changes in how we talk about cities

At a meeting at a community organization in Boston, we were using various terms to describe local issues and observing that those phrases would not be clear to the people we were talking about–especially new immigrants. That made me wonder about the history of our vocabulary, so I used Google’s Ngram tool to see the frequency of “urban poverty,” “inner city,” “gentrification,” “deindustrialization,” and “urban redevelopment” in published books. This graph shows trends since 1900.


In rough order of when these phrases became popular…

  1. “Urban redevelopment” starts very soon after WWII but declines after 1970. It is a keyword of high-modernist urban planning from the era of big housing projects and highways blasted through downtowns.  It has been notably less popular (at least in books) since ca. 1980.
  2. “Urban poverty” rises in the 1960s and the 1990s, but has–interestingly–fallen in the 2000s.
  3. “Inner city” seems to have become rapidly popular during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, plateaued at a high level until about 2000, and then fallen off.
  4. “Gentrification” enters the lexicon in 1975. It plateaus in the 1990s and then rises rapidly in our century.
  5. “Deindustrialization” is a new term ca. 1980, describing a phenomenon that started in the 1970s. It peaks in the 1990s.

These changes seem to reflect objective circumstances–cities lose their industrial base but then sometimes attract yuppies who push up housing values–as well as shifts in intellectual fashions, such as the rise, and then fall, of high-modernist design.

changes in how we talk about cities

At a meeting at a community organization in Boston, we were using various terms to describe local issues and observing that those phrases would not be clear to the people we were talking about–especially new immigrants. That made me wonder about the history of our vocabulary, so I used Google’s Ngram tool to see the frequency of “urban poverty,” “inner city,” “gentrification,” “deindustrialization,” and “urban redevelopment” in published books. This graph shows trends since 1900.


In rough order of when these phrases became popular…

  1. “Urban redevelopment” starts very soon after WWII but declines after 1970. It is a keyword of high-modernist urban planning from the era of big housing projects and highways blasted through downtowns.  It has been notably less popular (at least in books) since ca. 1980.
  2. “Urban poverty” rises in the 1960s and the 1990s, but has–interestingly–fallen in the 2000s.
  3. “Inner city” seems to have become rapidly popular during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, plateaued at a high level until about 2000, and then fallen off.
  4. “Gentrification” enters the lexicon in 1975. It plateaus in the 1990s and then rises rapidly in our century.
  5. “Deindustrialization” is a new term ca. 1980, describing a phenomenon that started in the 1970s. It peaks in the 1990s.

These changes seem to reflect objective circumstances–cities lose their industrial base but then sometimes attract yuppies who push up housing values–as well as shifts in intellectual fashions, such as the rise, and then fall, of high-modernist design.

Ukraine means borderland

This isn’t a travel blog, and my photos aren’t very good, but here are some images that hint at Ukraine’s history as a borderland (which is its very meaning).

For instance, a minbar (the staircase a preacher ascends in a mosque) is preserved inside the rococo church of St Nicholas in Kamyanets-Podilsky.

The same city’s cathedral preserves a minaret. The Ottomans had built towers all around this building, as at Aya Sofya in Istanbul. When the Poles regained the city, they removed the other minarets but had to retain this one for structural reasons. They surmounted it with a gold Madonna.

At Khoytn, the border is symbolized by a massive fortress, built and partially leveled in sequence by Christian, Muslim, Christian, and modern totalitarian armies.


In Chernivtsi, while it was still Austro-Hungarian Czernowitz, each “nation” had a handsome cultural house of its own: the Romanians, the Ukrainians, the Germans, the Poles, the Jews. The Ukrainian house made space for the first international Yiddish conference in 1908, because the city’s Jewish leadership favored German and Hebrew.

Today, the former Jewish People’s House still sports Atlas-type sculptural figures, two of whom are unusual in that they look upward.

In the old auditorium on the third floor, where the stair-rail still shows a Star of David, the stage was set with a cross when I wandered in. The building is understandably used for various community functions today, in a city that is overwhelmingly Christian. This sight was nevertheless a bit disconcerting. (I suspect the Nazis smashed the other Jewish symbols in this room.)

But downstairs is a fine museum celebrating and mourning the annihilated Bukovinian Jewish community, including this mass-produced Hebrew typewriter from the interwar period.

Here is a raffish Art Nouveau/Orientalist building called the “Sorbonne,” in the University area of Chernivisti. I saw it at dusk, when the sunflower’s face had sagged.

