Wednesday Reading - City Observatory's "Less in Common"

In June I was lucky enough to be invited to a convening of the Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities Challenge winners. The challenge attracted over 7,000 submissions and 32 projects were funded with a total of $5 million awarded to new ideas to make cities more successful.City Observatory's "Less in Common"

The winning projects were inspiring to say the least and the opportunity to learn with and from the winners was a highlight of the past year. In addition to learning more about them, the convening featured several conversations with leading innovators, including Jim Lasko of Redmoon Theater, the artist Theaster Gates, High Line co-founder Robert Hammond, Fred Dust of IDEO, Jake Barton from Local Projects, and city expert Charles Landry.  

On the last day of the convening, we had a chance to hear from Joe Cortright and his work with City Observatory, a think tank devoted to data-driven analysis of cities and the policies that shape them. Since then, I’ve tried to dig into City Observatories reports and articles (we linked to their excellent “What Does It Mean to be a Smart City” in a post earlier this week).

Their most recent report, “Less in Common,” has been on my mind since I first read it over the summer.  “Less in Common” explores how we are spending less time together in the public spaces and community resources that are key parts of our cities and communities. It’s particularly concerned with our time spent in the public realm, the network of public spaces (parks, public buildings) and private spaces (coffee shops, theaters, shopping malls, bookstores) that are open to all and that offer opportunities for lingering. These spaces have long been critical to city observers. Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of American Cities, held that cities worked best when they brought people of diverse backgrounds, ideas, and perspectives together. More recently, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City argued for the critical role of the city as a generator of new ideas that power economic and social progress. Public spaces serve as the places where diverse people come together and create the future. This idea of time together is essential to the social capital in our communities, the value of our social networks and our inclinations to do things for each other based on those connections.

The factors that are pushing us away from each other include big issues – economic segregation, political polarization, and suburbanization – and smaller activities – television, ipods, and gyms. And yes, they didn’t forget about libraries.

Three significant sortings are affecting our communities. The first is an economic sort. Between 1970 and 2009, the proportion of families living either in predominantly poor or predominantly affluent neighborhoods doubled from 15% to 33% - while those living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65% to 42% of all families. The second is an educational sort. Economic segregation drives school segregation, where schools reflect the composition of their neighborhoods and so provide fewer opportunities for students to mix socially with people from different economic backgrounds. School segregation is also influenced by continuing racial segregation, which has moderated, but still persists in many parts of the country. Finally, there is an ideological sort, evidenced by our nation’s political polarization. As the Pew Research Center reported in 2014, 63% of consistent conservatives and 49% of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views. Combined, these divisions make it dramatically less likely that we will interact on a regular basis with people who have different experiences and perspectives than our own.

These divisions between communities would be dramatic in a compact city or community, but coupled with the growing suburbanization of our communities, there are even greater concerns for our disconnectedness from our neighbors. In the twenty largest metro areas, the percentage of people living in the principal city of a metro area has gone from 50% in 1950 to just 20% in 2000. This has a significant affect on how we govern. With up to 80% of a metro area’s population living outside the principal city, many of us don’t vote on the same issues, don’t share the same publicly administered services (libraries, for instance), and don’t concern ourselves with the same community interests or challenges. Suburbanization and sprawl have given way to gated and private communities, which often reinforce economic segregation; larger properties that create buffers between neighbors and even between the home’s residents; and greater access to housing for those wishing to live alone or in smaller households.

Suburbanization also necessitates the automobile, the overwhelmingly dominant form of transportation. Just one in twenty Americans commutes to work by mass transit and in many cities mass transit is almost exclusively a service for those who cannot afford their own car or who cannot drive (often the young, the elderly, or the disabled). Abandoning mass transit removes us from the shoulder-to-shoulder experience with other city-dwellers and the experience of different neighborhoods and their populations. The private automobile has also changed our relationship to streets, which used to serve as a multi-use public spaces for walking, cycling, playing, selling, and socializing. On a positive note, there are some signs that our dependence on private automobiles has declined – vehicle miles traveled per person is down over the past decade and there is a trend for younger people to get their licenses later and drive less than previous generations.

Our recreation patterns have also changed. While many people have more leisure time, they often turn to private or for-profit gyms and clubs, as well as their own private homes, for their leisure activities. This not only limits opportunities for engaging with neighbors at public parks and public pools, it also reinforces class and economic divides between those who can afford private amenities and those who cannot.

Libraries do fairly well as members of the public realm, with visits to public libraries generally increasing over the past several decades, even if year-to-year numbers fluctuate up or down. Interestingly, the report addresses libraries under the larger heading of books (makes sense), media, and television. The growth in television watching is noted as a threat to socialization and public interaction, especially as more people watch television alone and as a passive activity. The rise of headphones and personal devices (iPods, tablets, smart phones) are seen as another interesting threat to our public spaces, allowing people to isolate themselves on buses, airplanes, and mass transit as well as in parks, coffee shops, and health clubs (we could also add libraries to that list). While these devices make more tedious tasks bearable, they also limit opportunities for casual conversation or even for identifying similar tastes in media (“I like that song, too!”). Personal media consumption has also led to the growth of subscription or personalized radio, YouTube, Netflix, and other services that allow us to tailor content to our individual likes and schedules, removing opportunities for shared collective experiences.   

Public libraries are all over this report. We know that public libraries provide opportunities to bring people – from all different backgrounds and perspectives – together in productive collaboration in the public realm. Is there a role for other types of libraries in this discussion of the public realm? I thought of school libraries immediately in the discussion of school segregation – and we know that in many of our most economically disadvantaged schools, schools libraries have suffered. But the opportunities school libraries provide to students and their families are critically important. By encouraging inquiry, improving technology skills, and fostering the application and creation of knowledge, school libraries prepare young people for productive civic lives. It is hard to imagine future generations prepared to engage in productive conversations without the understanding of information and technology that school libraries foster. Academic libraries connect nicely with this focus on the public realm, especially as many recent news articles and reports have reinforced the importance of our academic campuses to the vitality of cities and communities. Our best colleges and universities – and their libraries – are reaching out to their communities and offering active spaces for exchange and dialog in the public realm. Academic libraries might be particularly critical for work supporting research, policy development, and academic discourse for and about cities and communities.

City Observatory’s work has kept me thinking in many different ways since I first heard Joe Cortright in June. Their exploration of cities will help all of us better understand the data and trends that are shaping how our cities live and how we live in them.