Author Archives: Guest Blogger

The Power of Play in the Public Square

Photos courtesy of Eline ‘s Gravemade,

Above and below: Scenes from the Place de la République games kiosk, Paris; photo courtesy of Eline‘s Gravemade,

Paris is a city of grand projects. Its landmarks—the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysées, and Notre Dame cathedral—are massive public works of the grandest order. Designed by Frank Gehry, the newest museum in Paris cost $130 million and, while it is a private venture of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, it’s indicative of the scale of this market. That “pop-up beach” on the banks of the Seine each summer? Price tag: $2 million.

That’s why it was so gratifying to see, on a visit to Paris last year, a fantastic urban project that cost the city very little, but has produced big results. The Place de la République is one of the city’s most beloved public squares, presided over by a colossal statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic. (This statue was in the news recently, serving as the gathering place for those who marched after the Charlie Hebdo shootings.) The square, historically important as a place of protests large and small, has gone through several iterations in the last century and a half. For much of that time, it was a busy traffic circle with isolated park benches and walkways only reachable by dodging cars and motorcycles. In 2013, the city completed a costly renovation of the square, shifting the balance from two-thirds roadways to two-thirds pedestrian space. Cars have been pushed out to the edges of the three sides, with the rest as pavement interrupted only by benches, trees, and, of course, a cafe.

That sounds rather barren, but it is anything but. The architecture firm TVK wanted to preserve the full use of the square’s acreage without disrupting traffic flow or preventing groups from gathering under Marianne’s raised olive branch. The new square includes an attractive glass-walled cafe and an inviting “fountain,” where kids are free to play or ride bikes through the half inch of water covering the paving stones. In the evenings, the water is turned off, opening the space for strolling and weekend dances. The other side of the long square is a favorite place for skateboarding, which is wildly popular in Paris at the moment. The square is also wide enough to accommodate flâneurs, cyclists, or those hurrying to the underground République Métro station below the square.

Photo courtesy of Eline ‘s Gravemade,

Photo courtesy of Eline‘s Gravemade,

Also popular in the square is a games kiosk called “L’R de Jeux” (a play on the French word for playground). For me, it is the pièce de résistance. On first glance, it appears to be one of Paris’s ubiquitous newsstands or snack vendors. But this is a different kind of kiosk, one that stocks a surprisingly large selection of games and toys. Leave your name, address, and ID and pick up puzzles, card games, pull toys, or building sets. Or just walk up and enjoy the pile of Legos or the housekeeping corner. Staff people will show you how a board game is played or help you find an opponent if you need one. And yes, it’s all free.

So, the city provides a large stock of sturdy toys for all ages, an extremely safe, public place to play, conveniently located at the intersection of five Métro lines, an abundance of tables and chairs, and a small staff. What does Paris get in return?

People of all ages and classes congregate in the square. I believe it’s critical that there is no cost to play. Some users could afford a day trip to a museum, while others have very few toys in their own homes. Moreover, the nature of play makes it easy for cultures and nationalities to mingle. Chinese and Senegalese Parisians may shop in different grocery stores, but here they play the same games, regardless of their language proficiency. As my non-French-speaking son can attest, language is seldom a barrier when there’s a great game in progress. Other, perhaps more insurmountable barriers, like politics or religion, may be set aside by adults in need of a chess partner.

I don’t want to overstate what happens at the games kiosk. Without it, the square will still be criss-crossed by thousands daily, a few of whom will sit at the park benches or order at the cafe. But the presence of toys and games changes the character of the space. Suddenly it welcomes families, and friends of families; it speaks to our love of play and recreation. We’re not just using this space, we’re enjoying it. There is a huge benefit to introducing a palpable measure of regular happiness to the environment we already inhabit. Such feelings are a key element in neighborhood pride.

These payoffs spring from a simple but original idea. “Toy libraries” are not uncommon even in the United States, but they usually lend out toys to be taken home, reinforcing existing family relationships. The public nature of the games kiosk, on the other hand, introduces spontaneity and connectivity, putting pleasure and discovery on display.