That could be an elegy for the faded elegance of Austria-Hungary. But the sunflower must have turned upward again the next morning, because there’s always a dawn. Half a century after the “Sorbonne” opened, Chernivtsi’s now-Soviet citizens could take off from their space-age airport under a frieze of Sputniks and ICBMs.

History didn’t stop then, either. Since I was last in Chernivtsi in 2015, a cheerful new 24/7 pharmacy has opened across the street from the “Sorbonne.”

Using Data Mapping to Help Reclaim Urban Commons

Big Tech understands the power of data to advance its interests.  It’s time for commoners to do the same, especially in urban settings.

A pioneer in this style of high-tech activism is the Brooklyn-based group 596 Acres, whose name comes from apparent number of acres of vacant public land in Brooklyn in 2011 as determined by the NYC Department of City Planning.  Since its founding that year, 596 Acres has ingeniously used various databases to identify vacant lots throughout the City that could be re-purposed into public gardens, farms parks, and community meeting spaces.

Paula Z. Segal, an attorney who works with the Urban Justice Center in New York City, explained in a blog post that shortly after its founding in 2011, “the 596 Acres team started hunting down all available data about city-owned land. Once we got the data, we worked to translate it into usable information. For each publicly owned ‘vacant’ lot we found, we asked two questions: 1) ‘Is this lot in use already?’ and 2) ‘Can you reach this lot from the street?’”

The group used a combination of automated script, Google Maps, the interactive community maps at OASISNYC.net, and gardener surveys done by a NYC nonprofit, to identify the unused lots accessible from the street.  It discovered that there were approximately 660 acres of vacant public land in New York City, distributed across 1,800 sites.  But putting this land to better, public uses required commoners to organize and pressure elected officials and city bureaucrats to transfer ownership and allow the creation of new green spaces.

There is a backstory to 596 Acres’ activism: In the 1990s, many New Yorkers converged on trashed-out parcels of city land, converting them into hundreds of community gardens. This amazing surge of commoning helped to humanize the cityscape while, as a byproduct, raising property values for adjacent buildings in the neighborhood. People could undertake this work only because the vacant lots were open and accessible. (In the era of Mayors Guiliani and Bloomberg, by contrast, any vacant lots are fenced, effectively thwarting the reclaiming of vacant lots and abandoned buildings for commoners.) Guiliani sought to sell off the land that commoners had reclaimed, provoking a fierce backlash that resulted in the creation of scores of community land trusts to manage the gardens.

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The Nidiaci Garden of Florence, an Oasis of Commoning in a Busy City

The beautiful city of Florence, Italy, is nearly overwhelmed by throngs of tourists much of the year, which leads one to wonder:  How can residents live and enjoy the city for themselves?

One fascinating answer can be seen in the lovely Nidiaci garden and park. It is a commons dedicated to children that is managed by the residents of the diverse Oltrarno neighborhood and the San Frediano district. The City still legally owns the land, but it has more or less ceded management of the garden to residents who demanded the right to common.

The Nidiaci garden lies behind the apse of the Carmine church, an historic site of the Renaissance.  It is an area with lots of tourism, nightlife and gentrification. When I visited the garden recently, mothers were playing with their toddlers and six-year-olds were playing on swings and racing about: the usual playground stuff.

But what makes the Nidiaci garden special is the commoning that occurs there. The neighborhood decides how to use the space to suit its own interests and needs. “Use of the area depends on what people decide to put into it, for free,” as one amateur historian of the Nidiaci garden put it. In a neighborhood in which about 40% of the children come from families born abroad, this is no small blessing.

Not surprisingly, the park has real character. It hosts the only self-managed soccer school for children in the city, where the emphasis is not just on winning but on sportsmanship. There is a Portuguese musician who teaches violin to children and a British writer who teaches English in a studio space on the grounds. An American filmmaker teaches acting. 

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Dubai, Uganda, and today’s global political economy

My family and I are just back from visiting our daughter, who works in Uganda, with a two-day stop in Dubai, where there’s a change of flights en route from Boston to Entebbe. We chose these destinations for family reasons. But it’s significant that Emirates Airlines flies direct from Dubai to Uganda. Even though the United Arab Emirates is small, and these two countries lie far apart, the UAE is Uganda’s 4th-largest source of imports. Dubai, an “Alpha+ Global City,” is a hub in a network of financial and human capital for a vast hinterland that includes Uganda, where 84% of the population still depends on subsistence agriculture.

