Category Archives: Dispatches

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 Pursuit to Turn Data Into Action

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

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


Community Indicators Consortium 2014 Conference Logo

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

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

CIC Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Urban Thoughts in a Medieval City

Second World Congress of Environmental History meets in Guimarães, Portugal

What makes a thriving city?  One way the Thriving Cities Project seeks to explore this question is  by comparing a selection of cities across the United States, relying on expert analysis from those who best know their local communities. But cities beyond the United States also experience similar challenges. The globe-spanning history behind cities and their relationship to the natural environment was a major theme at the recent Second World Congress of Environmental History (WCEH) in Guimarães, Portugal. Held in early July, the conference brought together scholars from around the world to present the latest research on different aspects of environmental history.

 Strolling in the old town section of Guimarães

Presentations included histories of environmentalism in the developing world, research on environmental decline in settings as diverse as pre-colonial Africa and the Soviet Union, environmental thought in Czech urban planning, environmental disasters and memory in Latin American cities, various urban efforts at nature conservation around the world, and historical perspectives on contemporary urban ecological problems in China. Across these diverse topics, presenters stressed a number of important and recurring themes: the regional and often global nature of urban problems; the complex and peculiar ways in which urban life sparks environmental thinking; the reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world; ecological limits to urban sprawl and growth; and the many ecological consequences—pollution, for example—of urban living.

This perspective was particularly notable at the WCEH because urban life has not always played a large role in the field of environmental history. Early environmental histories often focused heavily on the “natural”—that is, wilderness spaces and their protection—and less on the built environment of cities. For many decades, historical scholarship on cities largely remained in the domain of cultural, political, economic, architectural, or social perspectives.

Inspired by the pioneering scholarship of Joel Tarr, Martin Melosi, and William Cronon, historians have developed innovative new lines of inquiry into the relationship between cities and the environment.  In the United States, for instance, Tarr and social historian Clay McShane have shown how environmental forces such as animals and pollution have shaped the course of urban life. Environmental historians Chris Sellers and Adam Rome stressed how urban and suburban experiences shape our ideas and definitions about “nature.” And Cronon’s scholarship revealed the many overlapping material connections between cities and their rural surroundings.

Although many of the presentations suggested that urban environmental history is now thriving as a discipline, more work along these lines is vital, as urban thriving today continues to be defined by a city’s material surroundings. Guimarães offered a unique setting for this kind of project. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the historic city has been associated since the twelfth century with Portugal’s rise as a world empire; in 2012, Guimarães served as European Capital of Culture promoting urban development amid cultural diversity. As a center of commerce and business, the city was also one of the earliest to be shaped by urban planning. In addition, with its proximity to fertile farmlands, hills, and two rivers, it is a vivid instance of the reciprocal relationship between the natural world and city development. Guimarães is a city of many layers, from its well-preserved medieval castle and city walls to its dilapidated, industrial-era factory spaces and sleek, modernist hotels. Like a palimpsest, its historical layer reveal the cumulative past attempts to alter and build on the rugged, hilly landscape in order to protect its people and allow them to prosper.

As the Thriving Cities Project continues to ask what makes a thriving city, it would do well to keep in focus the central insights of the WCEH: that many urban problems are now global in scope and that there are ongoing historical and modern challenges in reconciling city life with the non-human world.

Stephen Macekura is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

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Assessing Urban Complexity: Thriving Cities Conference Recap


According to the World Health Organization, seven out of ten people will live in a city by the year 2050. Other projections have put the figure as high as 75 percent. The practical implications of this reality are great and present challenges in any number of distinct areas, including, among others, issues related to housing, public health, education, transportation, and law.

These figures present a deeper challenge: how to understand cities as more than just a set of discrete problems in need of isolated solutions. Rather, because problems are multi-faceted and interrelated, the real challenge is to see the city as a complex whole. Only by doing so are to see cities as places constituted by webs of interrelationship—sometimes fleeting, sometimes enduring, but always possessing immense social energy that can be cultivated and channeled for the public good.

Several decades ago in her celebrated book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs articulated this holistic vision of a vibrant city. In her last chapter, “The Kind of Problem a City Is,” she observed, “Cities happen to be problems in organized complexity, like the life sciences. They present ‘situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.’”  It was with this picture of cities in mind that the Thriving Cities Project (TCP) hosted a two-day working conference with more than 40 attendees from around the country and Canada to explore what it might mean—and take—to thrive in today’s cities. Josh Yates, the project director for TCP and conference speaker, set the stage for the conference in stating that the twin dilemmas facing any city is how to negotiate the sheer complexity of social life today and the tremendous normative diversity of its inhabitants.

