Cities were once considered a source of many problems. But over the the last generation, all that has changed

Chicago, which is a city. Image: Getty.

The celebration of the city today is widespread. Globally, many cities have fulfilled Louis Wirth’s prophesy from 1930s Chicago. Wirth said that in the future, cities would no longer be simply large concentrations of human activity, rather we would come to realise “urbanism as a way of life”.

Most of the writing about the city today, it seems, would not wish for urban life to be any other way, as most now accept and vaunt cities as meccas for innovation, transformation, learning, resilience and progressive human behaviour and policy change. “Cities will shape our future” according to the non-profit organization 100 Resilient Cities, and urban economist Edward Glaeser writes, “cities magnify humanity’s strengths”.

Richard Florida says that, while cities have some problems, it is not the city that needs fixing — rather, “the nation-state is the problem”/ Florida calls for “a global effort to build stronger, more prosperous cities.”

But we have not always thought of cities this way. The orthodoxy of urbanity, as something to celebrate, represents a 180 degree about-face from the way those charged with the city’s care and maintenance viewed cities a mere generation ago.

At the end of the 20th Century, urban planning was waking up to the disasters of modernism, and to the global challenges of social injustice and environmental crises. Cities had produced problems: choking pollution, public health crises in slums where density was too high and infrastructure insufficient, social dysfunction from systemic unemployment, dislocation and racial hatred in close quarters. Or, at least, cities brought these matters to their boiling point.

Modern cities are moving beyond 20th century problems of pollution, insufficient infrastructure and social dysfunction. Image: Graeme Roy/author provided.

So where does the truth about cities lie? Should we believe the hype? Do the new ideas contain many of the old problems?

The grammar of contemporary urban love

To consider this question, look at how different people and groups explain the value of cities. It is useful to remember what French sociologists Boltanski and Thévenot have demonstrated: people work to “justify” their own positions and denounce those taken by others when they disagree.

Therefore we should consider the arguments voiced by each group, and take into account how well these justifications meet the “so-what?” test.

People who excel at justifying their ideas about the city are like “grammarians” who write a new grammar for thinking: grammar because the argument becomes like a rule we need to follow just to make sense when communicating, and it is not something open to further argument.

Contemporary advocates for the city have done just this: they have created a quasi-grammar. Support for the city is now considered tantamount to support for the common good.

As an urban scholar who keeps close watch on how we feel about our cities, this state of affairs is a remarkable turnaround over the past two decades, representing a full about-face in public thinking about the city.

Urbanists, like myself, have attempted to create this image of the city since well before the end of the 20th Century. But we were getting nowhere fast: nothing like the quick work of Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser, and the work within C40 Cities, 100 Resilient Cities, or the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.

Urbanists see the city as a new frame of reference by which human progress can be measured. Image: Graeme Roy/author provided.

When planners threw out the city with the bath water of modernism, they were rejecting the cruelty and indifference of modernism in city design, architecture and industrial economic development models. They justified their stance as a rejection of the machine logic of modernism, a modernism that alienated regular people from political work in the name of valuing expertise and efficiency.

They rejected modernism’s work to intensify the fragmentation of urban landscapes into privatised enclosures of structures, infrastructures and services. They believed modernist urbanisation to splinter and segregate all that we value beyond all recognition.

Today’s popular thinking on the city as a new frame of reference by which human progress can be measured, purports to be entirely new, sustainable and resilient to all the threats now on the horizon, across all cities.

However, the details of this thinking are not so different from what yesterday’s planners offered up in their efforts to counteract the damage done by modernism.

The city that has it all

Segregated housing, slum removal practices, the creation of large housing blocks set back from the street on green lawns, wide and fast separated freeways and parkways.... All are images conjured up by planners in the late 20th century as reasons to reject modernism, and therefore reject the city.

The new urban celebration rejects these emblems without rejecting the city.

More and more urban dwellers are choosing to live downtown so they can walk to work. Image: Graeme Roy/author provided.

Behind this move are commitments to inclusionary over exclusionary zoning, mixed housing types, gradual revitalisation of decaying neighbourhoods and not their bulldozing and erasure, streets that are narrow and dotted with buildings, stoops and pocket parks and gardens, and “soft” transportation rather than the gasoline-powered kind.

“Complete communities,” “walksheds,” and from “five to 20 minute communities,” are the intended result: neighbourhoods that have jobs, shops and services within a short journey of most homes, via walking, cycling or public transport.

A minority of urban districts actually achieve this, yet cities are vaunted as able to aspire toward meeting these design and land-use goals.

The new urban celebration justifies cities as offering healthier, happier, more balanced ends through an emphasis on more local living. Attractive, safe and nearby green and open spaces encourage people to spend more time outdoors, and to be more active; when these are public open spaces, this further encourages time spent socialising with neighbours.

Reduced commute times and shorter travel times for daily household errands also means more time is available for these activities, and for the time it takes to build meaningful connections with one’s family and household, with others in the neighbourhood, and with one’s local, nonhuman environment, particularly through gardening and patronizing the local farmer’s market.

Transportation and shorter commutes are key components of modern cities. Image: Graeme Roy/author provided.

Are we spoiling the city?

From an economic perspective, cities are seen today to offer the ideal environment where personalities, businesses and entrepreneurial moments of opportunity may grow. Cities offer a local scale at which the people most directly affected by various decisions are able to get involved.

This is a story of self-reliance from a local political as well as a local entrepreneurial perspective, a DIY sense of urbanists not “waiting for the cavalry”. Cities act, as mayors who opt to join the C40 cities initiative for carbon-neutral cities proclaim.

Cities have the right scale, the right proximity and the right mix of motivations to make change happen.

The incredible resilience of cities as social institutions enables cities to carry not just their own jurisdictions, boundaries and populations, but also their partners and institutions, and increasingly, the provinces, states and nations in which they sit. Urbanist Bruce Katz calls it “metropolitan activism,” driving political change in stark contrast to the stasis at the national scale.

This activism consists of “affirmative energy, collaborative problem-solving and pragmatic purpose”. We may also come to see it as a kind of activism that will stop at nothing to advance a wide array of justifications to increase its social, political and economic clout. Even if, when pulled apart, these justifications could just as easily be read as arguing for political action in the opposite direction.

This contemporary urban celebration represents a seismic shift in urban studies scholarship, in which “the intellectual foundations of urban studies are today being profoundly destabilized.”

The ConversationIf the current celebration of the city contains, rather, broadly the same set of justifications as the past century, only being leveraged in support of an opposite set of directions for action, we should make sure we understand the enduring rules of this grammar.

Meg Holden, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Geography, Simon Fraser University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.