Tag Archives: cities

Why Cities Matter

The weather finally–finally!–got warm and pleasant, and I was able to walk around my downtown neighborhood. It was a welcome break from what my husband and I have come to call “house arrest,” and it gave me the opportunity to see who had planted flowers, whose house had been painted, and who else was out walking–with or without a dog.

I’ve written before about how, in the forty years we’ve lived downtown, the center of the city has dramatically changed. Dilapidated structures have been restored, new construction is everywhere, bars and restaurants are too numerous to count. I’m a very urban person, and I have rejoiced in it all.

Now, I fear what the pandemic will do to cities–including mine.

Will fear of density cause people to opt for the suburbs or exurbs? Now that many businesses have seen the virtues of a remote workforce, the cost and hassle of commuting may diminish, making outward migration more appealing. On the other hand, an article from the Conversation reports that density is not the negative we tend to think it is.

Yet while dense major cities are more likely entry points for disease, history shows suburbs and rural areas fare worse during airborne pandemics – and after.

According to the Princeton evolutionary biologist Andrew Dobson, when there are fewer potential hosts – that is, people – the deadliest strains of a pathogen have better chances of being passed on.

This “selection pressure” theory explains partly why rural villages were hardest hit during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Per capita, more people died of Spanish flu in Alaska than anywhere else in the country.

Lower-density areas may also suffer more during pandemics because they have fewer, smaller and less well-equipped hospitals. And because they are not as economically resilient as large cities, post-crisis economic recovery takes longer.

Given the degree to which facts have become meaningless in today’s America, I doubt many people will base their decisions on these findings. As a recent New York Times column began 

To the extent that cities can be said to possess “a brand,” history suggests that pandemics, from the Black Death to smallpox, have not been very good for it. The coronavirus is no exception: According to one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of adults living in cities have begun to consider moving to less populated areas because of the outbreak. In New York, where I live, roughly 5 percent of the population — or about 420,000 people — have already left.

The urge to flee urban “caldrons of contagion” is a very old one, dating at least to the 14th century. Its resurgence now has been described as “temporary,” but so was the war in Afghanistan. Will the coronavirus really set off a mass exit from cities, and, if so, what will they look like on the other side of the pandemic?

The author echoed the findings published by the Conversation, pointing out that a number of “hyperdense” cities in East Asia contained their outbreaks, and that even in New York, Manhattan, the densest borough, has the lowest rates of infection, while Staten Island, which is the most spread-out, has some of the highest. Density isn’t the problem–it’s household overcrowding, poverty, racialized economic segregation and the nature of one’s participation in the work force.

The real threat is that the pandemic will eviscerate all the things that make cities attractive. If it wipes out the restaurants, bars, museums and theaters that make urban living so richly rewarding–and if rents stay sky high–all bets are off.

That said, the column ended on a positive note; the coronavirus “could herald an urban rebirth instead of an urban decline…. After all, the very idea of abandoning cities is a luxury reserved only for those who have the resources to pick up and move.”

Cities matter because they are incubators of creativity. When diverse people come together to work and play, they generate new ideas, new ways of doing things. They see new connections. They are nurtured by living in neighborhoods where they are close enough to know each other, where the sidewalks go somewhere, and where people are acutely aware of their interdependence.

In the wake of this pandemic, America’s cities may experience a few years of stasis or population decline. But history tells us that cities are too attractive and too necessary to abandon or neglect for long.

Job number 2 will be to ensure that cities emerge healthier, more equitable and even more vibrant than they were before Covid-19. Job number 1, of course, is to save America from  Trump, his administration and his base.

 

If All Politics is Local

So yesterday, the President-Elect held what may have been the most surreal, embarrassing, childish such event ever held by someone preparing to assume that office. If there was any doubt about the need for resistance–the need to assure that this manifestly unqualified “man” and his collection of appalling cabinet choices do as little harm as possible–that display should have put it to rest.

So remember–local action can throw sand in the Orange One’s gears.

In the wake of the election, several cities have confirmed their intent to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, in defiance of Trump’s threats to withhold billions in federal dollars.

Vox reports that Colorado is currently exploring how to keep an Obamacare marketplace open in a post-Obamacare era, continuing to use the technology the state built as a way to make shopping for insurance easier.

Jerry Brown has made it abundantly clear that California will continue to fight climate change. Aggressively.

Meanwhile, sites such as Resilience are actively encouraging what they call “anti-Fascist” organizing.

