Monthly Archives: November 2014

Was there ever a truly natural city? The Byzantines thought so.

Constantinople mural, Istanbul Archaeological Museums; Wikimedia Commons

A medieval mural in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums depicting the seaward walls of the Byzantine capital; Wikimedia Commons

In an age that emphasizes sustainable urbanization and green growth in cities across the globe, it makes sense to look to the past to see if human beings have ever really attempted, much less achieved, a truly “natural” city—one in which the human and the natural were connected so that both would thrive. As it turns out, new research suggests that Constantinople may have been such a city, at least in the aspirations of its inhabitants.

From ancient times, the Greeks believed humans could achieve their full potential only within the context of a city, and perhaps no city built by Greeks more fully reflected their ideal of the polis as the crucial element of paideia (the formation or education of the citizen) than Constantinople. The heart and soul of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was the nexus of East and West, Empire and Church, heaven and earth, man and nature, the old and the new. Even after the Muslim Turks conquered the city in 1453 and up to the present, Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, has been a bridge between two worlds, whether it is Europe and Asia, the Islamic world and the West, or the modern and the traditional. Although the Byzantine capital ceased to exist more than five centuries ago, the legacy and spirit of Byzantium have continued and may even have important lessons for city dwellers today.

In The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible,  Bruce Foltz asks whether Constantinople was in fact such a “natural city.” Foltz, a professor of philosophy at Eckerd College, examines not just the built environment and the civic structures put in place by the Byzantines, but also the deeper cultural and philosophical systems that formed  their vision of what a city should be. Constantinople, he points out, was founded as a “sacred city” that celebrated the connections among the divine, human, and natural realms as an integrated whole. Foltz says that for Byzantine Christians,

[T]he Fall is a disorder of the whole cosmos…[and] redemption…[is] a restoration of humanity and nature alike…returning them to their paradisiacal state….Humanity [is to be]…that being through which the divine image within all creation becomes fully realized, the nodal point through which creation apprehends and consecrates its own inner divinity.

For Orthodox believers, there was an intimate connection between man and nature expressed and experienced not just on the individual or even communal level but also through the imperial city itself. Constantinople, the golden city, shone as the beacon and the paradigm for those living throughout the Byzantine realm and beyond.

Contemporary view of Hagia Sophia; photo by Murat Taner; #166989598 /


The focal point of Constantinople was Hagia Sophia, Church of the Divine Wisdom, considered by many to be one of the great wonders of the world because of its scale, complexity, and beauty. The function of this architectural wonder was to symbolize the Byzantine understanding of the relationship among God, man, and nature, and to reveal their coming together in space and time. As  Foltz describes it,

The Divine Wisdom is the eternal Logos, seen as shaping the cosmos and holding it together. It is thus also the inner logos of each being that, when fully realized, joins it to the whole in a love that must be understood ontologically.… The Great Church of the Divine Wisdom, then, itself serves to bring together all elements of the cosmos in a transfigured form, making manifest the inner glow of their divine beauty.

Chora Church/Museum, Istanbul,fresco,Anastasis, by Gunnar Back Pedersen, Wikimedia Commons

Anastasis, or Resurrection of Christ, icon from the funerary chapel at Choral Church, an outstanding example of Byzantine architecture and iconography in Istanbul; Wikimedia Commons

When the citizens of Constantinople came together in worship, they entered a space intended to bring together heaven and earth, and they  prayed “on behalf of all [living things] and for all.” Their liturgies were not only for the spiritual edification of individuals in the congregation but also for the renewal of a vision of the natural order, indeed of the entire cosmos, as something sacred, a gift from God given to mankind to treasure and protect. It was a bringing together of both present time and the future Kingdom of God in which humans and all of nature would reach their fullest potential in the image of the divine. Byzantine worship, through its mystical music and elaborate symbolism, also depicted the city as Heavenly Jerusalem, one that the earthly city of Constantinople was to emulate and that Byzantine rulers and citizens alike should strive to achieve. The belief was that a strong, vibrant, and (to the extent possible in this fallen world) “holy” Constantinople, a truly “natural” city, could link humans and nature, the divided races of man, and Heaven and Earth.

