Some of you may agree with me that it’s nice to escape every so often from the din of partisan politics and competing orthodoxies. When the national “dialogue” gets really tiresome I now have two places to retreat. One is Major League Baseball, where even Yankees and Red Sox fans can coexist (more or less). The other is my extracurricular interest in cities, urbanism, and the man who was the father to a lot of today’s thinking in the field, William H. Whyte.
Although I am relatively new to the field and am also prone to wishful thinking, my impression is that urbanism, played out at the city level, is already one or two steps removed from politics at the national level. In addition the issues are often measurable and observable. You think your town would be better off with a bike lane? You could set one up temporarily and try it out.
I have seen some petty politics — just last week the mayor of Trenton, NJ, announced a company’s plans to rehab an old Roebling Steel plant and turn it into a high tech fabrication center. Two days later the deal was cancelled — the city council said it had not been properly notified. But I have not seen the ideological standoffs so evident in other national issues. However, as we will see at the end of this column, some political correctness may be lurking in the weeds. Let’s hope it doesn’t become prevalent.
I began to appreciate the nonpartisan approach to urbanism a year ago, when I interviewed Bruce Katz, co-author with Jeremy Nowak of “The New Localism – How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism.” Katz noted that many city-based issues cut across political party lines. Conservatives and liberals, for example, can agree on what needs to be done to shore up a city’s failing infrastructure. Katz even imagined a potential new political party — the Metro Party, the people in it called the Metropolitans, who could build a coalition to improve the viability of cities.
“The left valorizes government; the right valorizes markets,” Katz and Nowak wrote. “The battle between these two choices in public asset management has contributed to political partisanship by posing a false choice between management mediocrity and the loss of ownership rights.” But, Katz and Nowak continued, “between these two extremes are pragmatic and significant examples of . . . hybrid systems and partnerships that blend public control and private enterprise.”
Earlier this year I met Joe Reilly, who served for 40 years as mayor of Charleston. He helped revitalize that city through a pragmatic approach that began with a most apolitical view of every development proposal that came before the city: How would this improvement look from ground level up to six feet high? A blank wall would be discouraged. A five-foot fence might be replaced by a three-foot fence. “It was a joy coming to work,” Reilly said. “There were no political hires. Nobody ever told me who they voted for.” Reilly, it turns out, is a Democrat.
More recently I edited an op ed piece by Jayson White, co-author of “The Next American City” with Mick Cornett, the four-term mayor of Oklahoma City. White has been in Princeton reporting for the University of Virginia Darden School of Business on what makes particular metropolitan areas more or less attractive to entrepreneurs.
“The Next American City” offers some clues, beginning with Oklahoma City, which has rebounded from its days of darkness following the terrorist bombing of the federal building in 1995. The cornerstones of its success included a private citizen and rowing aficionado who managed to turn Oklahoma City, which had recently resurrected a dried up riverbed through the center of town, into a national rowing center. Another civic effort that cut across all political, social, and economic lines was a community weight-loss campaign. Mayor Cornett had cringed when he saw Oklahoma City on a magazine’s list of most obese cities in America. He went on a highly publicized diet and asked everyone to join him. It worked. Over a four-year period 50,000 residents signed up on a website and collectively reported the loss of 1 million pounds.
As you read of the ground level work being done by Cornett, you lose sight of his political affiliation. In the foreword of the book urbanist Richard Florida writes that “Cornett was the longest serving in a long line of fiscally conservative Oklahoma City mayors that have understood the importance of a city investing in itself in this new urban, talent-driven age. While maintaining his focus on balanced budgets and sound economic policy, this Republican leader understood when, and how, local taxes could effectively and uniquely fund local infrastructure and improve the quality of place. . .
“Local leadership really does defy party. As I like to say, when I meet a national politician, it is immediately clear which side of the political divide they’re on. But when I travel to cities across the United States, I am amazed I can never tell who is a Democrat and who is a Republican.”
A few weeks ago I met Florida in person, at an event co-sponsored by the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Florida, the author of the bestselling “Rise of the Creative Class” in 2002 and a professor at the University of Toronto, struck me as a down-to-earth guy who wouldn’t rely on political litmus tests to formulate an opinion. Born in Newark, where his father, a high school dropout, worked in a factory, Florida used a state scholarship to attend Rutgers (Class of 1979). “It changed my life,” he said.
After earning a Ph.D. in urban planning from Columbia, Florida began teaching and writing about cities. In Philadelphia he offered a practical approach to solving the challenges. “We have to face the fact that our country has decided that it doesn’t want the federal government to take care of these problems,” he said, in a statement that was as close as he came to current affairs in Washington. The solutions would have to come from the local level:
1.) Make the start-up economy more inclusive, and make sure the new generation of urban activists includes more women and minorities;
2.) facilitate more affordable housing with inclusionary zoning;
3.) upgrade the service jobs that often constitute the bulk of entry-level employment opportunities in revitalized urban areas. Companies that follow a “good jobs strategy,” Florida reported, pay their people more but get reduced turnover and greater productivity.
But orthodoxies can crop up in any arena. Just last week Florida put out a 10-tweet thread to air “a Twitter beef I have to get off my chest.” The beef had to do with tweets and re-tweets that Florida posted regarding land use deregulation and the extent to which it might encourage affordable housing. What disappointed Florida, and caused him to block for the first time ever a few of his 195,000 Twitter followers, were some angry respondents eager to “silence” the viewpoints he was sharing and dismiss them as “illegitimate.”
As Florida said, he often tweets research or points of view he does not agree with, including opinions critical of his own research. And, he added, retweets “are not endorsements (does anyone really need to say that anymore?).”
My answer to that question is — sorry to say — yes. I am new to the field of urbanism but I’ve already stumbled on a piece of enduring wisdom from “Holly” Whyte. In introducing the term “groupthink” in 1952, he defined it as “a rationalized conformity — an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.” Groupthink, Whyte continued, came at the cost of diminished “intuition, inspiration, and hunch.”
That warning was issued in 1952. As a wishful thinker, I urge Richard Florida and other urban activists to keep sharing their intuitions, inspirations, and hunches, as well as their formal research results. Fresh ideas are always welcome.