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(Re)Imagining the Social Fabric of Our Cities

March 16, 2012

I staffed my first Congressional City Conference this past weekend.  As always, I knew that I’d blog about some exciting session or speaker, and throughout the weekend I was eagerly awaiting a sign that THIS was it—this was the ‘thing’ I should reflect on.  After the morning general session I was sure I’d write a piece on the highly entertaining tap dance between former RNC chair Ed Gillespie and former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe; then I was convinced that Dan Gilmartin’s (Michigan Municipal League) thoughtful views on place-making and revitalization would be front and center on this post.  Unsure of how to pull together and translate the wealth of information from this conference, I sat at the back of the closing general session and listened as David Brooks, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, addressed the large ballroom filled mayors and other elected officials.  That’s when I knew to not focus on a program or event, but one simple, yet extraordinarily powerful message that was delivered by Brooks—a message that seems straightforward, and that we’ve heard many variations of in the past, but one that has tremendous implications for how individuals’ behaviors can influence and shape group (think: neighborhood, city, world) dynamics:

“People learn from the people they love.”

If you were at the conference and had a chance to attend this session, you might be wondering why I focus on one of the last, seemingly trivial things he said, especially since much of his talk leading up to this statement – about civility, overconfidence, consumption patterns, lack of trust in government, and polarization of parties – seems directly relevant to elected officials.  And if you weren’t at the conference, you’re probably wondering what love’s got to do with it…

Brooks aptly made his point when he stated that we mimic each other, making our network of communities more important than the single, “rational,” utility- maximizing individual’s decision to do one thing or another.  Essentially, he is referring to social capital, those intricate networks that are built within and amongst people.  And in cities, places with a high density of relationships, these networks have a cyclical effect that is either highly productive or highly disastrous.  If we re-examine the message above, we recognize a simple fact—nurturing these networks of people (people who love and care for each other) contributes directly to how quickly and effectively local elected officials are able to affect change in their communities.

To illustrate this concept, I refer to one of Brooks’ own op-ed pieces titled “The Materialist Fallacy,” which discusses the deterioration of our social fabric since the 1960s, and the necessity for “social repair” based on sociological thinking.  In it, he spends time highlighting the fact that– regardless of how social disorganization starts– it is perpetuated and maintained by those networks that we belong to.  He states, “…while individuals are to be held responsible for their behavior, social context is more powerful than we thought. If any of us grew up in a neighborhood where a third of the men dropped out of school, we’d be much worse off, too.” This statement speaks volumes to how we (re)imagine our cities. If social networks are so powerful in cultivating particular behaviors, one could argue that it is even more important for elected officials to focus on enhancing and cultivating those (positive) relationships in their city as it is to simply provide the physical infrastructure and expect changes in behavior, attitude, and perception.   At its basis, this is conceptually similar to the broken window theory that many of us are quite familiar with—a disordered built environment only perpetuates more disorder.  But how often do we think about the ways that this same idea can be applied to the less visible human environment?

In current times, the myriad issues that local elected officials are expected to manage—including tight fiscal constraints and federal inaction – are only exacerbated by an increasing cynicism of government’s ability to do anything meaningful.  That’s why Brooks’ one-liner is powerful and pertinent.  How can elected officials nurture and strengthen relationships that already exist in neighborhoods and cities, specifically to re-engage and build trust with residents as a means to shape the effectiveness of city services (such as infrastructure and education)?

If, as Brooks posits, the geographic density of people (and relationships) dramatically affects individual and group behaviors, then we live in exciting times indeed.  In a powerful short film titled Thinking Cities, Mathieu Lefevre (Executive Director of the New Cities Foundation) states that for the first time in history, 52% of the world’s population is currently living in cities, with 200,000 new urban dwellers every day. This simple statistic, in combination with the technological advances that we have seen in the last decade (the video has good examples), gives elected officials a unique opportunity to more directly work on strengthening and capitalizing on the positive relationships in their communities.

So… I’d say love’s got everything to do with it.

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