The practical ramifications of this ideal play out in a number of ways. For example, historians Stephen Barthel and Christian Isendahl have demonstrated that Constantinople’s urban gardens, agriculture, and water management systems were more efficient than those of many modern cities, in large part because of “the close connection between urban people and their life-support systems,” a concept which they argue must be reignited among urban dwellers today.

There were multiple reasons why this grand urban experiment eventually came to an end, as Steven Runciman and Donald Nicol have chronicled so well in their now-classic works on the subject. The Constantinopolitan model for a city may also be a hard sell in today’s world, particularly in the secularized West where the Byzantine concept of symphonia—a system in which  political and religious leaders work in unity to provide the material and spiritual needs of the people—is rejected outright. Still, to the extent that it can serve as a model of a natural city, Constantinople remains a useful paradigm for us today. Foltz may be right when he concludes that:

Byzantium may nevertheless remain for us in the West, heirs to both Athens and Jerusalem, the exemplary bridge between the secular and the sacred, the temporal and the eternal, between the visible and invisible: the once and future natural city.

The true lesson of the Byzantines, so crucial to us today, is their understanding of the connection between mankind and nature. We can learn from Constantinople that the world around us is composed of living things, not just dead matter for us to take and exploit to make products that we then set before ourselves in an elusive search for meaning and happiness.

Andrew Sharp is Research Scholar at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, where he serves as the Thriving Cities Project Manager, and Affiliate Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. His publications are in the areas Eastern Christianity, Islam, and Muslim-Christian relations and his book is Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age (Brill, 2012).

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The Village Effect—An Interview With Susan Pinker


Final jacket_Pinker (2)

In her new book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter (Spiegel & Grau), psychologist Susan Pinker argues for the power and importance of human interaction. In an age of rapid mobility and digital communications, Pinker uses evidence and stories to remind the reader of the need for socializing and its effects on our physical and mental well-being. Although most people would certainly recognize the importance of relationships, Pinker highlights in our interview the profound implications for nurturing and neglecting our social lives.



Common Place (CP): In your book, you give several reasons for the importance of face-to-face contact. Why then does physical contact matter so much for building personal relationships?

Susan Pinker (SP): In person, interaction sparks a cascade of psychological and biochemical events that foster trust and promote empathy. Although they often pass under our radar, making eye contact and synching one’s body posture and tone of voice to someone you’re talking to face-to-face deepens mutual understanding. For example, job applicants who subconsciously mirror their interviewer’s gestures are often offered higher starting salaries. Athletic teams who are encouraged to pat each other’s backs and give high-fives and fist-bumps tend to score more goals. We are a social species that has evolved for close contact; when we’re in close proximity to others, hormones and neurotransmitters are released that help us solve problems, damp down stress, feel safe, and stave off loneliness. This has the added effect of reducing deleterious effects on our long-term health. Interestingly, research shows that without face-to-face contact, relationships decay. If you haven’t seen someone within the last two to five years, your place in his or her circle has likely been replaced with someone else.

CP: Most people recognize the significance of family and close friends, yet you argue that “weak bonds” can be just as important for individuals and communities. How so?

SP: We know from several excellent, long-term demographic studies (including those by Harvard’s Lisa Berkman and Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University) that having an integrated social life is the best predictor of health and longevity. People with varied social connections—not just individuals with a few close relationships, but those regular interactions with the larger communities in which they live—have a distinct survival advantage. Joining groups that allow you to form those weak bonds helps individuals in two ways. It promotes regular social contact with a diverse group of people, which we know is protective, not only from an immunological point of view, but also cognitively: People who have a large variety of social commitments are less likely to suffer from dementia. In addition, weak bonds provide a source of helpful tidbits of information that strong bonds often don’t. The reason? We often share the same background and types of knowledge with our close friends and family members. People who are more distantly connected to us have access to different banks of information. The social scientist, Mark Granovetter, refers to the advantages that accrue to those with an expansive social circle as “the power of weak bonds.”

