Tag Archives: Jane Jacobs

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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The Role of Faith Communities in the Flourishing City

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASmall_town_evening_(4691861030).jpg

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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Urban Policy: Part 3—Lessons From History

Tracing the development of urban policy in the United States is an often-vexing affair in historical wayfinding. Urban policy in the United States has been, like our metropolitan areas themselves, something of a sprawling mess. Many areas—public health, housing, job creation, transportation, poverty, environment, and education—have been annexed into urban policy territory. Not surprisingly, the strongest critics of U.S. urban policy rightfully argue “there is no there, there.” Our metaphorical metropolis of urban policy has often been a mélange of uncoordinated policies without a vibrant center.

In part, this is due to our federalist system. It also has something to do with the fact that cities can be targeted and affected by both place-based policies and as well as by policies not explicitly about cities, but ones which affect them in distinctive and disproportionate ways.

U.S. urban policy is heavily influenced by professional public policy experts and by an approach that emphasizes the market in various ways. In the language of many critics, this makes for an urban policy that is “technocratic” and “neoliberal.” Has urban policy always been this way? Yes and no. Technocratic and market-oriented approaches to urban governance extend back to the nineteenth century, but the specific goals, methods, and policies employed have changed considerably.

Department of Housing and Urban Development.JPG
Department of Housing and Urban Development” by Photo: Kjetil Ree
Architect: Marcel Breuer – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Genesis of Urban Policy

The political scientist Paul Kantor has suggested that U.S. urban policy has two faces: A social face, concerned with providing social support, and a developmental face, focusing on the economic growth of cities. The social face of urban policy emerged and evolved over the twentieth century in response to crises and changes in political dominance, but the developmental face of urban policy has remained more or less constant.

Since the nineteenth century, American cities have competed vehemently in the areas of investment and industry, thus giving rise to a distinctly market-oriented urban policy. By the early 1900s, business interests contributed to an increasingly technocratic approach to city governance. Seeing city government as wasteful, corrupt, and beholden to immigrant and working-class interests, businessmen pushed municipalities, in the name of “efficiency,” to be organized like corporations and run by professional experts. This technocratic city reform resulted in policies and programs that often overlapped with the social and developmental goals of urban policy. For example, the expansion of sanitation policies aimed to improve the health of all city residents, including the poor, could be justified on both social reform and economic development grounds.

In the following decades, urban planning emerged as a technocratic influence on urban governance in its reliance on professional expertise and an engineering approach to both the physical and the social environment of cities. Through the 1950s, this technocratic approach was instantiated through static urban plans, with little attention to management and implementation, a view that reflected the belief that city dynamics would be forever unchanged.

But, as cities began losing people to the suburbs and feeling the effects of deindustrialization, urban planning and policy looked to incorporate more tools from a new systems science. This burgeoning science incorporated computers and large data collection while conceptualizing the city as complex, interconnected systems. Managers then used these models to understand potential future scenarios, such as traffic models, and how city plans and policies would respond to them.

Urban Policy and National Government

The changing relationship of cities to the national government also fueled a more technocratic approach to urban policy. In the post-war period, national policies that favored home-ownership in the suburbs and automobile transportation facilitated drastic changes in cities. In turn, national urban renewal policies attempted to deal with the decline of urban areas through a familiar combination of technocratic planning and business partnerships that bulldozed old, “blighted” neighborhoods in favor of redevelopment. These policies often hurt poor and African-American communities. The urbanist Jane Jacobs famously savaged urban renewal, among other common aspects of technocratic planning, in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Perhaps the strongest technocratic approach to cities, however, came with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society poverty policies. LBJ’s “War on Poverty” drew heavily on systems science from the military as well as relatively new public policy methods developed by economists that concentrated on program evaluation and budgeting. As in systems planning for cities, this approach to poverty involved collecting large amounts of data on individuals in order to identify the causes of poverty that would build a baseline for measuring policy effectiveness. This public policy strategy had the effect of marginalizing programs that did not have measures that could be easily evaluated.