While the Paris games kiosk may not succeed in every city, it’s the kind of idea that can be almost infinitely adapted: offer people a place to share musical instruments, art supplies, design tools, or kitchen equipment. Or take it in another direction and focus on the public spaces already in use by pedestrians or vendors or protestors. Are we missing low budget, high impact opportunities for positive civic interactions in these public spaces? How can we better utilize the common spaces that we already populate or are passing through regularly? If such spaces don’t exist, can we tinker with transit routes to make them happen? What would be the payoffs?

And what are the costs of not pushing these connections to happen?

Wendy Baucom is a recent transplant to Charlottesville from Durham, North Carolina. She has a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and currently volunteers at Central Virginia Restorative Justice.

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The Role of Faith Communities in the Flourishing City

This entry is part of Common Place’s  Faith in the City series.


Faith communities, their ministries and programs, and their congregants play a vital role in the health and vibrancy of our cities. These communities are full of people who want to contribute to their city’s success and flourishing. After all, charity toward those less fortunate is one of the ways the faithful are called on to act in a community. But what does it mean for the faithful to contribute to the successful flourishing of a city?

There are as many answers to this question as there are faith communities. For example, on  Instagram, I’ve witnessed suburban churches that mobilize their volunteers to drive to the “inner city” and help paint over graffiti or plant flowers in a playground. I’ve also watched volunteers show hospitality by distributing water bottles with a church’s business card as a way to invite strangers to worship services.

Good intentions are plentiful in faith communities, but how do we know that the good faith efforts in which we engage are actually helping those around us? Do our efforts reach those most in need? It is not enough for religious organizations and their volunteers to declare their love of a city without first considering the subtleties of the surroundings in which they live.

In her groundbreaking 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs investigated what social workers learned by talking with residents of a housing project in East Harlem. She learned that the social workers found that the tenants were indifferent to the physical condition of their apartments and the buildings overall. Crime was rampant and there was almost no evidence of neighbors caring for one another. In fact, the tenants hated the project housing. Why?

Tenants complained that the urban planners and architectural designers had built the projects without considering the context of the community. The non-native “experts” did not understand how the community functioned and their efforts essentially created an environment of isolation—segregating the residents from the social fabric of the surrounding neighborhood.

Even though the professional planners had good intentions, they were, in Jacobs’s eyes, too focused on rationalism and the City Beautiful tenets of orthodox urbanism. “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder,” Jacobs noted, “and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretend order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” Jacobs contended that in order to achieve a sense of thriving in a community, leaders must work first to understand the complexity of their communities—when it comes to urban planning, one size doesn’t fit all.

Faith-based organizations seeking to improve life in their cities may fall prey to this same “meaner quality.” A call to action is not enough. True affection for the city requires a virtue which David Brooks calls “epistemological modesty”—the ability to remain humbly open to the input and influence of others to ensure the best possible result in a given plan of action. In order to discern the needs of the city, faith communities should first learn about the history of the city and its residents, connect with those residents, and activate a communal call to collaborative improvement. How does the city work? How are decisions made? What are the benefits and consequences of the built environment within the principal city?

Questions like these have driven my interest in the Thriving Cities Project (TCP). By focusing on the history, culture, and institutional interconnections of a city, the Project allows practitioners and faith leaders to understand both the assets and the intricacies of a city. Further, TCP’s recognition of social connectivity highlights the ways all neighborhoods, ethnic groups, and faith communities collectively contribute to the common good.

Religious organizations must begin by building relationships with those outside of their immediate communities. As author and pastor Jay Pathak suggests, get to know the neighbors around where you live and worship. According to John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, leaders should also learn how to leverage the assets and strengths of a neighborhood by creating strong, multilayered networks of trust. When trust is established, religious groups will have a solid basis for long-term transformation in their cities.