With TCP having completed its first year of commissioned research, the aim of last month’s conference was to bring together scholars and practitioners from diverse fields and backgrounds, to present initial research, and to discuss it in open forum.  On the first day, presentations covered six areas of strategic importance to any city—beauty, prosperity, governance and justice, sustainability, education, and moral order. Subsequent discussions dealt with their interconnections. Each presenter offered a unique perspective on the meaning of thriving,  along with an assortment of questions and potential problems.  For example, what roles do the arts play in the city? Are they economic, political, or purely aesthetic?

Again, inspired by Jane Jacobs’s notion of “organized complexity,” the TCP team is convinced that answers to such questions have profound implications for understanding the various facets of urban life. The challenge then of a thriving city is to sort through the implications of each strategic area (which TCP calls an “endowment”), while at the same time connecting one to the other—arts to education, education to business, business to sustainability, and so forth. Although TCP is in its initial research stages, conference participants were pleased to note particular related themes around methodology and implementation emerge across different sessions.

Anna Kim presents her research on the role beauty in cities.

Anna Kim presents her research on the role of beauty in cities. Photo: Stephen Assink

One area of central interest to the project has to do with how we assess or measure the well-being or thriving of a city. With the rise of big data, there seems to be no shortage of quantitative metrics and measurements that a city could gather about its health and well-being—a topic Common Place previously discussed. We see this trend toward measurements as only part of the answer. No single type or quantity of data can eliminate the difficulty of answering interpretative questions. That is, there are always cultural assumptions implicit in the questions cities ask and the data people gather. Additionally, there are important capacities and qualities of city life that, although difficult to quantify, are essential. During one panel discussion, we heard an example that illustrated this reality. Recently, the United States Forestry Service created an extensive map of urban tree coverage. This type of map for Baltimore shows a region with very limited arboriculture near the city’s center. One could assess the data and conclude that Baltimore needs to improve its environmental standards. Yet, a deeper, more qualitative analysis of the situation reveals that many local residents in fact do not want tree coverage in their neighborhoods because it could increase crime.

The point of this illustration is straightforward: Simply having data is not enough. In line with this idea, a significant part of the conference was spent discussing what should be measured, why, and how to use information effectively to promote thriving in cities. It was noted that identifying certain “keystone variables,” that is, particular metrics that influence social life more than others for thriving would be at the center of the project, although further research and discussion would be required to identify these.

A central claim of the Thriving Cities Project is that thriving in an urban context is deeply contextual, requiring an intimate knowledge of the geography, history, and social layout of a particular city. For this reason, day two of the conference featured four profiles of individual cities—Orlando, Milwaukee, Portland (OR), and Richmond—presented by the researchers who wrote the initial city profiles. Although following a general structure, each profiler used varying methodologies and frameworks to present the data about their respective city, highlighting the unique aspects of each.

This mix led to interesting results: The Richmond profile highlighted the continuing legacy of slavery and race in a city that was once the capital of the confederacy; the Portland profile pointed out its unique “DIY” (“Do it yourself”) economy and culture; the Orlando profile described the city’s ambivalent relationship with Disney and theme-park-based tourism; and the Milwaukee profile celebrated a promising asset-based method of community conversation despite the city’s deeply partisan character in recent years. The profiles showed that each city has its share of troubles and triumphs, and underscored the notion that the final recommendations of the project must not be too abstract, but grounded in the specific history and adaptable to the local context and accessible to practitioners, city leaders, and citizens alike. All participants agreed to focus the next phase of TCP research on developing a framework for assessment that is up to the challenges of our particular urban contexts today.

In the coming weeks, Common Place will feature more details about the research of TCP to date as well as several video interviews that were filmed at the conference on a variety of important topics.

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Whole Foods in Richmond

Whole Foods is headed to Richmond proper. In early May, Whole Foods Market announced that it had signed a lease for a 40,000 square foot store in the Sauer Center, a planned mixed-use development on the north side of Richmond’s historic Fan District. Although a Whole Foods has been firmly ensconced in the burgeoning suburb of Short Pump since 2008, a swiftly-developing area about 7 miles west of the city in Henrico County, this store at the Sauer Center will be the first taste of the chain within the city limits.