The Great Society era was the high point of national involvement with urban policy, after which national urban policy retreated for various reasons. Republicans opposed many of the national urban policies, while many Democrats saw cities as lost causes that were becoming less valuable political assets. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration initiated the “New Federalism” that gave cities and states more control of federal funding. While national urban policy continued to decline under Reagan, funding decreased though by no means disappeared. The national government particularly rolled back the social face of urban policy, and what remained was oriented toward more market flexibility (such as Section 8 housing vouchers), public-private partnerships (such as housing corporations), and market incentives (such as Empowerment Zones that gave tax breaks to businesses locating in distressed communities).

Urban Policy Today

From the 1970s on, cities faced enormous economic stress and competition that pushed them toward market-oriented strategies and technocratic public-policy management. Suburbanization had drained a sizable tax base from cities while leaving them with expensive infrastructure and social obligations. Cities like New York neared bankruptcy and were pushed into public-policy austerity. As capital became more mobile in a global economy, cities faced greater competition to attract investment and jobs. With few funds, cities turned to instruments like Tax Increment Financing, which effectively subsidized development using future tax income.

Overall, the lack of a national urban policy has fostered a technocratic approach to urban policy. The United States toyed with the idea of a national urban policy as far back as the New Deal and the concept has reared its head several times since, although LBJ’s Great Society was the closest we ever came to implementation. Despite creating a cabinet-level agency with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the United States, unlike most European countries, never outlined a comprehensive national urban policy.

After the Great Society, national urban policy disaggregated even more, with many areas—environmental, crime, education, among others—having a strong effect on cities even without an overarching strategy. The siloing of these policies fields has perpetuated the application of powerful technocratic systems. With narrower objectives, policy analysts can collect more and better data, build more complex models, and offer more sophisticated policy solutions. But this vigorous pursuit of narrow goals and efficiency often provides little reflection on the broader purpose that those goals are supposed to serve, or the values that these aims embody and, indeed, often obscure. Urban policy, like all policy, is power over people’s lives, and it must always be questioned for whom and what it serves.

Leif Fredrickson is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Virginia, focusing on environmental, technological, and policy history.  His dissertation, “Metropolitan Mindscapes,” analyzes how the urban environment has shaped the bodies and brains of people in Baltimore in the 20th century.

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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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Nashville and the Future of Civic Engagement

Above: Jane Jacobs (third from right in glasses) and architect Philip Johnson (far right) stand with picketing crowds in 1963 outside New York’s Penn Station to protest the building’s demolition. Walter Daran/Archive Photos/Getty Images


Sometime soon, opera fans will be transported to Manhattan in the 1960s, when a white-gloved activist took on the city’s most powerful urban planner. The still-untitled opera will follow the famous struggle between Jane Jacobs, inspirational forerunner of the New Urbanism, and Robert Moses, the so-called “master builder” of New York City. According to the opera’s website, the piece will chronicle “the fate of Washington Square Park and lower Manhattan in the 1960s. When Jacobs’s neighborhood was threatened by Moses’s highway development plans, she mounted community opposition that successfully halted Moses’s actions and weakened his hold on urban policy.”

Today, the issues surrounding transportation remain a vital part of urban development. In 2013 alone, more than $64 billion was spent on mass-transit projects in the United States, ranging from light rail to buses. In 2014, the projected investment is expected to reach $81 billion. Maintaining viable transportation links remains an important aspect of city governance.

Yet, in addition to the usual problems surrounding infrastructure—cost, timing, political will, local opposition—something new appears to be brewing. Historically, transportation debates, like the one between Jacobs and Moses, have been primarily local or regional affairs. More and more these days, basic questions of urban transit are subject to outside political forces and desires.

In a development that has generated some press, Nashville’s popular public transportation project, AMP, appears to be on the ropes because of outside political pressure. The AMP would encompass 7.1 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT) that would connect Nashville’s East and West Ends and would cost $174 million to build. Funding would be shared between federal, state, and local governments, with up to $75 million coming from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program. According to The Transport Politic:

From a pure public transportation perspective, the line makes perfect sense: It serves the city’s central east-west spine. Within a half-mile of its stations are 33% of the county’s jobs (132,000 of about 400,000) and 5% of its population (32,000 people), and it is currently undergoing something of a building boom. It would link several hospitals, Vanderbilt University, the downtown core, the transit center, and several tourist attractions. And it would offer transit service speeds similar to those available for private automobiles today.