Developing these networks of trust is also key. Working collaboratively, the members of the network may develop a plan of action. But don’t be daunted by the “tyranny of the urgent.” The realization of urban improvement plans may take years. When we as faith communities commit to learn all we can, to connect with each other, and to activate our networks for long-term change, we take meaningful steps toward realizing the flourishing and thriving of our cities.

Chris Meekins is a doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary who is interested in urban planning and the American Church. He is currently working with Mission Columbus to bring the Thriving Cities Project to Columbus, Ohio.

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Reflecting on “Data” and “Big Data” for Cities

The supercomputer Arctur-1, 2012.

The supercomputer Arctur-1, 2012. By Arctur (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Part 4 of the series Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data 

Given the rapid pace of city growth and the concurrent demand for better infrastructure and services, pressure on city leaders and managers to make smart policy and planning decisions around investment has never been greater. Limited public budgets, demands for open participatory government, and aging and deteriorating infrastructure also add to the complexities of achieving prosperous, sustainable, resilient, and inclusive cities. This increasingly complex planning environment is driving the demand for data on cities.

The massive collecting and sorting of information known as Big Data is responding to this need and becoming a necessary and useful tool for city leaders. However, in order to create broader knowledge of cities, Big Data must be contextualized and complemented by standardized and comparative city metrics, driven by demand of city leaders themselves. Standardized indicators reported by cities, such as those in the new international standard ISO 37120 Sustainable Development of Communities – Indicators for City Services and Quality of Life are needed to provide a more complete picture of city performance to inform decision making.

ISO 37120 was published in May 2014 by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISO 31720 defines and establishes methodologies for a comprehensive set of indicators that will enable any sized city in a developed or developing economy to track and measure its social, economic, and environmental performance in relation to other cities.

Standardized indicators can help reframe the Bent Flyvbjerg question—“where we are going?”—to “where ought we be going?” For cities, standardized indicators are important for benchmarking, guiding investments, and tracking progress. Cities are positioned to benefit from this type of data precisely because standardization of data enables city-to-city learning and the exchange of best practices, and data also empowers citizens by making them more informed about their city’s service delivery, with the end goal of improving quality of life.

ISO 37120 represents a critical shift in thinking when it comes to city data. It provides cities and stakeholders with a standardized approach and a global framework for third party verification of city data.

Noah Toly points to an example from Anthony Townsend on how Big Data helped to locate residents in Chicago who were vulnerable to extreme weather events. While Toly points out that Big Data may be able to provide this type of information, he argues that it is less likely to inform decision makers on why these people are vulnerable and what should be done to mitigate their risk. This is where standardized metrics can complement Big Data by helping to track the impact and readiness of cities to respond to extreme weather events and other risks. For this reason, in addition to ISO 37120, another standard for indicators on urban resilience is now being considered by the ISO. Risk and resilience indicators reported by cities will complement and in fact inform Big Data on risk from extreme weather events and track how neighborhoods will be impacted.

The first ever certification system and Global Registry for ISO 37120 has been developed by the World Council on City Data (WCCD). The WCCD, launched in May 2014 at the Global Cities Summit in Toronto, has been established to take this critical data agenda forward. The organization is coordinating all efforts on city data to ensure a consistent and comprehensive platform for standardized urban metrics through ISO 37120 and future standards under development.

Back to the question at hand: Big Data can be a tool for government. However, with regards to the concerns that Toly raises, it should not be the only tool. Big Data should be one of many datasets that cities turn to in order to ensure that cities are in fact headed in the right direction when it comes to sustainable planning for the future.

Patricia McCarney is President and CEO of the World Council on City Data (WCCD), and a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Global Cities Institute (GCI) at the University of Toronto.

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Harnessing Big Data to Democratic Ends

Seattle skyline at night, 2002. Wikimedia Commons.

Seattle skyline at night, 2002. Wikimedia Commons.

