Author Archives: Stephen Assink

Confronting Climate Change, Rethinking the City

J.D. Irving Smoke Stacks. Tony Webster via Flickr.

J.D. Irving Smoke Stacks. Tony Webster via Flickr.

With the dust settling on the Paris climate talks and the difficult process of international negotiation over, the even harder process of confronting climate change begins. Unsurprisingly, transitioning to a less carbon-dependent economy and society will require sacrifice, hard work, open dialogue, and strict accountability—not to mention overcoming tremendously powerful economic structures and political opposition. Yet, tackling climate change is not only about conjuring up herculean strength or unleashing torrents of technological innovation. Rather, overcoming our carbon dependence should be seen as an opportunity to rethink for the better an institution largely shaped by and for fossil fuel: our cities.

For the past 100 years, urban life has been indelibly shaped by the ample consumption of carbon. Our dependence on the automobile can be traced back in part to Eisenhower’s 1956 Federal Highway Act, in which the American government at all levels—city, state, and federal— transformed the American urban landscape into one entirely dominated by concrete. Decades later, it is no surprise that the vast majority of the CO2 emitted by cities is caused by automobile use.

Around the same time as the Federal Highway Act, new land use policies were put in place that zoned cities into sections separated by their uses and densities. With federally backed mortgages making home ownership easy, the combination of these trends led to the exponential growth of suburbs, and along with it the demand for gasoline. Once compact, dense, and walkable, the American city today is sprawling and dispersed—and more dependent than ever on fossil fuel to sustain its infrastructure. Continue reading

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Who Is the Smart City for?


Aerial view of completed developments at Palava today

By 2025, more than a million families might call India’s Palava City home; via Wikimedia Commons.

Who doesn’t love a good dystopian thriller? With unforgettable characters and edge-of-your-seat chase scenes, these movies are entertaining, exciting, and extremely lucrative. From Blade Runner and The Matrix trilogy to Elysium and the Hunger Games series, these movies have defined our conception of a post-apocalyptic world. But the real power of this genre lies not in its special effects but in its creative baring of social tensions in futuristic megacities that today no longer look so far-fetched.

From lack of infrastructure to concentrated poverty, megacities—urban areas of 10 million or more people—present significant challenges for any local government. Concerns over social inequality have also long been a fixture of the discourse around megacities, especially so in India where there are six such metropolitan areas amid a culture defined by the hierarchies of the caste system. At the moment, however, the issue of urban exclusion in India is now coalescing around that nation’s burgeoning smart city movement.

Smart cities, according to the Indian government’s website, “are those cities which have smart (intelligent) physical, social, institutional, and economic infrastructure while ensuring centrality of citizens in a sustainable environment. It is expected that such a Smart City will generate options for all residents to pursue their livelihoods and interests meaningfully and with joy.” The impetus for India’s smart city building is largely urbanization demographics. Currently, 31 precent of India’s population is urban. That is projected to increase to 65 percent over the next decades. India has set a goal of 100 smart cities to meet the challenge of settling its growing urban migration in decent and humane ways.

Smart cities employ new technologies that integrate urban infrastructure with powerful data analytics, a trend has already hit Chicago, New York, and Rio de Janeiro, cities with significant investment in advanced urban technology. A goal of this movement as Noah Toly argues here on Common Place, “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.” Supported by powerful advocates such as Michael Bloomberg and companies such as IBM, smart cities are poised to become a dominant form of urban settlement in the twenty-first century.

Although most cities around the world are incorporating smart technology into the existing urban fabric, India aims to build its smart cities from scratch—thanks to more than $1.18 billion committed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The city of Palava is a prime example. Considered Mumbai’s sister city, Palava is the largest privately planned city in India. Through partnering with IBM, Palava will have cutting-edge technology that will help the city government guide and manage its population. Branded as a “city of opportunity,” Palava offers residents a community that boasts lush green spaces and immaculate apartments—according to its website, “Palava isn’t just a new place to live, it’s a new way to live.”