There is much to like in both places—and reasons to hope that their futures will be brighter. However, if the worst aspects of each state predominate, and if the world increasingly resembles this pair of nations, then the human future will be dystopian.

Two centuries ago, both the Buganda Kingdom north of Lake Victoria and the Sheikdom of Dubai were independent monarchies. If we assume that today’s basket of most desired goods (life expectancies above 70, individual freedom, security, etc.) define human development—a contested assumption—than both societies were poorly developed. But they had rich and complex cultures and social structures.

The British made both kingdoms into dependencies and then subsumed Buganda within a full-fledged colony. The period of colonialism must have been experienced as traumatic in both countries. There were important differences. For instance, most Ugandans–but virtually no Emiratis–converted to Christianity. But they also shared some experiences, such as in-migration from South Asia. (Indians and Pakistanis now far outnumber Arabs in Dubai.) Police departments, accounting firms, factories, and many other innovations that we might label “modern” or “Western” arrived in both places with the British.

They gained independence within ten years of each other, but their economic trajectories have split. Dubai, a city-state entrepôt on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, has become the 9th-wealthiest nation in the world, with a per capita GDP of nearly $70k. Uganda, a land-locked agricultural nation of 38 million, ranks 163 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index and has a per capita annual GDP of $572 and a median individual income (my favorite summary statistic) of $2.50 per day. By definition, that means that half of Ugandans live on less than that much–at least as far as a cash economy is concerned–and one in five live below the poverty line of $1.90 per day.

Their political trajectories have also split. Dubai has been a stable absolute monarchy within the federal structure of the United Arab Emirates. Political rights are nonexistent; there is no legitimate public sphere, in the sense of a zone where citizens freely form public opinion and influence the state. The Ruler may choose to consult, but he decides. Most residents are not citizens in any sense; about 90% percent are expatriates.

Albert O. Hirschman argued that two strategies are valuable when you don’t like how things are going: exit or voice. In Dubai, political voice is irrelevant or even illegal. But exit (along with entrance somewhere else) is prevalent. People shape Dubai by moving themselves and their assets there or away, whether they are construction or domestic workers from India or the Philippines or bankers or real estate developers from wealthy nations. With the exception of the most exploited workers, they can leave if they are dissatisfied. This means that Dubai has been created by its residents, not by the Ruler. It’s the residents who have thrust astounding numbers of postmodernist skyscrapers out of the desert or have withdrawn their capital when dissatisfied. But their influence is entirely individual and apolitical.

Uganda, meanwhile, has had a tumultuous history, with only three presidents (although four regimes) so far since independence, and still no peaceful transfer of power. We visited the underground cells behind Idi Amin’s former presidential palace where thousands were tortured and killed by electrocution; no one left those chambers alive. I don’t think I am naive about the limitations of the current democracy, as Yoweri Mouseveni spends his 31st year in the presidency. Yet Uganda is a democratic republic. The people govern through representative institutions, albeit with several dubious elections since 2001. The newspapers call Ugandans “citizens,” respecting them as the people who ultimately govern the republic and implicitly holding them responsible for doing so. (I think respect and responsibility are what define a republican form of government.)

Three democracy indices from V-Dem (not available for UAE)

The Ugandan press is vibrant and competitive. The standard journalistic style is a bit more stenographic than what we are accustomed to in the US. Many articles basically report what someone said, in the same order that he or she said it. But the perspectives captured in these stories are diverse and often sharply critical. There is a public sphere, even if the state is somewhat unresponsive to it.

If voice is more evident in Uganda than in Dubai, exit is rarer. Few Ugandans can afford to or want to leave, although remittances from emigrants are rapidly growing. The largest migration of people consists of refugees into the country from South Sudan; they lack both exit and voice.

In Dubai, the global consumer brands are pervasive, including the Trump brand, now attached to a huge new golf course. There is a preserved old quarter that represents traditional Emirati culture, but it is probably smaller than one Bulgari ad on the side of one high-rise office building. We saw at least four billboards for completely different products that used the same format: a White woman in fashionable Western clothes and an Emirati man in a traditional white dishdosh and headscarf are beaming at the same consumer good. Even though about 70% of the residents are Asians, rich Westerners and Arabs are the normative consumers.

