“Cities are not just machines: they are complex ecosystems. They work best when they are able - like the complex people who live in them - to grow in ways that are interconnected, cooperative, responsive & healthy.”
01 — What is a Good city?
We all know what makes a city good. Articulating those elements more precisely is challenging, and developing the know-how and tools to realize them in practice even more. But the frameworks of understanding we choose to employ - the concepts and paradigms capable of capturing what we mean - matter. They determine what we are able to achieve. If we haven’t envisioned the good, we cannot realize it.
Ten years ago, a group of us at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture asked ourselves three questions with respect to American cities: 01 “What does it mean to thrive?” 02 “What does it take to thrive?" and 03 “Who gets to thrive?”
Like many groups, our project was motivated by the recognition that by 2050, three out of four people will live in cities. Cities are the testing ground for virtually every consequential challenge humanity faces. They are also the ground for forging new solutions to these challenges.
The difference was our fundamental orientation, and expertise, as a community of researchers and scholars within an Institute focused for decades on the larger question of what constitutes the human good. That meant the question of what makes a good city would be shaped by questions on this topic, examining the deep structures of culture. This human good we envisioned in terms of "flourishing" or "thriving," a concept with origins in Aristotelian philosophy. Thus the Thriving Cities Project was born.
The concept of thriving proved vital to developing a new paradigm, which we believed more effectively captured the multiple, rich dimensions that make a city good. At the time, the predominant measure of this in the US was economic. But as we know from shifts in world economic theory, economic measures alone fail to capture what makes a nation good. We believe the same applies to cities and their communities. Human flourishing or thriving is the value we should be measuring, and also striving for. Creating the conditions for people to develop and fully realize their capabilities is what makes a city good.
02 — How do we get there?
While our beginnings were historical and theoretical, our aim was also practical: to equip scholars, communities and practitioners with the resources and tools not only to articulate what makes a city good, and but to realize this in their own particular contexts.
From 2012-2017, Thriving Cities set out to work and learn in ten US cities, engaging researchers, city leaders, philanthropists and nonprofits around these three questions about thriving. Our research led to the creation of the Human Ecology Framework: an ecological paradigm of community wealth and wellbeing that can help cities assess and identify strategic opportunities for engagement and investment. We developed city profiles for every pilot city, knowing the challenges and potential solutions for each depended upon their specific history and aspirations for the future. We developed a user-friendly tool that would translate the research and data for cities to evaluate their assets and deficits for thriving into one figure: a Common wealth quotient.
Since then, we've seen many of our initial ideas affirmed and advanced: the city as a dynamic ecosystem; thriving, or the development of human capabilities, as a key measure; and the significance of the wealth we share in common rather than economic growth. As an expert on the value of arts and culture in civic thriving, our Brief on the value of beauty anticipated recent debates. Culture, once seen as an elite value, is now recognized as a fundamental human right. And creativity key to fostering the imagination and agency of all those who could make the city good.
03 — Who gets to decide?
What's crucial in making a city good is getting the right people around the table, as a start. Engaging these questions now in London, I see many challenges to realizing the good city, but also tremendous potential. We have immense resources and experience to bring to the table. At my home institution of London Metropolitan University alone, we have a Lab dedicated to addressing the multiple challenges faced by our urban communities. Innovative research centers convene expertise on ecological humanities and architecture; consult on cities and industry; rewild our urban environments for health; and develop participatory processes of design which ensure everyone has voice around the table.
Let's make a start.