In a country where more than 300 million people live without electricity or access to basic services, smart cities, at least on paper, seem to offer a solution combining sound infrastructure and an improved quality of life. However, critics allege that smart cities will in fact exclude those most in need of what they offer. In a recent Guardian article, journalist Shruti Ravindran highlights the growing concerns about exclusion in India’s new smart cities. In particular, Ravindran points to recent comments made by Indian economist Laveesh Bhandari:

 In a monograph for a conference on smart cities in Mumbai in January, the economist and consultant Laveesh Bhandari described smart cities as “special enclaves” that would use prohibitive prices and harsh policing to prevent “millions of poor Indians” from “enjoying the privileges of such great infrastructure”. “This is the natural way of things,” he noted, “for if we do not keep them out, they will override our ability to maintain such infrastructure.” Bhandari’s bald statements sparked social-media pandemonium, and the economist is now at pains to assert he is far from uncritical of such plans.

In the United States, discourse on urban exclusion usually centers on affordable housing and how factors such as public policy or market forces have often resulted in limited availability. In India, the land sought for smart city construction could lead to the razing of poor districts, the forced removal of the poor, and their subsequent exclusion from new communities. As Ravindran reports, “Smart cities remain a key justification for a controversial land-acquisition ordinance the government is aiming to enact, which does away with mandatory consent and social safeguards for those whose lands are forcibly acquired.” Once built, smart cities could be “governed by powerful corporate entities that could override local laws and governments to ‘keep out’ the poor.” Ravindran notes that “To make sure that no one trespasses on its immaculate privatopia, Palava plans to issue its residents with ‘smart identity cards’, and will watch over them through a system of ‘smart surveillance’.”

Other critics have also warned of this potential for exclusion in smart cities. Well-known smart city critic Adam Greenfield poignantly asks, “What role will the citizen play [in the smart city]? Is the city-dweller best visualised as a smoothly moving pixel, travelling to work, shops and home again, on a colourful 3D graphic display? Or is the citizen rightfully an unpredictable source of obstreperous demands and assertions of rights?”

Like every other form of urban settlement, the smart city is a value-laden human creation enmeshed in cultural norms and political forces. Without hard work and attention to justice, this model could end up excluding those who would most benefit from it, or worse, divert funds from other distressed places. In India’s rush to transform, build, and even engineer entire new cities, critics are right to raise concerns about citizenship and access.

Even in US cities, especially places like Baltimore and Ferguson, we are confronting some of these same issues. In the same way India is wrestling with the social and ethical dynamics of the smart city, we need to equally be self-reflective about the ways we seek to improve our own cities. Every policy and plan for urban improvement need to be accompanied by difficult questions. And none are as pressing as the one confronting India at this moment: “Who is the smart city for?”

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The Triumph of the Farmers’ Market


Farmers’ market, Portland Oregon; by Peteforsyth (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nothing quite says springtime like a farmer’s table loaded with kale, mustard greens, and spinach. And with the arrival of warmer days, soon communities will be enjoying the benefits of fresh, locally grown produce. Though farmers’ markets are often criticized over affordability and exclusivity, the appetite for them has grown significantly. In 1994, there were 1,700 markets nationwide; now, there are more than eight thousand.

The proliferation of baby bok choy is indeed cause for praise. Markets help circulate dollars locally. More vegetables mean slimmer waistlines. And farmers’ markets can revitalize neighborhoods. These markets can also serve as a setting for what Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet,” a public space connecting people to each other. Their diverse functions—shopping, eating, or simply engaging neighbors—facilitate social interactions. In fact, the farmers’ market is unfortunately one of the few remaining civic places that facilitates such shared public encounters.

The decline of mixed public spaces can be traced back to the early twentieth century, when public officials began partitioning cities into areas based on functionality. At first, zoning was a public health initiative, especially in industrial cities plagued with unregulated pollution, rubbish disposal, and sewage handling. To keep factories and housing far apart, urban planners created restricted residential and industrial zones. However, a form of zoning logic, known as redlining, began to isolate populations of the city along lines of race and class. (The effects of redlining became more pronounced by the mid-twentieth century.) With the further help of the automobile and the suburbs, American cities became even more demographically and functionally divided.

Zoning has led to dispersed cities with low population densities, often with highly homogenized neighborhoods and voting districts. Political polarization between conservatives and liberals is geographical, not just cultural. Suburban sprawl may make it easier to live with (seldom encountered) difference, but it prevents a shared sense of identity and place.

Commercially speaking, zoning ended the traditional mixing of shops and homes, even making such mixed use illegal in most cities. The corner store disappeared and supermarkets and shopping centers appeared in other parts of town, supplemented by big-box retailers and malls in the suburbs. Increasingly, these private spaces have become places where customer behavior is scripted and highly monitored by data-driven retailers.  Although great for shopping, these homogenous spaces are ill-suited for fostering robust social interaction and local identity.