In Uganda, despite a few ads for Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the global brands are rare. Almost all stores are one-story brick structures with a raised front wall that can display messages above the door. By my count, about 30% of the stores in the cities and along the paved intercity roads (but fewer on dirt back roads) display painted advertisements for a handful of local brands, mostly telecom service-providers, construction materials, and detergents. Another notable form of advertising consists of new mosques, ubiquitous next to the roads in this overwhelmingly Christian country, thanks to funding from Turkish and other Middle Eastern sources. Finally, one often sees the logos of aid agencies: national, multilateral, or nongovernmental. In one national park, a sign announced that the signage had been given by the “people of the United States” through USAID. Paying for the signs that carry our national logo seems a way to maximize the ratio of branding to actual benefit.

Language often offers insights into culture. I’m sure that individuals in each country have unique relationships to the languages they speak, but I’ll risk some generalizations about English in Uganda and in the UAE. Ugandan (or East African) English is a branch of the language, like the Queen’s English or my own. It is mutually intelligible with American English, yet highly distinctive, full of terms for local foods and activities, loan-words from Swahili, and idioms and rhythms that make it a vehicle for expressing a particular culture. You could learn to speak Ugandan English, and that would be a linguistic attainment, an addition to your repertoire.

The English of the UAE sounds to me like what one learns in a second-language course in a business college. It is error-prone but functional, jargon-filled, strictly pragmatic. It might offer possibilities for creativity and insight—but I doubt it. I’m guessing that most residents experience cultural depth and aesthetic satisfaction in their native tongues. In Joseph O’Neill’s wonderful novel set in Dubai, The Dog, the narrator says, “I have a real soft spot for the habitual accent of Arab speakers of good English, in whose mouths the language, imbued with grave trills, can seem weighted with the sagacity of the East. (See Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia.)” That may be true, but only 12% of the UAE’s residents are Emirati, and not all of those speak good English. Purely functional English–plus math–is the code of business, and business is the culture that counts in Dubai.

Looking toward the future, one can imagine that Dubai adds political liberties and public deliberation to its market freedoms, and Uganda not only honors the true spirit of its republican constitution but also develops sufficiently so that all its people attain the core human capabilities. That would be a better world. To be even more utopian, we might hope that the relationships among Uganda, Dubai, and the inevitable third corner of the triangle–the OECD nations–becomes genuinely just, not just in the sense that human circumstances converge but also that the people of Uganda can make real claims on the people of Dubai or New York.

One can also imagine that Dubai continues to prosper without political freedom, much as Shanghai also does today. Absolute monarchies seem quaint, but arguably the real players in Dubai are the big corporate investors, and corporations are not democracies. Their influence could grow, not only in Dubai but in all the Global Cities. Indeed, as the world gets hotter, dryer, more postmodern, higher-tech, more racially intermingled, yet more culturally homogeneous, one could imagine that all the cities that dominate the global economy will look like Dubai today. Already, the man whose portrait hangs in every federal office building in the USA also has his name on the huge billboards for Dubai’s newest golf course.

Meanwhile, Uganda faces rapid population growth, a median age of 15, a worsening climate, unstable neighbors in several directions, and the risk of political instability once Mouseveni finally retires. One could imagine that Uganda will look much as it does today, only poorer and more violent, and that many other nations will look more like it. That is the dystopian future that haunts us.

Barcelona’s Brave Struggle to Advance the Commons

On a visit to Barcelona last week, I learned a great deal about the City’s pioneering role in developing "the city as a commons."  I also learned that crystallizing a new commons paradigm – even in a city committed to cooperatives and open digital networks – comes with many gnarly complexities.

The Barcelona city government is led by former housing activist Ada Colau, who was elected mayor in May 2015.  She is a leader of the movement that became the political party Barcelona En Comú (“Barcelona in Common”). Once in office, Colau halted the expansion of new hotels, a brave effort to prevent “economic development” (i.e., tourism) from hollowing out the city’s lively, diverse neighborhoods. As a world city, Barcelona is plagued by a crush of investors and speculators buying up real estate, making the city unaffordable for ordinary people.

Barelona En Comú may have won the mayor’s office, but it controls only 11 of the 44 city council seats. As a result, any progress on the party’s ambitious agenda requires the familiar maneuvering and arm-twisting of conventional city politics. Its mission also became complicated because as a governing (minority) party, Barelona En Comú is not just a movement, it must operationally assist the varied needs of a large urban economy and provide all sorts of public services:  a huge, complicated job.

