Why Cities Matter

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Tim Redmond is editor of 48 Hills, the official publication of the San Francisco Progressive Media Center and a faculty member of the Urban and Public Affairs MA program

Rebecca Solint, the author of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Nonstop Metropolis: A New York Atlas, notes that if you take a map of the most walkable areas in the US and superimpose a map of the presidential election results, you see a pattern that many of us have been talking about for a long time:

We don’t really have blue states and red states. We have cities, and we have areas outside of cities. And in cities all over the US, even in the most conservative states, you tend to get more liberal voters.

This is not a trend that fits with the coasts, or the “elite” areas like San Francisco and New York. Jackson, Mississippi has one of the most progressive mayors in the country.

No: It has something to do with urban life, with what happens when you walk out the door in a city.

Cities are places where people who don’t look like each other, don’t sound like each other, don’t worship like each other, don’t think like each other interact on a daily basis. In great cities, residents are more likely to learn to live with diversity, to celebrate it instead of fear it.

Cities are also becoming the most important political players in the world today. Great cities are eternal — Rome, London, Paris, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing … they have outlasted a long list of empires and national governments. And they will outlast many more.

And as the United States government becomes more and dysfunctional, cities are emerging as the policy leaders, the laboratories of democracy. Local government is — by necessity and choice — taking on more and more of what the federal and state governments used to do.

And as that happens, there are massive challenges. In San Francisco, the wealth that has emerged in recent decades has gone almost entirely to the very top. Poverty and homelessness are epidemic. The middle class is squeezed out.

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We see the same patterns in other big cities, in the US and elsewhere. As we are becoming increasingly a world where people live in cities, the policy problems that once beset the White House and Congress are playing out on our streets, in our backyards.

That’s part of what we talk about in the Masters of Urban and Public Affairs program, and what I will be covering in my classes on Issues in Urban Public Policy this fall. Our students are brilliant — and every time I teach this class, I think: the next generation of urban leaders are coming from here. And it gives me constant hope.

Life-long conversations on neighborhoods, housing and gentrification

David Donahue, Director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center

David Donahue
Director, Leo T. McCarthy Center

Community-engaged learning claims many student benefits like making learning relevant by bridging theory and practice, promoting openness to multiple perspectives, and fostering dispositions to further community involvement. As I reflect on my community-engaged learning in college over three decades ago, one measure of that learning’s value sticks with me — enduring questions that I’ve considered for a lifetime since. One question that was first posed in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1980s has stayed with me for decades is especially relevant in San Francisco in 2015: Who can claim a neighborhood?

As an undergraduate student doing research on the history of buildings for a local preservation society, I remember talking with one of the society’s leaders about how in the neighborhood I was researching, Portuguese immigrants and their families were being displaced by what were then called “yuppies.” Responding to my concern and sense of loss in this change, she said, “No group is entitled to live somewhere forever.” At the time, I was taken aback, but I’ve never stopped asking the question, “Whose neighborhood — and why?” As a resident of a block bridging the Mission and the Castro, the question has personal relevance. Is the Castro always to be a gay neighborhood — even as more heterosexual families move in? As the Latino population of the Mission continues to decline, will that neighborhood lose its current identity? As a resident of gentrifying (gentrified?) San Francisco, I ask these questions, knowing that both the Castro and Mission had other identities before their current ones.

I’m grateful for my community-engaged learning experience in college because my faculty advisor helped put my questions into conversation with other related questions about neighborhood identity. This led to other questions about the right to housing and to community based on identity; questions about how cities evolve and whether that evolution can or should be channeled, stopped, slowed down, or sped up. The answers I’ve developed to these questions inform everything from the calculus of where I live (Does my presence contribute to changing the character of the neighborhood? Does it change the availability of rental housing stock?) to how I vote (Will this referendum preserve valued characteristics of the neighborhood? Will it make it harder for others to find housing?). The programs at the Leo T. McCarthy Center are committed to fostering this kind of reflection about important policy matters that lasts a lifetime.

David Donahue - Director, Leo T. McCarthy Center