Above: View of the Nashville skyline across the Cumberland River, Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images


Until recently, the project appeared to be close to getting off the ground with support from city hall and local businesses. But in early April, Nashville’s mayor Karl Dean, in a concession to community concerns over traffic, eliminated dedicated lanes for the buses along the western route due to fears of congested lanes. What happened?

Although local opposition to the project already existed, the tipping point came from state legislators who recently passed a bill in the state senate requiring approval from the state as well as prohibiting public transit from using the center lanes of streets for loading and unloading passengers—a significant feature of the AMP project. The House bill would allow center-lane transit but only with State approval. The bills have yet to be reconciled before gubernatorial approval.

A lot of the attention concerning the AMP’s future has focused on the Koch brothers, the politically active billionaires who have contributed large sums to conservative causes. Shortly after the passage of the Senate bill, The Tennessean reported that Americans for Prosperity, the brothers’ think tank and lobbying organization, had played a role. Many Tennesseans were both puzzled and annoyed that outsiders like the Kochs (who operate from Kansas and New York) had been meddling in state and local affairs. As Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce put it:

The AMP Yes coalition is a coalition of local businesses, local individuals and local organizations that live in the community and have a dedication to finding the answers that make this community a great community to live in. These are the people that drive these roads every day, need the alternative transportation opportunities, know where Nashville’s headed and know what kind of community they want Nashville to be.

Others share Mr. Schulz’s anxiety about Americans for Prosperity’s intervention in Nashville, and the Kochs’ involvement has promoted a host of other alarmed voices. Those critical of the Kochs worry about outside influence on local public affairs and what it might mean for other cities. Are these concerns overblown? To answer this, raises the broader question of the significance of cities today.

Recently, two books have addressed this question and praised the virtues of urban democracy. Peter Levine’s We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For and Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World argue that in an age of overheated partisanship on Capitol Hill, cities can take the lead in addressing our most pressing issues, such as inequality and climate change. The authors contend that city officials and their constituents—those closest to the problems—are more likely to be civic-minded and to think in terms of the common good rather than party ideology. Associate Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, Michael McQuarrie sums up this view nicely in his book review:

[B]ecause the relationship between governments and citizens are closer in cities, they are more democratic. So, while cities suffer from contemporary global problems, they are also in a better position to deal with them. In contrast to nation-states, cities are centers of commercial and cultural activity that attract migrants with their economic opportunity and tolerance.

Urban citizens are worldly, making them not only sensitive to global problems but also well-equipped for cooperation across lines of state sovereignty. They are pragmatic problem-solvers, unlikely to be diverted by ideology or unnecessarily resistant to modifying their views.

If Levine and Barber are right, local civic engagement appears to offer a way forward in our current political climate. Yet as recent events in Tennessee show, even a local transportation project with widespread support from citizens across the political spectrum is not immune to disruptive partisanship. As millennials with their heightened awareness of environmental sustainability flock to cities, city officials need to find ways to keep ideological debates from sidetracking important issues and projects. Failure to do so could not only imperil civic services like public transportation, but also prevent cities from addressing the big challenges of our time.

Unlike Robert Moses, who considered transportation little more than traffic control, Jane Jacobs saw such infrastructure as the lifeblood of a city—connecting neighborhoods and encouraging urban diversity. Through community rallies and public marches, she fought and eventually defeated the highly influential transportation bureaucrat because she knew if Moses had his way it would destroy vibrant communities. Her struggle received national attention, but it was her grassroots efforts that had the greatest impact. Jacobs’s fight proved that certain urban issues like transportation are best handled as a local (or metro area) affair. Perhaps the next time there is an opera based on a municipal dispute, it will involve a cadre of frustrated urbanites making local politics a nationwide concern.


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