Farmers’ markets, on the other hand, operate under their own unique logic. As shared, fluid open spaces, they encourage novelty and flexibility. Vendors and wares come and go, customer traffic patterns are random and unscripted. These markets defy easy classification and regulation. According to the Project for Public Space, “Traditional public markets are about so much more than food. They are, like the cities that they support, about people. They are some of our most vital public spaces.”

The farmers’ market does not replace the local supermarket, but rather supplements it as a much-needed space for mediation and cohesion across communities inside and outside of the city. The vegetables grown at the farm down the road connect people to the particular nuances of their region. City markets represent an intersection between town and country. The urbanite and rustic become partners and purveyors in the same community. Ultimately, farmers’ markets make visible what has otherwise been rendered invisible by supply chains and clever marketing.

At the same time, it’s true that farmers’ markets reinforce social divisions. Community stakeholders, then, should stay attuned to the needs of the city and ensure that these markets remain open and equitable. While farmers’ markets won’t fix the polarization plaguing our cities, they do further the kind of communal spirit that is so often missing in urban locales. Our cities don’t just need farmers’ markets: They need more places like them.

Stephen Assink works for Thriving Cities Project. He also manages and curates the Common Place blog.

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Why the New Flows of Capital Matter for Cities

Prior to the rise of the car and the trucking industry, cities were the best places for investment. They provided access to markets through ports, rivers, and railroads. They had large pools of unskilled labor living near factories, and they were relatively dense making business easier for firms. Significantly, capital, the cultural sociologist Zygmunt Bauman claims, was “heavy” and enmeshed in place:

Routinized time tied labor to the ground, while the massiveness of the factory buildings, the heaviness of the machinery and, last but not least, the permanently tied labor ‘bonded’ the capital. Neither capital nor labor was eager, or able, to move.

Urban centers were hubs of industry, fostering, in the words of political scientist Douglas Rae, a “civic fauna.” The rich and the poor lived close together and intermingled by participating in common civic projects. Although hardly utopias—cities struggled with public health problems, pollution, and ethnic and racial antagonism—the flow of capital through cities created jobs and a rich cultural infrastructure. But as transportation and communication technology advanced, urban investment slowed, moving away from the expensive real estate and high taxes of the city toward greener pastures in the county. As a result, many cities over the last century experienced massive unemployment and high crime as populations followed the flow of capital to middle-class enclaves in the suburbs.

Yet, today, our cities again are seeing fresh investment due to new emerging economic sectors in knowledge and technology. Instead of building factories, investments in the burgeoning knowledge economy focus on human capital, innovation, and lighter technologies. These new sectors have resulted in job growth in software and pharmaceutical development, biotech, digital entertainment, and financial innovation, among other fields.

Urban centers are prime locations for these knowledge-based industries. The reason according to Professor Dana Silver is that “[Cities] spur innovation by facilitating face-to-face interaction, they attract talent and sharpen it through competition, they encourage entrepreneurship, and they allow for social and economic mobility.” As these sectors continue to grow, capital is again flowing back into cities. Yet, cities must recognize the form of capital has changed, and with that transformation there comes not only opportunities but also new challenges.

As labor shifted from working with machines and metal to generating new ideas and innovations, capital became highly mobile and disruptive—where once capital was “heavy,” it is now “light.” “The disembodied labor of the software era,” says Bauman, “no longer ties down capital: it allows capital to be extraterritorial, volatile, and fickle. Disembodiment of labor augurs weightlessness of capital.” The rapid movement of money allows a city to react quickly, investing in nascent tech industries. New, successful businesses can spring up overnight in seemingly any place.

However, even in an era of highly mobile capital, capital is not moving just anywhere, but to very specific destinations. Though the death of distance has long been heralded, place matters more than ever in the knowledge economy. Cities such as San Jose, San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C., Raleigh-Durham, Seattle, and Austin are places of intense knowledge-based economic growth. Each of these cities contains a cluster of similar high-tech industries that serve to reinforce the vitality of the region.

Although cities are again becoming important economic engines, their revival may not be evenly felt across the country. Innovation hubs take time to develop and certain areas have historical or geographic advantages. Silicon Valley, for example, owed much of its early growth to being the site of Cold War research and more than thirty years would pass before it became a world technology center.