And communities are stronger when different types of people feel connected to it— when they feel that they belong and care about what happens to the people in the group beyond their own intimate connections. Without the cohesion of weak bonds, a community would just be an agglomeration of individuals and family units with no common goals, and nothing tying them together. Actually, it wouldn’t be a community at all.

CP: You wrestle at length with the tension between the promise of technology and its limit in our lives. From your research, what are some helpful ways to think about the role of smart devices in our social lives?

SP: Digital devices can’t be beat when it comes to searching for information, classifying it, and storing it. Clearly, smartphones, laptops, and tablets are cheap and convenient communication tools, too. But they can’t compete with the human brain when it comes to expressing and understanding human emotion, both of which are key to establishing empathy and social cohesion. Evidence is also emerging that cognition and emotion are not distinct neurological events, as psychologists used to think; processing human feeling and responding appropriately are faculties that are tightly linked to the ability to learn and perform. As a result, these devices also have limitations during nuanced human exchanges, such as in the context of complex problem-solving or when teaching kids.

So, the key is not to conflate various modes of communication. When it comes to our social lives, our devices are perfectly designed for logistics: for researching and helping people arranging when and where to meet, and even facilitating those meet-ups. There are lots of apps that are designed to help people with similar interests get together, which is an ingenious melding of the technological with the interpersonal. For example, when I found myself in Berlin for a week between two conferences, I found a communal workspace—a “hub”—that allowed me to meet other writers and creators there. Online searches were indispensable for that entry into a new social world.

But there are individual differences in how people use their devices. Personality plays a big role in whether smart devices bring people together or drive them apart. We’ve all seen couples or friends in restaurants who are focused on their screens instead of on each other. The research confirms that people who are not that comfortable or skilled at interacting face-to-face use their devices to create distance, and, more to the point, to replace more intimate interactions. There are data showing that the more time people spend on social media, the less real involvement they have with their own communities, for example. Research by Dutch social scientists shows that shy or learning disabled kids are less likely to use their digital devices to meet up with friends, whereas outgoing kids use their devices to arrange get-togethers. And while online communication has been a huge boon to those on the autistic spectrum, communicating online has not been shown to reduce their loneliness, or to help them build real offline friendships, something that is often a real challenge to people in this “community.” Studies of cancer support groups have unearthed the same information versus emotional support dichotomy. People who participate in online support groups are far more likely to feel lonely and depressed than those in face-to-face support groups. Although I presume both groups foster the sharing of information, only the face-to-face support groups reduce the existential dread and distress caused by the challenges of a chronic disease.

CP: Speaking of technology, there is, for better or for worse, a vocal call for cities to be smarter and more data-centric. What advice would you offer city planners as they think about and design our cities?

SP: Cities that take into account the new data emerging from social neuroscience would focus on creating “third spaces”—the places where people feel comfortable enough to gather, places where small groups of people feel they belong. Right now that role has been assumed by commercial enterprises such as McDonald’s and Starbucks, because municipalities have left a vacuum when it comes to creating places where teleworkers, retired people, and young parents with children can meet and socialize. The emphasis that used to be placed on building parks, libraries, gazebos, and other friendly public spaces is now being subsumed by an enthusiasm for all things technological. There’s no going back, but it is worthwhile to deploy our technological prowess in discerning the places where people like to gather, and what their needs will be while they’re there. So while it’s great to have cities with free WiFi everywhere, without a place to sit in couples or in small groups, providing that access simply promotes more individual focus on individual screens. A more clever use of technology in cities would bring retired people together, for example, or allow municipalities to know exactly where their aging single residents live, so that if there’s an environmental disaster such as a heat wave or a flood, teams can contact the isolated. The data-crunching can be done digitally, while the contact can be done in person.

Although I don’t extoll bygone eras as superior, one reason why I gave the book the title The Village Effect is because the way traditional European villages are built necessarily fostered social interaction and a sense of belonging. There are squares in which to gather and locations for communal markets; towns and cities are designed so that people are forced to cross paths on their way between one place and another. Google has adapted that philosophy in designing the Googleplex. Although technology is the raison d’être for the place, the social requirements of the people who work there are not only not neglected, they’re prioritized. That perspective should be the way of the future. Use technology to bring people together, not to drive them apart.