With a mix of new construction and historic buildings, the Sauer Center will include not only the 133,000 square foot former Virginia Department of Taxation (previously the home of the Stephen Putney Shoe Company), but also the 103-year-old C.F. Sauer Co. spice factory and headquarters. The 20-foot by 60-foot animated “Sauer’s Vanilla” sign still lights up the night sky. Whole Foods has not yet announced a target opening date or its specific location in Sauer Center, but the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Whole Foods will likely replace the storefront presently occupied by Pleasant’s Hardware, another longtime family-run Richmond establishment until its purchase by the C.F. Sauer Company in 1989.

Although Whole Foods is infamous for devouring whole paychecks in exchange for its environmentally sustainable, animal friendly, fair-trade fare, it promises to be a large draw to the nearby affluent Fan neighborhood. Richmond is fast becoming a city that supports businesses that provide well-crafted food, sourced in a sustainable and ethical manner—particular specialties of Whole Foods.

The Fan Opens Up

More to the point, the Fan has been coalescing into a neighborhood with businesses that draw customers from morning through the evening hours. Roughly two miles west of the planned Sauer Center Whole Foods stands Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, a thriving local store dedicated to organically grown from nearby farmers. In addition, local restaurants and watering holes, like Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, encourage evening foot traffic.

While Whole Foods prides itself on being responsive to meeting consumers’ demands, it will be entering an increasingly competitive local grocery market, where new stores are seeking to fill the vacuum left by the closing of the regional chain Ukrop’s in 2010. The influx of grocery stores is projected to outpace, if it has not already, the city and the surrounding counties’ capacity to consume.

At the same time, a recent mayoral Food Policy Task Force report noted that Richmond contains about 40 neighborhoods that are food insecure—that is, with low-income residents who live more than a mile from the nearest grocery store. Most of these neighborhoods lie on the city’s South Side, although large pockets of low-income and low-access residents are also found  in the East End and North Side of the city. The projected Whole Foods will likely do little to address issues of food insecurity in Richmond, because it will not be near neighborhoods in need or provide food at in the low-income price range. Indirectly, however, Whole Foods can potentially raise the city’s tax base by attracting further development nearby. In addition, Whole Foods can be become a key donor to the nearby Central Virginia Food Bank.

View of downtown Richmond; credit: Montes-Breadley,

View of downtown Richmond; credit: Montes-Bradley,

In terms of the competition in Richmond’s grocery market, the Sauer Center Whole Foods will be positioned to do well. Aside from a Kroger a half-mile to the east, Whole Foods will be the only grocery store within reasonable walking and easy biking distance of the Fan. What’s more, this location lies enticingly close to the proposed route for Richmond’s Bus Rapid Transit, a proposed bus system that would travel a dedicated lane roughly from downtown Richmond to the recently revamped Willow Lawn Shopping Center along the city’s western edge. (Although Richmond was home to the first trolley system in the United States in the early 1900s, it currently ranks 92 out of 100 top U.S. cities in public transit access, according to a 2011 Brookings Institute study.)

Increasing Accessibility

Nevertheless, Whole Foods and the Sauer Center will be vital components of a commercial hub that could develop along the Rapid Transit line in the future. Furthermore, the RVA Bus Rapid Transit itself raises the hopeful prospect of increasing the economic, political, and social cohesion of the entire Greater Richmond Area. Reliable transportation could boost employment and education opportunities primarily available to those with cars in affluent zip codes. Such a blossoming of regionalism and accessibility would require the city and surrounding counties to bridge historically deep racial and economic divisions.

The Sauer Center’s Whole Foods also has the potential to be a boon to the health and future of many Richmond residents given its close proximity to institutions of learning. Whole Foods has a well-deserved reputation for increasing people’s access not only to healthy food but also to food education through its Whole Kids Foundation and Whole Cities Foundation. Two public elementary schools, one public middle school, and one public high school lie within a mile radius of the planned Whole Foods, and beyond that is a public middle school, a high school, two private high schools, and a private middle school. Two institutions of higher learning are also nearby: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) along with its medical school and Virginia Union University (VUU), one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges.

With FeedMore (the Central Virginia Food Bank combined with Meals on Wheels) a mere mile away and urban gardening movements growing through the work of Shalom Farms, Tricycle Gardens, and the William Byrd Community House, the opportunities abound for collaborative efforts at cultivating awareness and engagement on issues of food justice and land use. Many houses of worship and faith communities also stand close by, ready for deeper theological engagement and outreach on these fronts.