As they attempt to harness this growth, smaller and less-established cities will discover some growing pains. They may experience something closer to what I found working at a successful education tech company. A decade after it was founded in a small city, the company was purchased by a private equity company. The investors moved the company to a larger, more innovative metropolitan area, laying off more than one hundred employees—a considerable blow to the local job market.

Innovation sectors require a highly educated and technological sophisticated population. Such a population takes vast resources to develop and will have potentially tremendous social consequences. As Tyler Cowen argues:

Th[e] imbalance in technological growth will have some surprising implications. For instance, workers more and more will come to be classified into two categories. The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage labor and market prospects are likely to be cheery. Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other. That’s why average is over.

The new flows of capital are not only changing cities economically, but also socially. In a Slate article, economist Robert Frank argues “top salaries have been growing sharply in virtually every labor market because of two factors—technological forces that greatly amplify small increments in performance and increased competition for the services of top performers.” This economic environment can deepen existing economic divides and exacerbate social tensions within a city. High-growth superstar cities such as San Francisco are struggling with exactly this problem.

In a rush to grow, cities may overlook those who are not part of the new economy. Worries over gentrification include more than simply displacing low-income families—these same people may be shut out of access to greater economic opportunity. The knowledge economy can disproportionately award skilled individuals and the sectors that employ them, while creating a sharp economic divide felt locally and nationally.

Unsurprisingly, many cities would rather have the problems of booming San Francisco than struggling Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Michigan. Cities such as Columbus, Ohio, for example, are developing knowledge indicators that can help target new tech industries. Richard Florida’s conception of the “Creative Class” (where cities are encouraged to appeal to artists for economic growth) has been extremely receptive across the country. As innovation sectors continue to grow, cities have again become investment targets, a trend that brings economic as well as urban revitalization. But with opportunity comes challenges. For a city to thrive, governments and business leaders will need to grapple with the seismic economic changes underway. Their metrics and laws will need to be updated to capture this shift. But more importantly, they will need to be vigilant to ensure that the new flows of capital benefit not just a select few, but everybody.

Stephen Assink is curator and manager of Common Place. He is also a member of the Principal Investigator team for the Thriving Cities Project.

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Governing for the Common Good: An Interview with Kathy Galvin—Part 2

In the first part of my interview with Kathy Galvin, a city councilor in Charlottesville, Virginia, Kathy spoke about the challenges of generating political consensus within a city. Here, Kathy discusses the effect of different departmental silos on governance, as well as the difficulty of finding common ground among citizens on historically fraught issues such as Vinegar Hill. In response, she advocates for a holistic approach to social problems.


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Back to the City! Back to the Country!

Thomas Jefferson once said: “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” Despite his penchant for Parisian culture and cuisine, Jefferson obviously did not hold the same affection for European cities. Rather, Jefferson, who spent much of his private life gardening and farming at his rural home in Monticello, celebrated those who lived off the land. In 1785, he wrote to John Jay:

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bands.

Although others may not have shared Jefferson’s exact passion for the bucolic, his preference for agrarian life was commonplace throughout much of American history. Indeed, the United States was mainly a rural country well into the twentieth century.

By the end of the nineteenth century, American cities such as New York City and Chicago were metropolises of more than one million people. With the growth and dominance of these cities, apprehensions about urban culture deepened. As William Cronon argues in his study on the growth of Chicago:

What really worried rural and small-town residents of Chicago’s hinterland was their perception that the city acted as a magnet for sin. Young people drawn to the city by its energy and excitement could all too easily give in to pleasures and temptations that would finally jeopardize their souls.

Small town residents were not the only ones to view the big city suspiciously. At the turn of the twentieth century, prominent city-based scholars—particularly from the Chicago School of Sociology—also conceived of cities negatively.

But once urbanization took hold, largely thanks to the immigration and industrialization of agriculture, Americans began flocking to cities. There, they sought economic opportunity, improved education, and the sophistications of the cosmopolitan lifestyle. The city-dweller came to view rural life as backward and narrow.

This trend didn’t last. By the mid-twentieth century, the tide turned in the opposite direction. Once again, cities were perceived as dangerous and undesirable—but the person who sought a safer home turned not to the country, but to the suburb.