Policy innovation is already taking place at the municipal level. The practice of sanctuary cities is just one example. City governments in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Greater Boston, Chicago are increasingly funneling resources into worker-cooperative development, and devolving fiscal capacity to the community through participatory budgeting— both of which have also empowered undocumented immigrants in the policy realm as well as in their day-to-day economic well-being.

These developments are limited, even within the context of the cities themselves, but they can be pushed much further. The way for this to be done is through anti-fascist coalitions. In many of these cities there exists a smattering of progressive and even left-wing forces. This election has provided the sustained impetus for such groups to come together beyond the level of protest and contestation we have been seeing in recent weeks.

Although several of the suggestions in the Resilience article are framed in unnecessarily inflammatory rhetoric and somewhat “out there” (and in my own opinion, highly unrealistic), the emphasis on local action has much to recommend it.

It’s great that several blue states will resist the incoming Administration, but many of us  live in Red states, where it’s easy to get discouraged. If we live in urban areas of those Red States,however, we do have options.  If you look at the vote distribution in the Presidential election, it becomes abundantly clear that city-dwellers decisively rejected Trump and Trumpism .

Those of us who live in urban areas, surrounded by others who reject the racism, misogyny and xenophobia of the incoming Administration, who believe in science and environmental protection and endorse the moral and economic imperative of an adequate social safety net need to map out our counter-insurgency.

We need to decide what measures we can take at the municipal level to counter Washington’s likely retreat from governance. And then we need to work hard to implement those measures.

Bitching on Facebook is no substitute for face-to-face civic engagement.

 

Speaking of Cities…

Citiscope (a site I highly recommend to those readers who care about urban policy) has been focusing on Habitat III, the next major U. N. conference on cities.

Habitat III is to be held next month in Quito, Ecuador. For more than a year, global networks of mayors and local governments have been gearing up for what amounts to the Olympics of urbanism. Habitat III is arguably the world’s most important conversation about the future of cities. And it’s taking place at a time when rapid urban growth on all continents, especially Africa and Asia, makes that discussion more crucial than ever.

Officially known as the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III is a rare event in global policy circles — the one time every 20 years when heads of state and national ministers gather to discuss and debate urban policy. (The first Habitat conference took place in Vancouver in 1976.)

The gathering in Quito is expected to produce a sweeping but nonbinding global strategy on sustainable urbanization. Known as the “New Urban Agenda,” this strategy will include recommendations for fighting urban poverty, devolving authority to local governments and bolstering streams of municipal finance, among other issues. Diplomats are still negotiating the details, but once finalized in Quito, the document will join last December’s Paris climate agreement and other recent accords to create a global framework for sustainability.

The problem is that, thus far, U.S. Mayors are nowhere to be found. If the governance of cities is becoming increasingly central to the national and global future, “opting out” should not be an option.

In a different article, also posted to Citiscope, respected political scientist Benjamin Barber explains what he sees as the role of urban areas:

In my 2014 book “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities”, I proposed that cities may be to the future what nations were to the past — efficient and pragmatic problem-solving governance bodies that can address sustainability and security without surrendering liberty or equality. If, that is, they can work together across the old and obsolete national borders. And if they can assume some of the prerogatives of sovereignty necessary to collaboration.

In fact, cities are doing just this. A few years ago, the United Nations announced that a majority of the world’s population lives in cities, while economists recognize that 80 percent or more of global gross domestic product is being produced in cities. From the United Kingdom and China to the United States and Italy, authority is being devolved to cities.

One of the reasons that scholars like Barber have high hopes for cities is their recognition of the importance of civic trust (an essential element of social capital); polling shows that citizens’ trust in city governments remains high while, on average, only a third of citizens around the world say they trust their national governments. Two-thirds or more of those same citizens say they trust mayors and other local officials.

Although Barber doesn’t address it, I think one reason for higher levels of trust in city governments is the perception–largely accurate–that individual actors can influence local government. That perception is in stark contrast to the widespread conviction that ordinary citizens have no voice on the national stage. Much of the anger and hostility on display in our national politics comes from a feeling of powerlessness–a recognition that systemic and institutional forces are beyond the ability of average citizens to modify or control.

Cities, too, face institutional impediments.

In the United States, federalism has meant devolution of authority to states, not cities, and as a result, in states like Indiana that lack meaningful home rule, urban areas lack political power to decide their own fates. If the scholars who write at Citiscope and the political figures who support Habitat are right–if cities are going to be central to future governance– eliminating the barriers to genuine home rule will be critically important.

I don’t know about other cities in other states, but in Indiana, where cities are firmly in the thrall of our “overlords” in the state legislature, gaining the right to self-determination won’t be easy.