While Whole Foods at the Sauer Center could simply end up being a stop for affluent consumers, there are good reasons to think it will eventually boost employment and general area investment. With the resources, power, and social commitment that Whole Foods has, the possibilities for profound community enrichment are palpable.


Nelson Reveley lives in Richmond and is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on theological ethics in relation to the economy as well as the environment. He is also an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). 

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Thriving Cities Featured Again on Milwaukee Public Radio

David Flowers, Katherine  Wilson, and Pastor Willie B. Davis Credit: Susan Bence Pictured

David Flowers, Katherine Wilson, and Pastor Willie B. Davis
Credit: Susan Bence

A few months back, we reported a story by Milwaukee Public Radio, WUWM, that featured David Flowers and his work for the Thriving Cities Project. For the past year, Flowers has been researching and writing a profile of Milwaukee— one of the four pilot cities for the Thriving Cities Project. At the same time, he has also been working with Katherine Wilson, director of the Zeidler Center for Public Discussion, in developing community forums for Milwaukee citizens to express their commonalities and differences. This week in a follow up post, Flowers was again featured by WUWM detailing his and Wilson’s progress.

You can listen to the program here.

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Snapshots of City Life: Parking Lots, Urban Farming, and Other Stories

Gathered from around the web, these articles should interest every Common Place reader. Though each story touches on different facets of city life—urban farming, drug use, measuring civic institutions— they highlight in their own way different questions and challenges related to urban thriving.

How parking lots became the scourge of American downtowns

With more people taking a renewed interest in the downtown areas of their cities—whether to just shop or even live—urban transportation takes on new life, a topic that we cover here on Common Place. And over the past century, the car, for better or for worse, has been the focal point for urban planners. This article features a short film detailing the ways parking lot locations in different cities have unwittingly hollowed out and segregated downtown areas. Even something as banal as a parking lot offers us much to consider about how cityscapes thrive or fade.

European cities’ sewer water exposes use of cocaine, cannabis, meth and ecstasy

Recently, urban researchers began testing sewer water in several European cities to track often-elusive drug-use trends. According to CNN journalist Ben Brumfield, “Lab tests on sewage water to detect chemicals excreted after drug use turned up high levels of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, meth and other amphetamines.” Since urban areas are often the center of drug epidemics, officials hope these tests will give them the tools to assist both municipal authorities and public-health experts. Better tracking not only sharpens the diagnosis but can also better aid in knowing where to begin prevention.

Cleveland crops: Training people with disabilities to farm

From Brooklyn to San Francisco, city farming is sprouting in virtually every large urban district. Cleveland has come up with an urban agriculture program that also employs residents with disabilities. According to journalist Hannah Wallace, “Traditionally, Clevelanders with developmental disabilities would have been trained for jobs in the manufacturing sector, but those jobs have been waning for decades, while urban farming is on the upswing.” This creative solution provides food and helps people on the margins of employment gain dignity from work as well as important transferable job skills. Rather than being a onetime “silver bullet,”— something that Cleveland knows well— the program took years of hard work, planning, and community commitment.

Finally, clear performance data for comparing the world’s cities

With the rise of big data, cities and governments are looking for the best ways to capture the vitality of their metropolitan areas. This article details the establishment of new international standards that then can be used to compare cities around the world. The desire for assessment is popular trend in city planning; yet as we have discussed here on Common Place, it comes with its own challenges and blindspots.

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Faith in the City: Part III, City Soul—An Interview with Cardus’ Milton Friesen

Milton Friesen is Program Director for Social Cities with Cardus, “a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture” based in Hamilton, Ontario. He directs a new project area within Social Cities called City Soul. I spoke with him recently about this effort and how he believes faith-based organizations can contribute to the life of neighborhoods. 

Q: What is the City Soul project and why did Cardus initiate it?

City Soul is an effort to explore the possibilities of connecting faith-based organizations with long-term planning in cities. This came about as Cardus sought to look for ways to encourage city leaders to place more emphasis on human factors such as social interaction, purpose, meaning, belonging—emphases that we believe foster full human flourishing rather than engineering or marketplace efficiencies that minimize costs and maximize private returns on investment. We think it is important to consider the social return on investment in cities, and that this is maximized when faith-based institutions are part of the equation.

Q: It seems faith-based organizations are already quite involved in their cities. Why is this project needed?

A wide range of social care and service-level involvement is typical of the faith-based sector, but what is more rare is involvement in thinking about and planning for the spatial arrangement of neighbourhoods and cities. There needs to be a more disciplined approach to thinking about the social infrastructure of cities, particularly the institutional landscape that includes religious organizations along with the more normal considerations such as businesses, schools, government organizations, and non-profits.