SusaPinker author photo_SusieLowen Pinker is a developmental psychologist, columnist, and broadcaster who writes about social science. Her first book, The Sexual Paradox, was published in seventeen countries and was awarded the William James Book Award by the American Psychological Association. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The Times of London, the BBC, the CBC, The Economist, Atlantic Monthly, The Financial Times, Der Spiegel, and NBC’s Today show. She lives in Montreal.

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Urban Policy: Part 3—Lessons From History

Tracing the development of urban policy in the United States is an often-vexing affair in historical wayfinding. Urban policy in the United States has been, like our metropolitan areas themselves, something of a sprawling mess. Many areas—public health, housing, job creation, transportation, poverty, environment, and education—have been annexed into urban policy territory. Not surprisingly, the strongest critics of U.S. urban policy rightfully argue “there is no there, there.” Our metaphorical metropolis of urban policy has often been a mélange of uncoordinated policies without a vibrant center.

In part, this is due to our federalist system. It also has something to do with the fact that cities can be targeted and affected by both place-based policies and as well as by policies not explicitly about cities, but ones which affect them in distinctive and disproportionate ways.

U.S. urban policy is heavily influenced by professional public policy experts and by an approach that emphasizes the market in various ways. In the language of many critics, this makes for an urban policy that is “technocratic” and “neoliberal.” Has urban policy always been this way? Yes and no. Technocratic and market-oriented approaches to urban governance extend back to the nineteenth century, but the specific goals, methods, and policies employed have changed considerably.

Department of Housing and Urban Development.JPG
Department of Housing and Urban Development” by Photo: Kjetil Ree
Architect: Marcel Breuer – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Genesis of Urban Policy

The political scientist Paul Kantor has suggested that U.S. urban policy has two faces: A social face, concerned with providing social support, and a developmental face, focusing on the economic growth of cities. The social face of urban policy emerged and evolved over the twentieth century in response to crises and changes in political dominance, but the developmental face of urban policy has remained more or less constant.

Since the nineteenth century, American cities have competed vehemently in the areas of investment and industry, thus giving rise to a distinctly market-oriented urban policy. By the early 1900s, business interests contributed to an increasingly technocratic approach to city governance. Seeing city government as wasteful, corrupt, and beholden to immigrant and working-class interests, businessmen pushed municipalities, in the name of “efficiency,” to be organized like corporations and run by professional experts. This technocratic city reform resulted in policies and programs that often overlapped with the social and developmental goals of urban policy. For example, the expansion of sanitation policies aimed to improve the health of all city residents, including the poor, could be justified on both social reform and economic development grounds.

In the following decades, urban planning emerged as a technocratic influence on urban governance in its reliance on professional expertise and an engineering approach to both the physical and the social environment of cities. Through the 1950s, this technocratic approach was instantiated through static urban plans, with little attention to management and implementation, a view that reflected the belief that city dynamics would be forever unchanged.

But, as cities began losing people to the suburbs and feeling the effects of deindustrialization, urban planning and policy looked to incorporate more tools from a new systems science. This burgeoning science incorporated computers and large data collection while conceptualizing the city as complex, interconnected systems. Managers then used these models to understand potential future scenarios, such as traffic models, and how city plans and policies would respond to them.

Urban Policy and National Government

The changing relationship of cities to the national government also fueled a more technocratic approach to urban policy. In the post-war period, national policies that favored home-ownership in the suburbs and automobile transportation facilitated drastic changes in cities. In turn, national urban renewal policies attempted to deal with the decline of urban areas through a familiar combination of technocratic planning and business partnerships that bulldozed old, “blighted” neighborhoods in favor of redevelopment. These policies often hurt poor and African-American communities. The urbanist Jane Jacobs famously savaged urban renewal, among other common aspects of technocratic planning, in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Perhaps the strongest technocratic approach to cities, however, came with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society poverty policies. LBJ’s “War on Poverty” drew heavily on systems science from the military as well as relatively new public policy methods developed by economists that concentrated on program evaluation and budgeting. As in systems planning for cities, this approach to poverty involved collecting large amounts of data on individuals in order to identify the causes of poverty that would build a baseline for measuring policy effectiveness. This public policy strategy had the effect of marginalizing programs that did not have measures that could be easily evaluated.

