Rethinking Engagement in Cities: Ending the Professional vs. Citizen Divide
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
Cities are among humankind’s grandest and most complex creations. Even small urban communities represent the cumulative result of literally hundreds of thousands of public and private, individual and collective decisions over time. They are the playgrounds of spontaneity.
Such an understanding of how cities come into being and evolve is hardly new. Nor are its implications for how we plan and govern cities. While the language has changed, these ideas — and how those with custodianship for urban life approach their responsibilities — have been around for nearly as long as there have been cities. We can look to Ancient Greek political thought for notions about participation and empowerment that have been dressed up for our own times.
We need not look back so far. Anyone who has thought seriously about the contemporary urban condition, for example, has encountered the writings of Jane Jacobs. The specific insights of the ancients and the contemporary deserve serious engagement, criticism and debate. The importance of community engagement and mobilization, one might have thought, has become indisputable over several centuries of reformulation.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, a plentiful number of urban professionals around the world – including economists, planners, architects, and administrators of all types – have dismissed citizen participation as an extravagant expense that only gets in the way of efficient urban management. They reveal a steady re-entrenchment of top-down approaches to shaping the city in which professionals know best. Involving citizens, it seems, just costs too much.
Ironically, the lessons in recent years that have emerged from post-disaster experiences point in precisely the opposite direction. From Hurricane Katrina to Super Storm Sandy and all variety of man-made and natural disasters across the globe, we have seen integrated communities with high social capital and identity recover more quickly and more efficiently than those which are bedeviled by high levels of social anomie and isolation.
How can we explain this division between empirical lessons learned on the ground and the view from the commanding heights of professionalism?
There are multiple answers to such a complex question. Citizen engagement has often been oversold by its advocates who have failed to overcome challenges such as time, expense and passivity. Moreover, professional knowledge is essential to resolving many technical challenges.
Arguments against citizen engagement as being overly expensive and obtrusive ring ever more hollow at a time when smart technologies make information sharing and citizen participation ever more feasible and inexpensive. We know from the work of Tim Campbell’s Beyond Smart Cities, for example, that cities learn from each other through transnational networks rather than from top-down professional pontificators. Urban professionals who view themselves as the high priests and priestesses of city life must confront the realities of a digital age that is converting hierarchies into networks in every aspect of our lives.
Within this context, traditional urban “think tanks” need a new approach to their work. Specialized knowledge and expertise play an important role to be sure; but there is simultaneously a need to make that knowledge and expertise widely available. Communities must organize themselves if they are to be resilient in the face of unprecedented challenges for cities which certainly lie ahead as our planet changes.
Fortunately, models exist for converting traditionally hierarchical academic, professional, and municipal institutions into urban laboratories embedded in broad networks of public officials, business executives, entrepreneurs, civic leaders and citizens. The University of Toronto’s Global Cities Indicator project, for example, mobilizes the considerable expertise necessary to collect and analyze big data about cities around the world while making such data available and transparent to broader communities. Similarly, Brooklyn’s new Center for Urban Science + Progress seeks to promote “a new kind of academic center that functions in collaboration with the city itself.”
Conferences such as Meetings of the Minds amplify the benefits of engaging urbanites and urban custodians from across many sectors. There are countless more examples of governance mechanisms and political arrangements which privilege participation over professional privilege.
As the world rushes towards an unprecedented urban age — as humans become a city rather than a rural species – we need new sorts of institutions – virtual and horizontal networks of minds rather than confined “tanks” for the best and the brightest – if we are going to sustain resilient urban communities. We need engagement and we need modesty if we, as denizens of cities great and small, are going to survive. We need to end the artificial divide between “professionals” and “citizens” once and for all. Fortunately, technologies that are now available allow the dreams of ancient philosophers who advocated direct involvement in decision-making for the cities to be realized.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.
More than ever, urban transit services are in need of sustainable and affordable solutions to better serve all members of our diverse communities, not least among them, those that are traditionally car-dependent. New mobility technologies can be a potential resource for local transit agencies to augment multi-modal connectivity across existing transit infrastructures.
We envision a new decentralized and distributed model that provides multi-modal access through nimble and flexible multi-modal Transit Districts, rather than through traditional, centralized, and often too expensive Multi-modal Transit Hubs. Working in collaboration with existing agencies, new micro-mobility technologies could provide greater and seamless access to existing transit infrastructure, while maximizing the potential of the public realm, creating an experience that many could enjoy beyond just catching the next bus or finding a scooter. So how would we go about it?
Dedicated anti-trafficking actors across the nation are trying to build better systems in big jurisdictions like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and in smaller but scrappy jurisdictions like Waco, Texas and Boaz, Alabama. They all share the same need, for stronger interconnectedness as an anti-trafficking field, and more collaboration.
The Forging Freedom Portal is a one-stop shop where a police officer planning a victim-centered operation can connect with their law enforcement counterparts, and the right service providers ahead of time, collaborating to make sure they’re planning for the language skills, social services, and legal support that victims may need. The portal is a place where the people who care most about ending human trafficking, who are doing the hard work every day on the ground, can learn from each other and share best practices to raise the collective standard of this work.