Category Archives: Interviews

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Portland for Slackers? An Interview With Tom Krattenmaker

MtTaborPortlandHood” by CacophonyOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Krattenmaker is Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a contributing columnist for USA Today. He has just completed writing an in-depth profile of Portland for the Thriving Cities Project (anticipated publication in 2015). 


Common Place: Just this week, the New York Times published an article on the city of Portland, “Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young?” In it, Portland is described as a sort of slacker’s paradise. Would you agree with that assessment?

Tom Krattenmaker: That’s pretty close to the truth, but I would push back on that term “slacker.” I don’t think the hip young adults crowding this city are generally lazy or directionless. Many of them are ambitious and super busy with all sorts of creative projects—maybe their bands or their art or some political cause or nonprofit they’re involved with. The “paradise” part is pretty close to the truth. I have never been in a city that comes so close to matching a certain kind of ideal. The combination of creative energy, natural beauty, liberal politics, and sustainability is really quite amazing. For some people, it’s probably more like a hell, but if you’re a certain type of person, Portland is as close to urban paradise as you’re likely to get. 

CP: In the article, a lot of attention is given to the dearth of well paying jobs with too many overeducated people. Do you see this aspect of Portland as a problem? Is there something else going on besides New York Times version of the story?

Sure, it’s a problem, but probably not of the magnitude one might think. A lot of Portland people aren’t interested in conventional jobs. The lower incomes also keep costs of living relatively low. Also mitigating this problem is the existence of an alternative artisan economy that has little interest in business as usual and in personal acquisition. These are people who create and consume hand-crafted goods and cultivate shared experiences and spaces that give them a form of “social wealth” that isn’t captured by conventional economic measures. Some will tell you that this is the upside of the scarcity of corporate headquarters in Portland. The absence of Fortune 500 companies leaves space for this kind of alternative economy to grow and flourish.

CP: You just finished writing an in-depth profile on Portland for the Thriving Cities Project. What did you learn that surprised you?

As you can tell from my answers above, I’m a fan of these “Portlandia” aspects of our city, and I love the ways in which Portland is different from other places. However, doing all this thinking and research and writing about Portland over recent months has opened my eyes to something to which I had not given enough attention previously—namely, the way we tend to skip some of the fundamentals that might not be in sync with the Portlandia dream but that are essential for a city’s long-term thriving. These are things like a solid public education infrastructure, support for families, race equity, and—yes—conventional economic strength, which is necessary to finance the whole thing and to keep our population from becoming too much of a one-dimensional caricature.  

CP: What is often overlooked in discussions of Portland are the city’s racial challenges. How would you describe them?

In my Portland profile, I sometimes refer to Portland living the “green dream.” It’s also a white dream in that Portland is the least diverse major city in the United States. But for some, Portland is nothing close to a dream. Especially for people of color, it can be tough place. All of us liberals out here are for racial justice in principle. But for a whole complex set of reasons, we don’t always put our money where are mouths are. If you look at the metrics, whether it’s income or health outcomes or high school graduation rates or any number of other measures, you find big disparities. I’m hopeful, though, that we are in the early stages of an evolution whereby the city begins to live up to its progressive values in this area, too.

CP: Would you say Portland is a thriving city?

In many ways, yes. No place is utopia, and that’s certainly true of Portland. But a lot of what’s happening here is very good and is conducive to residents having an urban experience with less of the grind that you find in most big cities, and with more sheer pleasantness and cheerfulness (despite the gray skies and rain). It’s telling that so many smart, educated young people—people with lots of options—continue to endorse the place by moving here.




Click here to follow Tom on his website. Also, check out his most recent book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know

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Architecture and the Built Environment: Talking With William Sherman—Part 2

Last week, we featured Part 1 of my interview with William Sherman in which he discussed the consequences of a poorly-designed built environment. In Part 2, Professor Sherman goes on to explain why and how architecture matters for cities. In this segment, he highlights the ways buildings are interwoven into the fabric of urban life.

William Sherman Part 2 from IASCulture on Vimeo.


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Architecture and the Built Environment: Talking with William Sherman—Part 1

At the recent Thriving Cities conference, I sat down with William Sherman, Professor of Architecture, at the University of Virginia.  As an architect and an expert on the built environment, Professor Sherman examines how misguided building design over the past century has inhibited urban thriving. At the same time, Professor Sherman offers key insights into how architects can facilitate a more just and socially aware built environment. 

In part 2 of the interview, Professor Sherman will explain the particular role that architecture plays within the larger urban ecosystem.

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Public Health and the City: Talking With Nisha Botchwey—Part 1

At the recent Thriving Cities Project conference, I sat down with Nisha Botchwey, an Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As an expert in public health, the built environment, and community engagement, Botchwey examines the intersection between urban life and healthy living.

In the first part of our interview, we talked about how cities can promote public health.

Nisha Botchwey Interview Part 1 from IASCulture on Vimeo.

In part 2 of the interview, Professor Botchway will discuss how thoughtful urban design facilitates healthy living.


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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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