The Great Society era was the high point of national involvement with urban policy, after which national urban policy retreated for various reasons. Republicans opposed many of the national urban policies, while many Democrats saw cities as lost causes that were becoming less valuable political assets. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration initiated the “New Federalism” that gave cities and states more control of federal funding. While national urban policy continued to decline under Reagan, funding decreased though by no means disappeared. The national government particularly rolled back the social face of urban policy, and what remained was oriented toward more market flexibility (such as Section 8 housing vouchers), public-private partnerships (such as housing corporations), and market incentives (such as Empowerment Zones that gave tax breaks to businesses locating in distressed communities).

Urban Policy Today

From the 1970s on, cities faced enormous economic stress and competition that pushed them toward market-oriented strategies and technocratic public-policy management. Suburbanization had drained a sizable tax base from cities while leaving them with expensive infrastructure and social obligations. Cities like New York neared bankruptcy and were pushed into public-policy austerity. As capital became more mobile in a global economy, cities faced greater competition to attract investment and jobs. With few funds, cities turned to instruments like Tax Increment Financing, which effectively subsidized development using future tax income.

Overall, the lack of a national urban policy has fostered a technocratic approach to urban policy. The United States toyed with the idea of a national urban policy as far back as the New Deal and the concept has reared its head several times since, although LBJ’s Great Society was the closest we ever came to implementation. Despite creating a cabinet-level agency with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the United States, unlike most European countries, never outlined a comprehensive national urban policy.

After the Great Society, national urban policy disaggregated even more, with many areas—environmental, crime, education, among others—having a strong effect on cities even without an overarching strategy. The siloing of these policies fields has perpetuated the application of powerful technocratic systems. With narrower objectives, policy analysts can collect more and better data, build more complex models, and offer more sophisticated policy solutions. But this vigorous pursuit of narrow goals and efficiency often provides little reflection on the broader purpose that those goals are supposed to serve, or the values that these aims embody and, indeed, often obscure. Urban policy, like all policy, is power over people’s lives, and it must always be questioned for whom and what it serves.

Leif Fredrickson is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Virginia, focusing on environmental, technological, and policy history.  His dissertation, “Metropolitan Mindscapes,” analyzes how the urban environment has shaped the bodies and brains of people in Baltimore in the 20th century.

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The Millennials Are Coming, But Who Cares?

Ready or not, 80 million millennials are coming. Born between 1980 and 2000, the largest generation in American history is leaving home (or moving back in), and everyone is watching.

For some time now, cultural commentators across the web have been intent on understanding the inner life of millennials, however harrowing that might be. Through stories on their engagement with technology or work, the goal of most articles has been to predict Generation Y’s future impact. In fact, there have even been stories about stories on millennials. (With all the attention that millennials are garnering, I can see why, as one myself, some would label us narcissists.)


Through it all, one notable conversation follows the movement of millennials back to cities, a trend that has already received a great deal of press over the past year. Recently, Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times discussed a new report by City Observatory that highlights this urban migration:

As young people continue to spurn the suburbs for urban living, more of them are moving to the very heart of cities — even in economically troubled places like Buffalo and Cleveland. The number of college-educated people age 25 to 34 living within three miles of city centers has surged, up 37 percent since 2000, even as the total population of these neighborhoods has slightly shrunk.

Depending on the perspective, commentary varies on the social implications. Some fear for the displacement of the urban poor through gentrification. Others worry that this shift will mark the last gasp in the protracted death of the small town. Transportation experts wonder if the millennials’ lack of interest in driving means the death of the car culture. Yet the bulk of the dialogue centers on the potential economic boom in the form of innovative products, new business, and the consumer power that millennials could bring to their cities. Again Miller:

“There is a very strong track record of places that attract talent becoming places of long-term success,” said Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard and author of “Triumph of the City.” “The most successful economic development policy is to attract and retain smart people and then get out of their way.” For every college graduate who takes a job in an innovation industry, five additional jobs are eventually created in that city, such as for waiters, carpenters, doctors, architects and teachers.