Part 3 of the series Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data 

It’s easy to be afraid of Big Data. (Like Big Brother or Big Tobacco, it’s coming for us).  It’s even easier to be excited about it. As Noah Toly noted in his recent posts on Common Place, the same qualities of Big Data can inspire both utopian dreams and dystopian fears. But what can Big Data do for–or to–democracy?

In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) called for governments and NGOs to “develop and identify indicators of sustainable development in order to improve the information basis for decision-making at all levels.” The hope was to craft new, large-scale statistical resources that would help assess and craft policies. The UNCED’s goal was twofold: first, to “bridge the data gap” that exists at all levels of government on key environmental and economic issues; second, to improve “information availability” in order to assure that data be accessible to all decision makers and managed securely and openly.  UNCED hoped not only to improve elite decision making but also to democratize sustainable development practices.

The data the UNCED proposed to track would serve democracy in a “broad sense, ” helping  individuals and institutions at both the international and grassroots levels to engage with the pressing questions of our time. But while obviously helpful to the functioning of democratic societies, these large-scale statistical measures also present problems for them.  For example, elites can use such data to support what  appear to be their interests alone—a truth borne out by metrics such as GDP, which can be used to monitor and inform the economic power of the wealthy without reflecting the well-being of the population as a whole.

Indeed, assorted measurements and data have long been used by governments and political elites to  control populations, going back to the first efforts by monarchs to require  thorough census data on their  subjects. As political scientist and anthropologist James Scott shows in Seeing Like a State, the transparency that statistical measures give to complex political phenomena can also make citizens more “legible” to, and thus controllable by, political elites. Big Data thus not only abets surveillance, but can also also bring the politically “illegible” into the fold by forcing their normalization.

Then, too, Big Data can be used to assert the sufficiency of statistical fact, thereby sometimes curtailing robust or fully informed demoractic debate. Take recent partisan arguments  pitting economic stimulus against austerity. Neither side is prepared to engage in a conversation over the data itself. Both sides claim to be in possession of the facts, the left asserting that stimulus will lead to sustained economic growth, the right that austerity is the only route to the same destination. In this case, as in others, conversations beginning with the assertion of absolute facts tend to end either in stalemate (as in recent debates about the federal budget in America) or with technocracy, where the statistician is favored over and against the popular will of people (as with Italy’s Monti government).

Can we have the benefits of Big Data without the drawbacks? Is there a way to harness the democratic power of information  while also promoting democratic open-mindedness and popular empowerment? The work of geographer Meg Holden, who studied the development and implementation of a regional environmental impact index called Sustainable Seattle (S2), is useful here. Holden’s study of S2 shows how  complex phenomena such as urban sustainability and climate change can be made subjects of political debate through statistical measures.

Holden shows that grassroots attention to indicator development and application allowed the S2 project to bridge existing learning gaps between local politics and dispersed economic, ecological, cultural, and institutional phenomena. Rather than shifting knowledge of large-scale phenomena outside democratic debate, S2 promoted “social learning.” Residents of Seattle could (and did) use its findings to promote better  democratic debates.

The demands S2 placed on its developers were many. Among other things, they had to become statistical experts in indicator development while finding measurements that meaningfully correlated to ecological questions. They had to be marketers who could advertise their project and findings to their community. And finally, they had to lobby in support of their findings in order to have an impact on local politics. While Holden shows that S2 was imperfect, the responsiveness of its developers to broad public concerns makes it a model for those hoping to  to harness Big Data for democratic ends.

Above all, the S2 project leaders recognized the limits of Big Data. Its developers acknowledged the imperfect nature and sources of data, the limitations inherent in its processing, the necessity of packaging findings, and the need to bring findings to all audiences and institutions. In the long run, such chastened optimism and humility may prove to be the most helpful lessons  of all.

Callum Ingram is a graduate student in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. His dissertation research focuses on the use of urban space and architecture by democratic social movements.

Editor’s note: For more on this topic, subscribe to receive the spring issue of The Hedgehog Review, “Too Much Information.”