Aerial view of Sonoma County, California

Suburbs have existed as long as cities. In the Middle Ages, they were places for the poor—priced out of the cities and living along the city walls—as well as the rich, who had their own suburban villas. In America, suburbs sprang up in the 1800s as a response to urban industrial pollution and lack of sanitation infrastructure. They allowed those with the monetary means to travel back into the city with their health intact. Such suburbs were more akin to natural villages and were closely linked to cities. Suburban expansion was relatively limited compared to urban growth—until the automobile.

After World War II, suburban neighborhoods grew exponentially in size. People left cities for the suburbs, as rural and urban populations declined. Thanks to the automobile and the ease of obtaining a home mortgage, suburban living became easier. Coupled with the outsourcing of urban industry and (often racist) concerns about urban violence, the city quickly fell out of favor. Soon suburban living (or certain forms of it) became the apogee of the American dream.

One of the most salient features of the post–World War II suburb was its localization of the American middle class and its propagation of practices of mass consumption. In her 2003 book A Consumers’ Republic, American historian Lizabeth Cohen noted, “As home in the surburb[s] became a mass consumer commodity to be appraised and traded up like a car rather than a longstanding emotional investment in a particular neighborhood, ethnic community, or church parish, ‘property values’ became the new mantra.”

Although the suburban ideal still figures predominantly in our cultural imagination of individual success, the discussion around suburbs has become more nuanced and complicated. Though the suburb still has its defenders, criticism of the “’burbs” has grown steadily, with many questioning their environmental, economic, social, and even spiritual legitimacy. Perhaps, the most poignant critique is simply that are banal. Lewis Mumford summed that view up best:

Whilst the [historical] suburb served only a favored minority it neither spoiled the countryside nor threatened the city. But now that drift to the outer ring has become a mass movement, it tends to destroy the value of both environments without producing anything but a dreary substitute, devoid of form and even more devoid of the original urban values.

Today, cities and suburbs with high walkability (or access to mass transit) are again growing in population and desirability. City living is increasingly being celebrated for its economic potential. In addition, cities with a range of institutions and opportunities offer particular ecological and social benefits.

This urban revival is well-documented, but a small return to farming has also begun. In an article earlier this month, NPR journalist Jennifer Mitchell reports that “overall, fewer young people are choosing a life on the land. But in some places around the country, like Maine, that trend is reversing. In Maine, farmers under the age of 35 have increased by 40 percent.” Mitchell goes on to cite environmental factors as one of the key reasons people are getting back into farming: “all the young farmers interviewed for this story mentioned environmental health and climate change as factors in choosing a life on the land.”

As Thomas Jefferson reminds us, praise of country life has often come at the expense of the city. Now, however, the country appears defined not so much against the city, but rather the sprawling suburb. Although there are clear differences between urban and country living (farming is not exactly a get-rich enterprise), they are no longer opposed to each other.

Each environment offers opportunities for unique connections and activities difficult to attain in mass suburbs. In the country, people live closer with the biotic world and are able to work with their hands. In the city, populations are more dense and diverse, and there are a plethora of cultural, social, and economic options. The very structure of these places makes it easier to be a part of a community larger than oneself.

Yet, the temptation to romanticize both city and country is strong. Community still takes work. Cities can price out the poor, reinforce racial and class divisions, and promote individualistic consumer ideals. And the burgeoning return to farming presents its own challenges to community-building. (Not to mention, it’s really hard work.) Suburbs remain intact and seem unlikely to diminish in significance, and they too contain vibrant neighborhoods.

Though the quest for thriving encompasses all places, including the suburbs, the return to town and country reminds us that where we live can just as much affect who we are.

Stephen Assink manages and curates Common Place. He is a member of the Principle Investigator Team for the Thriving Cities Project

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Governing for the Common Good: An Interview With Kathy Galvin—Part 1

Recently, I sat down with Kathy Galvin, a city councilor in Charlottesville, Virginia. I asked her about the multi-faceted challenges facing city government leaders in promoting a thriving city. In part 1 of this interview, Kathy discusses the difficulties of generating political consensus within government as well as across a diverse constituency.

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Snapshots of City Life: Our Top Reads

We at Common Place read many articles this year on issues facing our cities and communities. Here are some of our favorite reads, in no particular order.

“5 Key Themes Emerging From the ‘New Science of Cities,'” Michael Mehaffy
What exactly is a city? According to Citylab journalist Michael Mehaffy, “a remarkable body of scientific research has begun to shed new light on the dynamic behavior of cities, carrying important implications for city-makers.” That is, “cities are complex, adaptive systems with their own characteristic dynamics, and—if they are going to perform well from a human point of view—they need to be dealt with as such.” By emphasizing concepts such as connectivity and human scale, this new approach to the urban environment will change not only the way cities are conceptualized, but also how they are assessed as healthy and vibrant.