What happens when activist movements come face-to-face with such administrative realities and the messy pressures of representative politics? This is precisely why the unfolding drama of Barelona En Comú is instructive for commoners. Will activists transform conventional politics and government systems into new forms of governance -- or will they themselves be transformed and abandon many of their original goals? 

The new administration clearly aspires to shake things up in positive, transformative ways.  Besides fostering greater participation in governance, Barelona En Comú hopes to fortify and expand what it calls the “commons collaborative economy” – the cooperatives, commons and neighborhood projects that comprise a remarkable 10% of the city economy through 1,300 ventures.

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A Surge of New Work on the City as a Commons

There has been a surge of new interest in the city as a commons in recent months – new books, public events and on-the-ground projects.  Each effort takes a somewhat different inflection, but they all seek to redefine the priorities and logic of urban governance towards the principles of commoning.

I am especially impressed by a new scholarly essay in theYale Law and Policy Review, “The City as a Commons, by Fordham Law School professor Sheila R. Foster and Italian legal scholar Christian Iaione. The piece is a landmark synthesis of this burgeoning field of inquiry and activism. The 68-page article lays out the major philosophical and political challenges in conceptualizing the city as a commons, providing copious documentation in 271 footnotes.

Foster and Iaione are frankly interested in “the potential for the commons [as] a framework and set of tools to open up the possibility of more inclusive and equitable forms of ‘city-making’.  The commons has the potential to highlight the question of how cities govern or manage resources to which city inhabitants can lay claim to as common goods, without privatizing them or exercising monopolistic public regulatory control over them.”

They proceed to explore the history and current status of commons resources in the city and the rise of alternative modes of governance such as park conservancies, community land trusts, and limited equity cooperative housing.  While Foster and Iaione write about the “tragedy of the urban commons” (more accurately, the over-exploitation of finite resources because a commons is not simply a resource), they break new ground in talking about “the production of the commons” in urban settings. They understand that the core issue is not just ownership of property, but how to foster active cooperation and relationships among people. 

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a welcome talk for college interns newly arrived in Washington

I’d like to welcome you to Washington. I’d also like to welcome you to DC.

To my ear, “Washington” means the official city, the nation’s capital, the seat of power. It’s also the destination for about 20 million visitors a year, because they come to see the sites of the official city: the National Mall, the museums, the monuments, and the great buildings that house our national government.

On the walls inside the Capitol, the courts, the executive agencies, and the Pentagon, there must hang 10,000 oil portraits of former office-holders. Sometimes under a portrait of an obscure ante-Bellum Senator, you’ll see unionized teachers shaking hands with their current, conservative US rep., or teenagers in a huddle trying to figure out where they need to go next. Official Washington is a magnet for all kinds of Americans.

To my ear, “DC” means a mid-Atlantic city of about 700,000 people, plus the inner-ring suburbs where many of the residents have roots in the city proper. DC’s population is just under half African-American, and many of the most deeply rooted DC families are Black.

It’s a city of brick row houses, fall leaves crunching underfoot on a hot and humid day, official buildings shimmering in the smog at the end of long vistas, knots of people in suits with government ID’s hanging from their necks, soldiers in desert fatigues, and the Metro coasting quietly between stations with–in the summertime–payloads of interns.

There are other cities here, too. The international city of embassies, the World Bank and IMF, the global press corps, and 10,000 diplomats. The military city of the Pentagon, the Naval Hospital, myriad defense contractors, and Andrews Air Force Base–with the Naval Academy just up the road. A tech-industry hub that pays relatively little attention to politics and government. A city of scholars and artists. These different cities come together–sometimes uneasily and coolly–in places like the Metro, Nationals Park, and a summer concert at the Zoo.

Washington is a youthful city that depends on talented 20-somethings who can go “all in” for their boss, whether on a political campaign, in a newsroom, or in a tech startup. DC is full of people who came here in their 20’s to do good and ended up doing well. Now they live in spacious houses on tree-lined streets in Cleveland Park or Georgetown, but their years of greatest impact were in their youth, and even today they could get nothing done without their 20-something staffers.

Every year, a new batch of idealists arrive who say, with Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version, “I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation, every action’s an act of creation! … And I am not throwing away my shot.”

Like Hamilton, you can be idealistic and ambitious, your ambition spurring you to make a better world and be known for it. You have a shot; don’t throw it away.