Q: What has been the response from city leaders?

So far, there has been a real interest in this type of interaction with faith-based organizations. Cites are beset today with many social challenges in their communities, and local government does not have the resources to address them adequately. Whether it is the aging population, increasing social isolation, economic hardship, the loss of the middle class, or increased globalization, the social stresses in urban centers today require that every possible resource is used to offset worrying trends by building up the social fabric of cities. There is simply a pragmatic realization that religious institutions in their varied forms are to the social fabric of cities what swamps and bogs are to the ecological landscape. Cities that are serious about attending to the various social challenges in their communities can’t afford to be snobbish about a scarce resource.

Q: Are there concerns or fears about faith-based organizations partnering with local governments?   

Yes, at times, and we hope City Soul will help change current perceptions. Our contemporary sophistication and anti-religious vogue attitudes incline many to minimize the potential contributions of faith communities toward the common good. Some fear simply the mix of religion and government. However, having faith-based organizations more involved in long-term planning in cities does not require religious commitments or the adoption of a theocratic view of governance.

Q: What are the key challenges to getting faith-based organizations more involved in the city planning process?

The difficulties of connecting faith-based organizations and city structural planning are significant. Cities run with the help of highly organized, bureaucratic (in a good sense), and secular (in the sense of serving a diverse public interest) administrations. Faith-based organizations typically operate with smaller administrations, depend heavily on relational rather than formal organizational ties, and are oriented to something other than purely secular commitments. The balance required to design more effective communication and learning between city and faith-based organizations faces the perils of all new initiatives: that misunderstanding, assumptions, and established prejudice on all sides will undo the effort before its full measure can be taken. Most of the infrastructure (social and institutional) is not in place. City-planning processes do not regularly or consistently engage with faith-based organizations in longterm design—they are assumed irrelevant to such processes. This is not intended to be a direct criticism. City planners often overlook faith-based organizations because these organizations have had so little involvement in the formal processes of planning-related deliberations.

Q: What are the barriers to getting faith-based organizations to work with each other and together with city leaders?

Faith-based institutions and organizations are neither literate about city-planning process nor in any significant way coordinated with each other. The result is that they speak to planning-related issues in a highly fragmented way, if even at all. Weaving across this gap would require a regular and persistent structural approach that is not driven by any particular issue. What is needed is a steady and patient interaction rather than a volatile and episodic flurry. It is easier to generate interest in engagement when a particular cause or issue arises that captures the interest of faith-based organizations (changes to parking bylaws, for example), but support for such rallying causes tends to decline just as rapidly once decisions about the issue have been made. Another challenge is that faith-based organizations may insist on confessional alignment as a precondition for cooperation on city issues. It often seems to be the case that issue-driven or confessional comfort are the key drivers of cooperation. Just as businesses coordinate in a chamber of commerce on the basis of being commercial entities, faith-based organizations could explore ways of cooperating and coordinating on the basis of being faith-based organizations, that is, a particular type of entity in the larger urban landscape. I further explain this concept in a recent article for Comment magazine.

Q: What will it take to overcome these issues for both city leaders and faith-based organizations?

Pursuing this kind of meaningful engagement around long-term structural, social, and spiritual themes will require greater investment (or re-allocation) of resources, from both city and faith-based organizations. New work often requires investment ahead of concrete results. Investing social, intellectual, and financial capital in this framework of process requires an exploratory, pioneering mindset. We do not understand enough about the costs and benefits, but one effort that is emerging in Canada builds on the work of Ram Cnaan at the University of Pennsylvania who is examining the replacement cost of services that local faith groups provide to their neighborhoods. The early results show a substantial value to neighborhoods. Funding is not the only need, however. Equally important will be finding people willing to stick with the work even when cause-effect results are hard to see or perhaps not even possible in a full sense. This effort will entail a great deal of searching and persistence. Finally, communication will be key and the development of new tools, resources, strategies, and approaches will be essential.

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To learn more about Milton Friesen and his work, read his article in Municipal World,Social Infrastructure: Underpinning the success of cities” and his recent one in Comment, “The City is Complex: Lessons from The Wire.”

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Coming Together: Food and Art in the City


Patrons take in the “The Painter’s Table” exhibit,  which was held in conjunction with the New City Arts Forum in Charlottesville, Virginia. Credit: Maggie Stein

Not many things identify a city like its cuisine or its art. At their best, they bring together vastly different people in a variety of common places—restaurants, museums, farmers’ markets. And in an era of entrenched urban divisions and diminishing public spaces, they can be powerful mediums of connection and unity.