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Why Cities Need More than Big Data

Part 2 of the series Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data 

According to some proponents of Big Data Urbanism, data and powerful computational techniques will domesticate urbanization and transform our cities into responsive devices. For them, we stand at the edge of a new era. Demographic trends—for the first time in history, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas—coincide with the development of hitherto unknown technical capabilities to usher in a new techno-urban age. As Anthony Townsend writes, given the coincidence of urbanization and technological advances, Big Data “will be an immanent force that pervades and sustains our urban world.” But what, exactly, can we expect from Big Data? Can it be harnessed for the pursuit of thriving urban communities and, if so, how?

Some proponents of Big Data Urbanism sound utopian notes. As Adam Greenfield notes in his study of “Smart Cities,” plans to develop New Songdo (Korea), Masdar (United Arab Emirates), and PlanIT Valley (Portugal) tout the power of Big Data to coordinate “the moment-to-moment flow of [experiences]…by nothing less than a unified Urban Operating System that, at least in theory, manages the interactions of every connected space, vehicle, device and garment in the city,” with the goal of creating “the ultimate lifestyle and work experience.” While this utopian strain is especially evident in proposals to build Smart Cities from whole cloth, much of the rhetoric surrounding Big Data suggests it will also work similar miracles for existing cities.

While Big Data Urbanism finds support in various corners—planners, policy makers, IT professionals, and corporate leaders—there are also its detractors. For privacy advocates, uneasy about our willingness to generate and to surrender personal information, Big Data is the enemy. Others worry that the technological infrastructure supporting Big Data may be used systematically to curb liberties, either through the subtle nudges of revised choice architecture or, as Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin suggests, by an emerging surveillance state. Still others fear that the integration of Big Data into every aspect of urban life exposes us to catastrophic risks through cyber-warfare and cyber-crime. The same technologies used to collect information and manage urban life may be hacked by foreign governments. In November 2014, the U.S. National Security Agency revealed that hackers from China, Russia, and Iran have gained access to the critical infrastructure for distribution of energy and water. Likewise, these technologies may be used by criminal elements to nefarious ends.


Recent console-gaming hit Watch Dogs dramatized this last concern. Set in a dystopian future Chicago, Watch Dogs gives us the story of Aiden Pearce, a hacker who gains control over the city’s “centralized operating system,” turning the entire city into a weapon in his vigilante efforts to avenge his niece’s death. He goes on a revenge spree, using the city’s Big Data capabilities against his enemies and exposing a dark side of the city-as-device conceit at the heart of so much Big Data hype.

The promise and the peril of Big Data Urbanism may be much more mundane than suggested by either utopian proposals or Watch Dogs, but mundane doesn’t mean meaningless. Townsend recounts a tantalizing number-crunching example where a Chicago-based team of analysts “cross-referenced Meals on Wheels delivery logs with the city’s own tax records to generate a map of elderly living alone” so that the city could “start to build up a list of people that need to be checked on during heat and cold emergencies.” Finding and helping those who are exceptionally vulnerable to extreme weather events should be a priority, and Big Data can help us with that.

However, while Big Data can help us to locate people at risk during meteorological emergencies, it is less likely to help us know why broad swaths of our cities—for instance, entire neighborhoods—are more likely to suffer in the midst of those events. And while cunning criminal networks may colonize this new urban infrastructure, it is more likely that Big Data will colonize our sense of how we know a city and how we pursue thriving cities. Its approach both reflects and reinforces a vision of urban life in which more and better information is the key to thriving urban communities. In fact, both proponents and detractors of Big Data Urbanism put information at the center of their vision for our urban future. Either we need more and better information to flourish or that same information will put us at greater risk.

But the pursuit of thriving cities is not primarily concerned with information-gathering. Rather, it is focused primarily upon practical judgment. As Bent Flyvbjerg suggests such reasoning in urban affairs should ask four questions:

  • Where are we going?
  • Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?
  • Is this desirable?
  • What should be done?

