, however, a few points to be made in favor of these smaller governing bodies.

First, if local government is sometimes bad, the alternative is not always better. One advantage of a city government or a school board is that their responsibilities are relatively clear when you elect them and when you want to complain. When authority is shifted away from these bodies, it rarely goes directly to a state or federal agency, but to a regional hybrid of appointed commissions and boards with a mix of local elected officials from the region. This system of regional boards dilutes and confuses responsibility, distancing voters from decisions through bureaucratic complexity as much as physical space. You might not know your senator or your city councillor, but you may know both better than your regional transportation board representative.

Second, local governance is more effective than the stories of failure would suggest. Take school districts, for example, and their widely ranging sizes. In one sense, school districts are all “local,” in that they have specific boundaries and elected representatives who live in the district. However, local also tends to imply small or at least at the scale of community identity (not Los Angeles). Districts are a great testing ground for questions of scale. For one thing, they vary so much in size, from a district of a single school with a few dozen students to, for example, Los Angeles Unified, a massive operation with a student population larger than the total populations of some small states. For another, the appropriate scale of school governance has been a topic of practical and academic interest for decades. Finally, the data on the performance of schools, while not perfect, is far better than in any other area of local government.

In theory, the advantages of size in school districts are obvious. A school system that buys and manages more of everything—buses, cafeterias, curricula—can specialize and make improvements in each area. A big system can accommodate students and teachers with niche interests in languages, trades, or musical instruments. Large school districts promise efficiency, opportunities, and insulation from small-town politics.

In fact, however, bigger is not better. Studies consistently find that districts become less effective beyond a relatively modest size of 5,000–10,000 students. Size is not the only factor, of course, but all else being equal, students in large districts perform worse on standardized tests and have lower attendance, and the parents of these students are less satisfied. In short, large districts tend to experience diseconomies of scale—they are actually less efficient in the delivering the same services.

Size has its own challenges. Coordinating the work of so many employees is difficult and costly.  It also becomes more difficult to cultivate empathy, loyalty, and commitment from parents and other community members. As economist William Fischel argues in Making the Grade, school systems breed political engagement and social capital. School districts provide civic education to parents, and smaller districts seem to do this better.

A third point is less in favor of local government and more about the inevitably of our attachment to it. As Chait acknowledges the “myth of localism is rooted deep in our political psyche.” Our attachment to localism is not ultimately about effectiveness, and it is probably not something we can shake easily, rooted as it is in our tradition of local self-governance. When conditions allow, we regard having authority over our own affairs as right and good. Sometimes, we prove incapable of doing that.

The failures of local governments are neither universal nor random. They stem from deeper economic and social problems. Financial crises, political drama, and a general lack of accountability to an informed public are symptoms of deeper issues. In isolated cases, we can bring in outside agencies to help stave off the worst results of that failure. But we should hope that the need for this does not become the rule. We need small government to govern well because there is no structural solution to a democratic people that cannot govern themselves.

David Franz, Director of the Shafter Education Partnership for the city of Shafter, California,  is a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

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