A new wave of artists, farmers, chefs, and patrons is now consciously cultivating ways food and art can connect rather than divide. At a recent forum in Charlottesville, Virginia, New City Arts devoted three days to exploring the relationship among art, food, and community. The conference featured speakers intent on fostering community in what some might consider unlikely ways. Each panel included a person connected to food as well as one in the art world. This event created an opportunity for the two different spheres of cultural activity to exchange ideas and develop a common vocabulary.

During one panel, Lee O’Neill a farmer in Central Virginia, and Laura Zabel, a community arts director from St. Paul, Minnesota, discussed ways community-supported models of agriculture and art can creatively engage city residents. O’Neill and Zabel described how by purchasing a farm or art share prior to production or completion, customers become stakeholders in the process rather than mere consumers. Their stories and work become integrated into their community, and in doing so, they are able to connect with their buyers on a different level.

Another panel featured Kate Daughdrill, an artist who converted several vacant lots in Detroit into an urban farm shared with nearby foreign-born residents. According to,The farm serves not only as Daughdrill’s creative hub, but also as a social hub for the neighborhood. Weekly meals are hosted there for neighbors and all sorts of people have become involved.”

In the concluding session, Joanna Taft, an art director in Indianapolis, and Tom Madrecki, an in-home chef in Washington, D.C., explained how they each created hospitable spaces for patron engagement. Taft discussed how exhibits in her art gallery educated audiences by purposely involving them. Madrecki spoke of using his own apartment as a restaurant to bring together strangers over a carefully crafted meal.


At the New City Arts Forum, artists Kate Daughdrill and Patrick Costello discussed ways their projects facilitate community engagement. Credit: Maggie Stein

While critics decry the loss of public space, many cities are imagining new—and reviving old—forms of community-centered events focused on food and art. These events range from  “pop-up” farmers’ markets to Shakespeare plays in parks. In Richmond, Virginia, the RVA Street Art Festival transformed an abandoned bus depot into a neighborhood treasure. With its colorful outdoor murals, the former depot became a magnet for community activity and celebration that featured local food and beverages. In fact, RVA Street Art boasted that “the converted neighborhood eyesore became one of the city’s most shared social media events of the year.”

More notably, perhaps, cities are producing authentic collective activities in physical places at a time when virtual life supposedly rules. Although digital technologies constantly vie for our attention and can perpetuate urban isolation, the act of eating and sharing art in public together forces us out of our digital cocoons.

Cities are remarkable at producing these kinds of shared public spaces. And although urban life can be divisive, the inescapable embodiment found in art and food compels physical connections and community. Rather than thinking of art as superfluous or food as merely utilitarian, we should consider them critical in shaping a city’s identity and fueling its dynamism. Whether one is a chef, a painter, or simply a lover of good food and art, cities offer rich opportunities for experiencing such pleasures as well as combining them.

Stephen Assink is the Content Curator for the Common Place blog as well as a research assistant at the Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture.   

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What are the Challenges of the City today?

For centuries, social theorists worried about urbanization and its consequences for social life.  While many of their most dire fears never materialized, pressing questions about cities and city life still remain. On March 21, the Urbanization Project from New York University’s Stern School of Business brought together popular urbanist  Richard Florida, economist Paul Romer, and sociologist Robert Sampson for a panel on “The Challenge of the City.” All three speakers have made significant contributions to our understanding of cities in recent decades, and their discussion addressed many of the challenges and opportunities for cities in the next hundred years.

Each speaker recognized that the long-term challenges of urbanization will continue: by 2100 the world’s population may approach 11 billion people, with a projected 75 percent living in urban centers. Urban studies from the latter part of the 20th century revealed how structural shifts in economic production and growth produced persistent disadvantage in cities.  So far, the cities of the 21st century still contain areas of concentrated affluence and concentrated disadvantage—what Florida calls the “compression of inequality.” Sampson’s research into “neighborhood effects” highlights one key aspect of this trend: inter-generational transmission of disadvantage in certain areas. Inequality, he shows, persists even amidst significant residential turnover, pointing to the durability of structural and cultural factors that shape life outcomes. Such deeply rooted problems, which have afflicted cities for decades already, loom large for anyone concerned with the future of urban thriving over the coming years.

The event was co-sponsored by the NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and the Marion Institute on Cities and Urban Environments.

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