Tag Archives: Thriving Cities

Confronting Climate Change, Rethinking the City

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

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

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

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

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

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Assessing Urban Complexity: Thriving Cities Conference Recap

TCP

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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Public Health and the City: Talking With Nisha Botchwey—Part 2

Last week, we featured part 1 of my interview with Nisha Botchwey of Georgia Institute for Technology where she explained the benefit of a multi-sector approach to public health. In part 2, Professor Botchwey continues the discussion on how cities can promote public heath by focusing on the interrelationship between the built environment and human well-being. In this segment, she highlights three touchstone areas of good urban design.

Nisha Botchwey Interview — Part 2 from IASCulture on Vimeo.

 

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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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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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Can Richmond heal its past to become a thriving city? An interview with Julian Hayter

(Credit: iStockphotos)

(Credit: iStockphotos)

I met up recently with Julian Hayter, Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at the Jepson School of the University of Richmond. A historian, Hayter focuses on municipal politics in the post-1945 South and specifically Richmond, Virginia. His research does more than interrogate Richmond’s past, he explained: “I’ve asked historical questions that beg contemporaries to think about Richmond presently.”

Q: As part of the Institute for Advanced Cities in Culture‘s  Thriving Cities Project you’ve been asked to write a city profile for Richmond. How are you approaching this?

Outside of thinking about things within the ideological framework Thriving Cities champions, I’ve simply relied on many of the research techniques I use as an historian. I’m currently writing a book that ends in 1985—many of the sources I’ve used to uncover Richmond’s past aren’t that dissimilar from the data I’m using to understand Richmond now. 

Q: Do you think Richmond is a thriving city?

Frankly, portions of Richmond thrive. Other portions of Richmond, which were purposefully underdeveloped during the Jim Crow era, still struggle. Unfortunately, Richmond has struggled to overcome segregationists’ lack of long-term political vision.

Q: If we think of cities as having inheritances, what do you think is Richmond’s primary treasure that lends to its ability to thrive?

Richmond’s history, which has been its Achilles’ heel, might be used to turn a corner. This area occupies a special place in American history—Richmond and Virginia were central to the creation of the American democratic experiment, trans-Atlantic slaving, the establishment of the Confederacy, and much more. Richmond has inherited a special place in American heritage. Yet, this is a hotly debated space. History’s been used in this area to divide. I see no reason why Richmond’s history can’t be a unifying force.

Q: What is the biggest challenge or barrier to Richmond’s thriving as a city? 

Even more frankly, Richmond’s biggest challenge is poverty—it’s rampant and generational. Richmond’s poverty, unfortunately, is also closely linked to Jim Crowism. Yet, local policymakers are finally addressing this issue. (See the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission Report.)

Q: What is one thing that has surprised you about Richmond in your work so far? 

I’ve been studying Richmond’s relatively recent history for nearly a decade. My colleagues are local policymakers, social workers, organizers, and active citizens. Very little surprises me about this area.

(Credit: University of Richmond)

(Credit: University of Richmond)

 

To hear more from Julian, check out the opinion piece he wrote for Richmond’s Style Weekly (The Rest of the Dream) about the legacy of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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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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Thriving Cities on Milwaukee Public Radio

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Katherine Wilson (Exec. Dir., Zeidler Center) and David Flowers (City Profiler, TCP)
Credit S Bence

The Thriving Cities Project (TCP), run by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, is a multi-year study on what it means and takes to thrive in today’s cities.  Public radio station WUWM 89.7 in Milwaukee, one of the project’s pilot cities, recently talked with David Flowers, a researcher currently profiling the city for the TCP.  In the interview, he talks about the value of the project’s approach to understanding urban life as well as a series of interviews with Milwaukee residents he is conducting for the project at the Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion.

You can listen to the interview here: http://wuwm.com/post/milwaukee-part-thriving-cities-project-public-dialogue-begins-today

 

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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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