“The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats,” Nick Hanauer
Though not city-focused, this article from “zillionaire” Nick Hanauer does touch on many themes pertinent to urban communities—wages, jobs, and demographic insularity or “skyboxification.” The stratification of communities (explored here on Common Place) is a worrying trend, as it can exacerbate class divisions and power imbalances. Hanauer is concerned about these trends and offers some prescriptions, but will his fellow rich care?

“Liberalism and Gentrification,” Gavin Mueller
There have been many articles this year devoted to covering gentrification; yet none have attracted the attention Gavin Mueller’s piece did. Strongly polemical, passionately written, and at times overly simplistic, Mueller’s take on gentrification begins with Janes Jacobs and ends with an attack on liberalism, capitalism, and how those forces are destroying Washington, D.C.: “It’s important to understand what’s going on [in D.C]. A powerful capitalist class of bankers, real-estate developers, and investors is driving gentrification, using a mixture of huge loans (to which only they have access) and government funding to push land values higher.” However one feels about Mueller’s take, cities will need to understand and confront the complexities of gentrification.

“Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young?,” Claire Cain Miller
Not many cities have the cultural cachet of Portland, Oregon. With a relatively low cost of living, an abundance of natural beauty, an educated population, and a much-celebrated (or satirized) urban culture, Portland has become the ideal city. Claire Cain Miller set off a debate when she questioned the economic sustainability and wisdom of Portland’s lauded bohemian-esque vibe—even Thriving Cities’ own Tom Krattenmaker weighed in.

“Young and Restless: How is Your City Doing?”
Published in October, this report by City Observatory highlights several cities that experienced population growth from millennials. When they move into cities, millennials bring higher levels of income, creativity, technological familiarity, and social tolerance. Though there are legitimate worries about this influx of young folks, cities should be doing what they can to welcome America’s largest generation.

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There Goes the Neighborhood

First published as an article in 1995, Robert Putnam’s famous book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Communitysolidified many Americans’ concern about the disappearance of community life. Nearly 20 years later, this worry has only increased, as other scholars—Charles Murray, Claude Fischer, Bill Bishop, and Theda Skocpol—have continued to document this social trend.

vanishing neighborMarc Dunkelman’s The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community is the latest iteration of this ongoing dialogue. At the core of Dunkelman’s transformation thesis is the subtle hollowing-out of the “middle-ring” relationships that historically defined American social life. These relationships according to Dunkelman:

are defined by a familiarity that allows acquaintances to carry on conversations about personal subjects even if they aren’t entirely private. They represent, in essence, the people with whom an individual is familiar but not intimate, friendly but not close.

Dunkelman begins with that essential early reporter of American life, Tocqueville, who first noticed how relationships formed the basic structure of the American township: “municipalities were integrated units determined not by a remote central authority, but by the realities of everyday life.” People of all stripes knew one another. They shared common practices and formed civic associations unaided by the state. And they built their social and political institutions on these relationships. This “bottom up” social architecture soon became the bedrock of American society.

Even as America urbanized in the early twentieth century, middle-ring relationships still formed much of the social fabric, despite the fears of urban sociologists. As observed by Jane Jacobs in the 1950s, the daily interaction and relationships between neighbors formed the basis of thriving communities. Not surprisingly, Jacobs argued for a built environment predicated on diversity in its functions and social arrangements as a model facilitating the greatest potential for middle-ring relationships.

Despite challenges such as rapid industrialization, this social arrangement persisted in American life, but, as scholars and writers have for the past two decades noted, community cohesion is in decline. Conservatives point to the growth of the state or the erosion of religion. Liberals blame the market or rising inequality. Although Dunkelman sees legitimacy in both claims, for him, the thinning of middle-ring relationships lies mostly in the thickening of what he terms “inner-ring” relationships:

The prima facie evidence suggests first that Americans have chosen to invest more time in the inner rings. Desperate for affirmation, and equipped with new tools to keep in touch with a few prized connections, we’ve chosen to double down on the small group of people [close friends and family] we hold most dear.