Following Richard’s Florida’s creative class argument, cities are encouraged to do what they can to attract young people to neighborhoods by providing amenities such as coffee shops, bars, bookstores, restaurants, organic grocery stores, condos, and even new forms of transportation. Or as The Atlantic’s Citylab puts it, cities should aim to look like Brooklyn.

Certainly, part of a city’s attractiveness are its cultural offerings, and capitalizing on them makes economic sense. Yet, focusing on Generation Y’s consumption patterns biases the conversation. First, the millennials that cities want are primarily understood as educated, mobile consumers with ample disposable income. They are not to be confused with Jen Silva’s working class young adults who are often jobless, isolated, and nominally educated—a group that does not fit neatly into the prevailing economic narrative surrounding urban revival.

Second, the urban condition largely becomes a matter of lifestyle or taste, a habitation predicated on the individual’s drive for self-actualization. Cities themselves, as urban historian Lewis Mumford frames it, “become consumable, indeed expendable.” Catering to the wallets of urban millennials reinforces the notion that fulfillment is largely about gratification or self-actualization via commercial consumption. Robert Bellah in his book Habits of the Heart labeled this cultural motif as expressive individualism—the desire not for self-disciplined material acquisition but the endless experience of novelty and technological wizardry. Not surprisingly, experiences for millennials matter more than the typical American dream of a house in the suburbs.

Once the millennials have arrived, the challenge for city leaders is to find ways to engage these new denizens as citizens as much as consumers. Collectively tackling tough urban issues like broken schools, equitable access to healthy food, and growing inequality requires strong civic involvement. Historically, institutions such as churches, volunteer organizations, and business societies facilitated this action. But with the decline of religious affiliation and even volunteerism among the young, what institutions will fill in the gap?

Fortunately, the dynamism of cities can facilitate the remaking of social bonds and groups—a phenomenon explored here on Common Place—and, in general, millennials do possess tremendous energy, creativity, and a strong desire to help others. Yet, will those emerging bonds be created by consumerism and individual desires, as the current conversation seems to suggest, or will millennials coalesce around a commitment to place and the common good?

At the same time, we millennials will need to reckon with our own values and desires. Granted, we are known to be socially aware and more tolerant of other lifestyles, as fellow writer Hannah Seligson notes:

Millennials might care a great deal about their own happiness, but they also care about other people’s well-being—considerably more than previous generations did. We are far less homophobic, sexist, and racist than our parents and grandparents. We are the generation that played a critical role in electing the first African-American president, and most of us believe gay marriage is a right that shouldn’t be denied to same-sex couples. Having grown up surrounded by so much racial diversity, those under 30 are emerging to be the most colorblind in U.S. history—nine in 10 18- to 29-year-olds say they approve of interracial dating and marriage, compared with 73 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds.

Through my own experience, my peers often speak of our generation’s commitment to social justice and equity, and I do know many people my age doing great work. Yet can tolerance motivate us to assume the kind of long-term commitment that cities need to face their most pressing problems? We are, after all, the generation that is fueling the rise of a form of libertarianism that valorizes the individual above all.

Whether the demographic trends are good or bad, millennials are going to continue to flock to cities. Cities should be doing what they can to welcome and encourage us while preparing for the inevitable challenges. Significantly, they will need to figure out how to transform their new residents into an active citizenry.

Finally, as millennials join in on the urban dialogue happening across the country, we too will need assess our own commitments and make sure that all members of our generation— especially the ones stuck in broken systems—are included. Therefore, the pressing questions are not what we will buy or whether we will bring innovation, or even which cities will “win” the millennial sweepstakes. Rather, the most important question confronting us and our new communities is will we even care about them?

