Tag Archives: Assessment

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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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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What’s the Matter with GDP?

Criticism of GDP—Gross Domestic Product—has grown dramatically over the last few years. By definition, GDP is simply an expression of the value of all goods and services produced within a nation in a given year. Yet many critics argue that it is much more than that, and that our use of the statistic requires serious rethinking just as the statistic itself needs revision. Scholars, activists, and policy experts have charged that it no longer effectively captures how economies function; that it is far too reductive to be of much use; that it has proven far too susceptible to errors of counting; and, most pressingly, that it has led to misguided aspirations and destructive values.

Three books published in the past year—Diane Coyle’s GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, Zachary Karabell’s Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World, and Lorenzo Fioramonti’s, Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World’s Most Powerful Number—have now entered into these debates. They each ask the same set of vital questions: Why did GDP arise? What’s wrong with it? And what should be done? While all the authors present very similar explanations for the concept’s creation and its pitfalls, they offer starkly different suggestions for what we should do about it.

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The Problem of Assessment: Part III

In our previous two posts, we identified some downsides and pitfalls to current methods of assessment.  So what might a more constructive approach to assessing urban life look like?

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The Problem of Assessment: Part II

In our last post, we highlighted some of the recent historical changes surrounding assessments. How do all these measurements help us understand what it means to thrive in today’s cities?

Assessing Cities: Current Trends and Standard Approaches

To begin to answer that question, we must first examine the evolution of city assessments. Until very recently, efforts at city and community-level assessment lagged behind the attention paid to country-level assessments. Today, however, many experts, reformers, and city leaders are measuring the health of their cities and tracking efforts to improve the conditions of urban dwellers. These efforts underway in cities mirror those occurring within the surging world of social progress indicators more generally.

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The Problem of Assessment: Part I

Understanding the nature of thriving in cities requires tackling a number of challenging questions about how to identify, conceptualize, measure, and assess urban life. Over a series of three posts, we will explore a variety of such inquiries: How are we to assess the health and well-being of our cities? By what metrics can we measure both the objective and subjective dimensions of human existence that would count as well-being? On what basis would we be able to evaluate social progress or regress? How, in short, would we know if our cities, and the people and places that constitute them, are thriving?

Such questions rest, in turn, on even more fundamental and perplexing ones. What is the nature of thriving? How would we know it when we see it? Can such a thing as thriving even be measured?

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