At the same time, Dunkelman argues, there has been an explosion and intensification of “outer-ring” connections, or “relationships that connect individuals on nothing more than a single plane of interest.” The factors for this shift include the proliferation of mobile and communication technologies, which make it easier to stay connected with friends and family as well as to find like-minded groups online. In addition, outer-ring relationships have increased with the growth of surburbia and the sorting out of American society into distinct socio-economic enclaves. Even the way we organize social movements has changed:

In lieu of forming semiautonomous local chapters, national groups now more embraced a hub-and-spoke model, where organizers headquartered in Washington or elsewhere would reach out directly to members. The one-time supposition that members would attend a regularly scheduled tea was replaced by the request that members send donations designed to fund the work of professional staffers, who would then carry the banner.

Small town evening (4691861030)

Small Kansas town in the evening.

For Dunkelman, “Because we all have a limited amount of time and attention, social capital invested in one ring generally requires divestment from another.” In other words, “What limited time and energy Americans have today is devoted to our most intimate relations and a set of much more one-dimensional connections.” The verdict then is clear:  “The township, in essence, is dying.” The upshot of all these changes is that, despite an increase in diversity, Americans now seek out and spend more time with people similar to themselves. This new reality has profound consequences for our economy, politics, and society.

With the thinning out of middle-ring relations, certain rhythms of social life change. Historically, as Dunkelman shows, these rhythms facilitated advantages throughout society. In economic areas, these connections spurred creativity and innovation, as well as helping communities weather economic turmoil by “giving residents—or, at least many of them—the wherewithal to transition into a new industry and a new career.”

Politically, the dearth of middle-ring relationships hurts our democracy. For Dunkelman, the problem is not that people are more ideologically polarized. Rather, they no longer see compromise as a political good: “Those on the other side of any given issue now are not only wrong, they’re almost alien.”

Dunkelman also points out that even though certain groups may have been excluded from American social life in the past, middle-ring structures tended to bring people together. Once certain social activities and places were opened to all, people from different races, ethnicities, and classes mixed in a variety of social activities from schools to churches to public entertainment.

The temptation to nostalgia may be strong as one reads this book, but Dunkelman does not encourage this interpretation, urging instead a recognition that things have changed and that there is an urgent need to move forward. For Dunkelman, America is transitioning from a township society to networked one. There are still strong communities, but today many are now being defined by “loosely connected contacts, born from farther-out connections.” As with any sweeping social change, there are trade-offs. With more far-reaching connections, we have the freedom and ability to meet people from all over the world, and we tend to grow more tolerant and curious. “Townships weren’t just seedbeds for mutual understanding,” writes Dunkelman, “they also cultivated the prejudice and division that has plagued American history.”

Throughout, Dunkelman bases his argument on the fact that “social capital invested in one ring generally requires divestment from another.” Yet, as Robert Putnam argues:

Too often, without really thinking about it, we assume that bridging social capital and bonding social capital are inversely correlated in a kind of zero-sum relationship: if I have lots of bonding ties, I must have few bridging ties, and vice versa. As an empirical matter, I believe that assumption is often false. In other words, high bonding might well be compatible with high bridging, and low bonding with low bridging. In the United States, for example, whites who have more non-white friends also have more white friends.

Whether Putnam is right or wrong, this critique does raise important questions about the cause of these changes. Although Dunkelman chronicles several seismic factors, he largely ignores how new forms of capitalism and technocratic public policy have contributed to the weakening of traditional communities.

In addition, Dunkelman neglects the underlying beliefs and symbols—a common civil religion as well as a shared sense of the American destiny—that undergirded our middle-ring relationships at the birth of our republic. Today, the struggle over community is not simply a matter of technological or structural change, but real differences surrounding our substantive conceptions of what is good and right.

Still, Dunkelman accurately observes how the decrease of middle-ring relationships is deeply intertwined with the tensions that many feel about contemporary life:

It feels as though things are falling apart because institutions built for township society don’t work without middle rings. The networked society that’s emerged is still searching for ways to exploit the advantages of stronger inner- and outer-ring ties.

In the end, Dunkelman is cautiously optimistic. We may not be able to go back (nor, as many argue, should we), but we can go forward, harnessing the creative power of new kinds of relationships. Whether that is enough—or even the answer—remains to be seen. At the very least, Dunkelman’s book is helpful, clarifying much about the changing dynamics of American community. Presenting his expertise and familiarity with social capital scholarship in a coherent and readable narrative makes this book a worthwhile and timely read.

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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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