This approach has room for gathering and analyzing data. But it privileges other modes of inquiry that illuminate hidden assumptions and embedded judgments. Unfortunately, when we expect too much of Big Data, we truncate the range of our inquiry. An over-reliance on data collapses Flyvbjerg’s four questions into one: Where are we going?

If our thinking about cities is reduced to this one question—if we ask over and over only “Where are we going?”—it should come as no surprise that Big Data advocates would need a new, more expansive, and increasingly expensive digital infrastructure for answering questions about urban life. Their focus is not Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data, but Thriving Data in a World of Big Cities.

This question also enervates our agency vis-à-vis urban life. The push for Big Data may give us a better sense of where we are going but a poorer sense of how to get there. Thus we get more of the same—not the city of tomorrow but the city of yesterday with the sensors of tomorrow. In the end, Big Data is less likely to deliver on utopian promises and more likely just to help deliver our pizza faster.


It’s a cyberpunk mashup of old and new: old class tensions and new sensors, old race relations and new displays, old environmental challenges and new analyses. What’s worse, this approach can actually mask and even reinforce values, tensions, and power relationships that are always operative in our urban communities. By truncating the range of inquiry into cities, we conceal the pluralistic dimensions of urban life, we diminish our expectation of conflict, and we cheapen the meaning of cooperation and collaboration.

Certainly, Big Data can be a useful tool for thriving cities. By helping us answer the essential question, “Where are we going?” it can help us formulate efficient responses when we ask what should be done. But in order to properly contextualize these questions and harness their answers for good, we will need at least three things.

First, here are the questions we need to ask about Big Data before we can bring Big Data to bear upon the city: In the world of Big Data, who wins and who loses, and by what mechanisms of power? Is this desirable? Finally, what should be done? How should Big Data intersect with urban life?

Second, we will need a vision of thriving urban communities that can inform our use of Big Data from the very beginning. Big Data can’t tell us how to collect data, nor to whom we should make data available and how. It can’t tell us how we should govern data, nor how we should respond to the data we collect. If we’re to answer the question, “Is this desirable?,” we must prize the practical judgment and value-rationality that so many Big Data enthusiasts and detractors seem to ignore.

Third, we will need to bring to the surface diverse visions of what a thriving urban community looks like. Big Data can help us with measuring, rating, ranking relationships between variables, like food insecurity and educational outcomes. But there will be a plurality of potentially legitimate, but not self-justifying, responses to any such information. Urban life is indelibly marked by such pluralism. Big Data can help us to understand these tensions only by not masking their reality and importance.

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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Thinking About Homelessness (Without Thinking About Poverty)

Why are people homeless? It seems like a complex question, involving systemic, environmental, and personal considerations, but I would offer it has a clear and simple answer: Because they don’t have a home.

Such tautologies can reveal hidden assumptions, make us aware of our own thinking. My blatant endorsement of circular reasoning is in good company (at least for the time being). Within high-functioning homeless systems of care nationwide, this truism is now considered best practice. I briefly want to speak to why this is the case and how, in particular, it relates to discussions of poverty.

First, why. Behind the tautology lies an approach to homelessness called Housing First. Housing First states that homelessness is a housing crisis and therefore should be addressed, without stipulation or barrier, precisely through housing. This approach distinguishes between “housing” and “emergency shelter.” If someone is staying in emergency shelter, they are still considered homeless according to the federal definition. While housing-based solutions to homelessness have fallen in and out favor since the 80s, the traditional approach to homelessness in our country has been shelter-based intervention.

The Haven building

The Haven is a multi-purpose day shelter and social resource center located in downtown Charlottesville, VA. Credit: Melinda Ginda

The logic of such shelter-based intervention is to provide a roof and a meal first so that individuals and families do not suffer from exposure and hunger—and then expand, if possible, beyond subsistence to include programming such as financial literacy, employment assistance, mental health and substance abuse treatment, adult education, and child care. This thinking makes sense. You have a “captive audience.” Why not make good on it?