I’d encourage you to appreciate DC, the mid-Atlantic city, with its neighborhoods and restaurants, its distinctive accents and traditions. People sometimes say that DC is a transient city, but they are thinking about politicians, diplomats, generals, and staffers. DC is also an old and stable city of school teachers, bus drivers, food workers, busboys, and a few poets.

I’d also encourage you to appreciate Washington, the seat of the republic. I know that few Americans are fully inspired by it right now. Some see Washington as a sink for their hard-won salary money and the source of regulations that impinge their liberty. Others behold a militaristic, corporate power center dominating the world, a neoliberal death star. Just four percent of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in Congress. Most Americans also say that they distrust their fellow citizens. Since Washington represents the whole country, we each see a city that answers to a lot of other people we don’t much like

I spent my own twenty years in this city trying to be a reformer, often with anger in my thoughts and even in my voice. I understand the critiques and share some of them. Yet I would urge you to be open to the grand narrative of the official city.

Take a walk, for instance, up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Look from there onto the National Mall. Chained people were brought there daily to be sold across from the Smithsonian Castle until 1850. The Capitol Dome, however, was completed during the Civil War, and the crowning statue of Freedom was erected there in the same year as the Battle of Gettysburg.

Inside the temple to Lincoln, take a moment to read the Second Inaugural carved into the walls. It’s just four paragraphs long. The third and by far the longest argues that slavery “was the cause of the war.” The speech ends, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In 1963, 250,000 people stood before the Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, listening not only to Dr. King’s “Dream” but also to Bayard Rustin lead a tribute to “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” Mahalia Jackson sing “How I Got Over,” and the grizzled civil rights veteran John Lewis give a major speech at the ripe old age of 23. The program notes from that day, saved by my friend Harry Boyte, reminded everyone, “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” I imagine the 250,000 women and men who stood there on that day as ghosts on the Mall, still reflecting the worth of our people and still speaking eloquently to their government, which is still our government. We can stand with them.

As we have continued our common story, we’ve added to Washington’s obelisk and Lincoln’s temple vast free public museums of history, art, and industry, monuments to the fallen in several wars and to peace itself, and buildings documenting the Holocaust, Native American history and culture, and African American history and culture.

Every nation-state is problematic. It sets boundaries, excludes people, and exercises power. But a nation-state is also a tool for making the world better and for accomplishing great things together. It becomes what we make it become.

What we have made of the United States so far is quite literally etched in the stone of Washington DC. We are still building it, whether we happen to be American citizens or not, literally and metaphorically.

Young people have always played a disproportionate role. Coming here to serve is a privilege. It’s a learning opportunity. It can be fun. It puts you into the story of tragedy, crime, sacrifice, and redemption that is this country.

Hamilton did more than any founder to found Washington, even though he’s the only one without a monument on the Mall. In the musical, he sums up his life. “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference.”

You follow in his footsteps. Make a difference.

The City as Platform

In the age of ubiquitous Internet connections, smartphones and data, the future vitality of cities is increasingly based on their ability to use digital networks in intelligent, strategic ways. While we are accustomed to thinking of cities as geophysical places governed by mayors, conventional political structures and bureaucracies, this template of city governance is under great pressure to evolve. Urban dwellers now live their lives in all sorts of hyper-connected virtual spaces, pulsating with real-time information, intelligent devices, remote-access databases and participatory crowdsourcing. Expertise is distributed, not centralized. Governance is not just a matter of winning elections and assigning tasks to bureaucracies; it is about the skillful collection and curation of information as a way to create new affordances for commerce and social life.

That's the opening paragraph from my new report for the Aspen Institute, “The City as Platform: How Digital Networks Are Changing Urban Life and Governance.”  (pdf file download here). The report synthesizes discussion at an Aspen Institute Communications and Society conference last July. About thirty technologists, urban planners, policy experts, economic analysts, entrepreneurs, and social justice advocates shared insights into how networking technologies are transforming urban life, commerce and government.

I wrote the report as a rapporteur, not a commons advocate, but it’s abundantly clear that the sharing and collaboration facilitated by digital networks are spawning all sorts of new commons and hybrids (e.g., government/commons and government/corporate collaborations). The focus of the conference was mostly on US cities, but these things are happening worldwide, especially in cooperation-minded global cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Seoul.  In the US, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in the vanguard, in part because of San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley tech firms and in LA, because everyone there lives on their smartphones.

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