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Urban Policy: Part 2—Lessons for Small Towns

Navigating the Washington networks is fraught with difficulties. Although lobbyists are often characterized negatively, without their services those outside of the Beltway would be lost in the complexities of federal policy. Communities looking for government assistance or hoping to influence a particular policy need such experts. In fact, city leaders in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago maintain full-time offices of federal affairs in Washington just to keep an eye on measures that might affect their cities. But American metropolises are not the only ones vying for a piece of the federal pie.

Suppose a small city or town wants a grant to stimulate its economy. At my time at the Economic Development Administration (EDA) this summer, I was able to witness first-hand how a small Florida town tried to influence public policy in order to make its community more economically competitive. To do this, city officials hired a lobbyist who planned a trip to Washington for the mayor, city manager, and other high-level leaders. This lobbyist then put the city’s delegation in touch with well-placed employees at federal agencies such as the Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The lobbyist also scheduled meetings with the town’s Congressional delegation.

In talking with this lobbyist, I learned about other ways that municipal groups might share their concerns with Washington. For example, he suggested that city delegates might meet with representatives of the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, or other interest groups. In addition to their own lobbying efforts, these associations and interest groups also develop research that advances their goals—research that a city could adapt for its own needs. However, as my lobbyist friend pointed out, it is also important to find out who sits on the board for these groups and how much influence these individuals might have.

Cities might also try to persuade a foundation like the FordMacArthur or Rockefeller Foundation to pilot an innovative program in their communities. Lobbyists can provide assistance in contacting these foundations or putting city officials in touch with organizations like Living Cities—a philanthropic collaborative of 22 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions working to improve the well-being of cities.

In addition, cities might collaborate with trade groups and unions such as the National Home Builders AssociationAmerican Trucking Association, and United Transportation Union. Even though these groups may have different goals, their expertise can grant city officials access to resources and information that offers a better way to influence public policy outcomes.

Think tanks such as the Brookings InstitutionCenter for American Progress, and the Urban Institute also play a critical role in shaping the public-policy conversation. Through research and white papers, think tanks aim to inform and influence policy-makers and government leaders. In addition to their original research, think tanks often collaborate with academics and build on their ideas. Brookings’s well known urban-policy book, Metropolitan Revolution, applies many ideas from the Harvard Business School Professor and management guru Michael Porter to its own case studies.

In fact, the EDA is partnering with Porter to develop a Cluster Mapping Tool for communities. Similarly, EDA is working with a team of professors at Indiana University to create statistical tools known as Stats America to aide in economic development. Last summer, developers from both Harvard and Indiana University provided training sessions at EDA and the Brookings Institution to familiarize high-level staff with these new tools. Department of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has featured Cluster Mapping and Stats America in her recent speeches.

While EDA and the Department of Commerce support innovative public policy, they are also concerned with the political optics of assisting communities. That is, EDA dedicates a substantial amount of its time making Congress  aware of the benefits its grants and programs make to their home states. Talking with EDA officials who have worked under several administrations, I learned about their frustration over how the agency’s priorities and public policy have shifted with prevailing political currents. Too often, they told me, the EDA’s grant-making process serves as little more than a photo opportunity to burnish the administration’s image.

While working with lobbyists and meeting some of the District players is important, shaping policy in Washington basically comes down to money. It may make us uncomfortable, but money and policy ideas often have a symbiotic relationship. Foundations invest in ideas that they believe work or show promise.  At the same time, these same ideas might have been accompanied by monetary contributions to the foundation itself. The same is true for think tanks, trade groups, and associations like the National League of Cities, to name one group, who also rely on donors’ contributions.

The complexities of Washington and the role of money mean, for example, that the small town from Florida must find a different way to influence public policy. Engaging Washington can’t (and shouldn’t) be avoided, but trying to find a path through increasingly complex policy issues and protocols can be discouraging. Cities are learning that collaborating at the local and regional level is a more advantageous way to shape their communities for the better. Cooperation allows cities to pool their resources and influence in order to implement innovative solutions that might not otherwise be possible. The federal government recognizes this, too. While at EDA, I sat in on several meetings between small towns and senior EDA officials. The advice that I heard most often? “Have you tried working with your neighbor?”

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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