The trouble arises when the expanded programming begins to overshadow, and even define, the basic problem of homelessness. Sadly, what often happens over time is that the very programs meant to alleviate the crisis obscure it and can even serve to habituate someone to homelessness. Housing First thus endeavors to keep the basic problem—namely, the housing crisis—at the forefront of the conversation.

Homelessness is a crisis (not to mention a form of trauma); preventing and ending the crisis should be the priority. We can make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring by providing the right amount of the right intervention at the right time.

A quick snapshot of the national and local numbers surrounding homelessness brings the issue into clear relief. Kaki Dimock, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Coalition for the Homeless, writes:

 The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that it costs $40,000 a year to maintain a person in homelessness. A local study suggests that regional costs are closer to $26,000 a year in overnight and day shelter, police contact and arrest, jail, EMS response, local social services, and medical costs. It simply makes sense to house an individual or family experiencing homelessness: it is less expensive and it pays significant dividends. Households that have been housed use Medicaid-eligible services 60% less frequently, even when their behavioral or physical health issues have not been addressed. Having addressed the housing crisis, most households can manage their exacerbating issues without additional assistance.

The why of Housing First stages the how. How does a housing-based approach to homelessness relate to the larger issues of poverty? By keeping them discrete. Simply put, solving homelessness does not and cannot involve solving poverty—not at first. Solve the crisis, then help the individual or family connect to community and mainstream resources. The many horizons of poverty are best addressed once the housing crisis is managed. For example, consider the issue of a healthy night’s sleep; within the homeless population, insomnia is arguably endemic. Insomnia endangers one’s physical, psychological, and emotional wellbeing. How can someone find, and sustain, gainful employment under those circumstances? When we conflate the crises of homelessness and poverty, we risk entangling our clients in the safety net.

Perhaps we will never completely solve homelessness, but I do think we can create responsive, fast-acting, collaborative systems of care. We can build systems in which individuals and families are diverted from our traditional institutions of care before they ever become homeless, in which there is no wrong door to stable housing, in which we truly make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring.

Stephen Hitchcock is the director and chaplain of The Haven, a low-barrier day shelter and housing and social resource center in downtown Charlottesville, VA.

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The City of Big Data—Is It Enough?

Part 1 of the series Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data 

During 2013, 6,922,484 tweets originated in Chicago. That same year, members of the city’s Divvy bike-sharing program logged 750,000 rides and 633,647 callers reported abandoned vehicles, potholes, and rodent infestation through the city’s 311 program. These numbers represent just a fraction of all of the data collected in, by, and about Chicago last year. So I learned at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s exhibition, “Chicago: City of Big Data,” which allows visitors to discover the role of information technology in cities by interacting with data on urban life at the individual, block, and city levels.

2009-09-18 3060x1020 chicago skyline.jpg
2009-09-18 3060×1020 chicago skyline” by J. Crocker – J. Crocker. Via Wikimedia Commons

During my visit, I also explored my “personal data trail,” a record of online purchases, social media engagement, and movement. After analyzing my average monthly bike-sharing use, music and movie streaming, online purchases, and social media use, a computer told me that I am a “Power User” whose data trail is highly valued by public and private interests alike: “You are the Alpha of the data pack. You rely on your digital devices, generating and consuming data likes it’s your job. Much of your data trail is visible to anyone who’s interested.”

As it happens, a lot of people are interested. In terms of marketing, my data is worth about five hundredths of a penny. That may not sound like much, but to public agencies in Chicago, my data aggregated with that of others can help improve the delivery of city services. It turns out that tweets and bike-share rides are rich in information that can help city agencies become more responsive and efficient.