 

I Guess This Doesn’t Include Indiana

Macleans has identified cities it dubs a “new brain belt.”

These are the places where they think the greatest innovation is happening today. Sometimes they are classic rust-belt cities but mostly they are university or hospital towns in the vicinity: Waterloo, Ont., instead of Windsor.

They identify characteristics of such places: high-tech facilities, quality educational institutions, taxpayer support for research, appealing living conditions and, most important for them, cultures of free thinking, in contrast to the “hierarchical, regimented thinking so prevalent in Asian and MIST [Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey] countries.”

Or states like Indiana.

We have had several robust discussions on this blog about my theory of “paradigm shift.” Call it that, or focus on the narrower question (posed by MacLeans) whether your own city or state is “innovative” or “future oriented”–the question is one with which every Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development organization is wrestling: how does my city/ metropolitan area/state continue to compete and thrive in a world that is constantly changing? How do we get from here (wherever that is) to there (wherever that is)?

I was struck by the list of characteristics identified by MacLeans: of the five, four focused on human capital–more precisely, the development of an intellectual culture.

  • High tech facilities are built in places having workforces that can operate and manage them, places where both technical skills and comfort with technical innovation are plentiful.
  • The phrase “quality educational institutions” suggests the sort of yeasty and challenging environment that deals in questions, not answers–the sort of educational environment that produces new ideas and new ways of thinking about the traditional ones. (Quality is not defined by job placement statistics–sorry, Indiana Commission on Higher Education.)
  • “Taxpayer support for research” certainly doesn’t call to mind the penny-pinching, “I’ve got mine, Jack, and I’m holding onto it” attitude that has long characterized my own state of Indiana. It certainly doesn’t describe a state that would constitutionalize a cap on property taxes, lest those taxes somehow get raised and then–horrors!–spent on a common civic good like education. Or a better quality of life.
  • When you think about it, a culture of “free thinking”–the fourth intellectual attribute of forward-looking places–really leads to the only characteristic listed that doesn’t immediately connect to the life of the mind: a good quality of life. I don’t think you can have a good quality of life without such a “free thinking” culture.

People who enjoy engaging with ideas, with the arts, with people unlike themselves–people interested not only in acquiring new skills but in using those skills to improve their communities–are people who understand the organic nature and human importance of those communities, and the importance of their own connections to them.

There are people in my city–and I’d wager in yours–who are working hard to create a community that looks like that.

But at this point, my city– and most definitely my state— have a long way to go.

It’s Who You Know

There’s an old saying to the effect that it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know. There’s a lot of truth to that, and it’s why cities are so important.

The other day, I read one of those pious rants from a privileged old white guy–it may have been Charles Koch–about how the minimum wage is bad for poor people because it makes them dependent. It’s easy enough to mock people who see no connection between the government goodies they enjoy–the business subsidies and tax breaks and the like–and government rules that benefit poorer folks–but these lectures betray another aspect of their cluelessness. I’d be willing to bet that Charles Koch and his ilk don’t really know any poor people.

They may have servants who are poor, of course. But that’s a lot different than living in a economically diverse neighborhood, or riding public transportation with an assortment of city dwellers, or having your kids go to school with children from varied backgrounds.

Even in cities, of course, we see increasing economic segregation. But there was a lot of truth to that wonderful old rant The Urban Archipelago —

Look around you, urbanite, at the multiplicity of cultures, ethnicities, and tribes that are smashed together in every urban center (yes, even Seattle): We’re for that. We’re for pluralism of thought, race, and identity.

The real virtue of urban diversity is that it bestows a larger framework for understanding the world and the variety of people who populate it. If your only contact with “poor people” is on television or through the writing of ideologically compatible pundits–if you view “them”only from the comfort and distance of your gated community,or through the window of your air-conditioned Mercedes– it’s easy to make assumptions about their lives and habits.

Many years ago, when my sons were in high school (Tech, in downtown Indianapolis), a girl began calling my middle son every night at dinner time. After the fifth or sixth time, annoyed, I indulged a sexist stereotype and snapped “Tell her to stop calling you, that boys call girls; girls don’t call boys!” To which he replied, “But mom, I can’t call her. Her family doesn’t have a phone.”

I don’t think I’d ever known anyone who didn’t have a telephone. But my sons’ lives and moral imaginations have been immeasurably enlarged because they did.

Stereotyping of all kinds depends on ignorance. That’s true of racial and religious stereotyping, and it’s equally true of economic stereotyping. The virtue of cities is that “smashing together” of real human beings–a smashing that makes it harder (not impossible, but harder) to substitute assumptions about other people for actual knowledge of them.