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.


Why Can’t Indy Do Stuff Like This??

Trust Neil Pierce to give us a peek at what cities can be. And of course, New York is leading the way–under a Mayor who has done an incredible job of making the Big Apple both livable and hip. Pierce describes the new touch-screen kiosks that are being unveiled first in New York’s Union Square–new technology that will not only make city life more convenient, informative and safer, but will generate revenue to boot.

Whatever your impressions of Mayor Bloomberg as a person or politician, his impact on the daily life of the city is undeniable.  Since our middle son moved to Manhattan, my husband and I get into New York a couple of times a year, and we’ve seen the changes: bike paths everywhere; inviting riverside parks; pedestrian-friendly walks and mid-street cafes where horn-honking cars used to dominate. The city is rolling out a bike-sharing program with an initial supply of ten thousand bicycles. It is well into the redevelopment of west-side Manhattan–our son lives in a spiffy new tower, complete with doorman and upscale amenities in a neighborhood I wouldn’t have walked in ten years ago, not far from the triumph that is the High Line.

In fact, the High Line is a perfect symbol for the City under Bloomberg. It was an eyesore–an abandoned elevated train track. Most cities would have torn it down; New York turned it into a park so successful that it attracts tourists from around the world and has generated some two billion dollars in adjacent redevelopment.

A city that can turn an eyesore into an amenity is worth emulating, even if you can’t get a 32-ounce soda there.

Next month, we’ll be visiting our son, and I’m making a beeline for Union Square. I’m going to be one of the first to try out the new kiosks. I’ll need to do it there, because if the past few years are any indication, it will be a long time before Indianapolis gets them. We were late getting even the few bike lanes we have, and no one has even suggested that we introduce a bike-sharing program, although cities from New York to Charlotte have done so. Our parks depend on charity for their continued existence. Public transportation is next to nonexistent. On a per-capita basis, New York is safer.

When we do something big, like hosting the Super Bowl, the impetus and the execution come from the private sector. If anyone in the Mayor’s office or on the City-Country Council is thinking big, or proposing innovative ways to improve livability in our city, they’re keeping it a secret.

Of course, we can buy really big sodas.


Urban Life and Political Strife

Every couple of weeks, I get an email from Citiwire.net, a brainchild (I think) of Neil Pierce, the longtime observer of urban life and policy. Each email has two columns, one from Pierce and a second that “rotates” among a variety of writers. (Those of you interested in–or passionate about–cities should sign up. It’s free.)

Last Friday’s edition included a piece from Curtis Johnson, identified as the President of Citistates Group, commenting on a very prominent article from the previous week’s New York Times headlined “Republicans to Cities: Drop Dead.”

Johnson–who noted that he had worked many years for a Republican governor–said he cringed “to see the way sensible economics has been chained up, locked out and hooted over by the reigning ideology of today’s Republicans. Not that the Democrats are much better. A dear colleague of mine says ruefully that the Democrats don’t have very good answers, but Republicans don’t even understand the questions (and he’s Republican).”

Johnson goes on to report what most people who follow urban policy already know: as baby-boomers age, a huge number of them are abandoning suburbia and moving back into the cities, while the “millennials” already prefer urban life. (He shares a ‘factoid’ of which I was unaware–millennials are the first modern generation showing a decline in automobile ownership.)

Despite the increasing move to the cities–a move amply documented by demographers–those cities are struggling. Infrastructure is crumbling. Mass transit is lagging (or, as in Indianapolis, virtually non-existent). “Things that metro regions used to be able to build in a decade now take 30 to 40 years.” Yet policymakers of both parties give short shrift to these problems.

Johnson ends by pointing out something I’ve known ever since I got married, because it is my husband’s most persistent gripe: We rely upon our cities to generate the profits that pay the nation’s bills. Here in Indiana, certainly,  tax revenues generated in Indianapolis don’t stay here–along with the other cities in Indiana–South Bend, Ft. Wayne, Evansville–we pay the lion’s share of the state’s bills. We fund the priorities of Indiana policymakers–priorities that rarely include us.

It behooves us to take better care of the goose that is laying that golden egg.