The Array of Things

Visitors to the exhibit also saw examples of data collection infrastructure specially manufactured for the urban environment. The Array of Things is a network of sensors shielded by hardened enclosures, wrapped in protective composite tubing, and attached to city light posts. Touted as a “new urban infrastructure,” the AoT may prove to be as vital to a thriving urban future as highways, bridges, and power supplies. When completed, the AoT will collect data on temperature, humidity, light, precipitation, wind, vibration, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, volatile organic compounds, sulfur oxides, and particulate matter. Along with these environmental indicators, the sensors will analyze ambient noise and the number of Bluetooth and WiFi-enabled mobile devices within a certain radius. Eventually, the data could be used to target the application of road salt during winter weather and to help pedestrians identify the safest routes home.

“Chicago: City of Big Data” also demonstrated how city planners and architects combine “sophisticated computer models with growing pools of data” to discover and elucidate patterns that might otherwise remain unknown or opaque. These patterns can inform urban design and policy, as well as assist in building more sustainable, equitable, and efficient cities. According to the 2014 Chicago Council on Global Affairs Emerging Leaders Perspectives report, The Emerging Power of Big Data: The Chicago Experience, big data can lead to reliable and sustainable energy, predictable and efficient public transit, successful and accountable education, and targeted and effective law enforcement.

The use of data in urban design, planning, and policy is nothing new. In Chicago, especially, data collection has a long history. In the months leading up to the 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition, architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham, the fair’s lead planner, collected vast amounts of information regarding land and water-based transportation in an effort to make the fair as accessible and profitable as possible. In every corner of the world, cities have used data for planning and design. How tall must bridges be to accommodate boat traffic, how many high-school students graduate in a certain district? What are the links between poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness? How many tourists vacation in the city? How many pilgrims visit and venerate a holy site? Cities use such information to learn from the past, respond to the present, and plan for the future.

So what is new about the use of data in urban planning, policy, and design? Unlike in the past, we now have access to an unprecedented stream of data; information that is rapidly available and of mind-boggling variety. We also now have the ability to study massive data pools for relationships that hadn’t previously been visible. In addition, we can employ tools such as cluster analysis and other data mining techniques to discern patterns that we didn’t even know to look for before. Beyond the size, depth, and range of data, we now have even greater expectations of what we can learn from it. For some, the goal of Big Data is to make the whole city more responsive, giving us instant access to information we can hold in one hand, turning the city into a device. By harnessing big data, we suppose we may harness the power of urbanization and the city itself—a force with few rivals in history.

The City of the Big Shoulders

It is telling that the exhibition title, “City of Big Data,” riffs on one of Chicago’s most famous nicknames. Carl Sandburg dubbed Chicago the “City of the Big Shoulders” in his eponymous 1916 poem. Sandburg opens by addressing the city directly:

“Hog Butcher for the World
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders”

In its industrial heyday, the “City of the Big Shoulders” symbolized the gritty determination required to build a metropolitan giant from what author Donald L. Miller described as a “pestilential swamp.” Chicago has always had a reputation for swagger and resilience, returning even better after the devastating 1871 fire and outpacing competitors to land the 1893 World’s Fair. Becoming a railroad hub and transfer point for people and goods moving from the west to the east further enhanced the city’s fortunes—and its reputation. Sandburg captured Chicago’s confidence:

Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,

Sandburg sees Chicago as an ignorant young fighter who hadn’t yet tasted defeat—not a city that knows it can do anything, but a city that doesn’t yet know what it can’t do. What he identifies in the poem is a kind of naïveté that can be inspiring for cities, but one that can also lead to over-confidence and a tendency to overlook urban problems and limitations. After all, for all its industrial success, the City of the Big Shoulders has always been plagued by many forms of social ills.

Likewise, the City of Big Data may also experience over-confidence. This exhibition invited us to consider whether or not Big Data is any more promising than, so to speak, Big Shoulders. Is data-mining the key to flourishing urban communities? What, if anything, might Big Data contribute to a thriving urban future? And if Big Data alone is not enough, what more do we need?

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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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.

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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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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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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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