Monday, September 29, 2014

Mid-Sized Meditations #3: Seeing Our (Non-Cosmopolitan) Selves

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Some years ago, some of the folks behind F5, an alternative weekly newspaper here in Wichita, started a different (and, as it turned out, short-lived) publication, titled simply "Wichita City Paper." As part of the PR campaign as that effort got off the ground, flyers were printed up and advertising space was purchased, including billboards around the city, all blaring one simple message: "Face it. You're in Wichita."

I have since learned that one simple message was supposed to be part of an ongoing media campaign, featuring the faces of local musicians, artists, etc. As it was, though, the money ran short, and we only ever saw the first, curt stage. Still, I thought that message on its own was wonderfully clever. However unintentionally, the phrasing conveyed an unstated message expertly: "you, potential reader and advertiser, can imagine living in a better, cooler place than Wichita--the sort of place where the idea of an 'alternative weekly newspaper' reporting on music and film and culture and the hip controversies du jour doesn't seem at all out of place--and the fact is we, the producers of this fine publication, can imagine it too....but we don't live in such a place, and neither do you, so you should just read us and make the best of it, don't you think?" Maybe that's making too much of a five-word message on a billboard, but maybe not--there's potentially a lot of truth about how people in cities of a certain size think about cosmopolitanism backed in there.

The "Face It. You're in Wichita" slogan came back to me as I read We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, the latest book from scholar, activist, educator, and first-rate blogger, Peter Levine. (I keep hoping to actually meet and talk with Peter at different political science conferences, but we keep missing each other, unfortunately. Someday, Peter!). The book is a somewhat wonky and very earnest take on the subject closest to Peter's heart: figuring out how people can organize themselves democratically so as to amass the sort of necessary influence, knowledge, and commitment to be able to truly and productively govern themselves. He is a passionate believer in, but also a reflective and theoretically rigorous observer of, community organization, civic education, and public deliberation. It's a fine book, densely addressing a great many topics in under 200 pages, and making an inspiring case for the value of an active civil society and the importance of common spaces the participatory political culture which they make possible. There are parts of his argument I would want to debate with him at greater length, but overall I really liked it and strongly recommend it. However, given my current interests, what really struck me in this book, was his discussion of "leverage," and whether the organization of citizens in complex societies actually can make real differences in their lives.

How does that relate to the aforementioned slogan? Well, Peter makes it clear from the beginning of his book that he is convinced of the (classically republican, though he doesn't make that connection explicitly) principle that "working together in small groups is morally important" (pg. 26)--but he also realistically notes that such a principle doesn't itself prove the correctness of the famous quote attributed to Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." If we are to correctly operationalize that exhortation, we can't just operate on moral idealism, but rather have to ask about the conditions under which and the issues in regards to which small groups might plausibly expect their determination, organizing, and activism to actually have genuine results. Peter's analysis of this problem leads him to posit a three-step process which begins with thinking through one's values, then the facts at hand, and finally the strategies available, but my attention was particularly drawn to one essential variable in that process: the issue of size. He writes that "the scale of human affairs that lies between a lone individual's decisions and entire societies seems especially important" (p. 24), but that's a bit of a truism; in a blog post which preceded the publication of his book, he was more specific:

Human agency takes place at a moderate scale. It’s not just “micro”–a matter of individual choices such as whether to lie, or to vote, or to use birth control. It’s also not just “macro,” involving the basic structure of a whole society. We human beings cannot directly change basic structures, but we can do more than make individual choices. We can work in political groups. Somehow, political theory and philosophy ignore the moderate scale in favor of the micro and the macro.

This connects with the idea of leverage because at the micro-extreme of the scale, the ability of an individual to govern her own choices is theoretically almost total, but also almost certainly without any social impact. On the macro-end of the scale, though, the issue at hand is so large, so complicated, and so interwoven in other equally expansive issues that there is almost no way any one person, or even a "small group of thoughtful, committed citizens," could ever have a realistic chance of affecting any change in it. Thus does the scale upon which a group operates, or upon which the problem being addressed by that group is evidenced, become crucial to any thinking about active, democratic government: where and under what circumstances can citizen action have real leverage on their social environment?

Going back to the beginning: there is an element of resigned determination in "Face it. You're in Wichita." On its own, it made ironic use of a shoulder-shrugging reaction that Wichita residents--at least, the ones interested in a self-proclaimed "alternative" news source, whom the publishers of the newspaper in question were targeting--presumably experienced on a regular basis, or at least were familiar with. To parallel my explanation above, that reaction runs something like this: "Well, certainly I can't expect anything hip or alternative or cosmopolitan from Wichita, because it is such a conservative and rural backwater, but neither is it likely that I can get out of Wichita any time soon or at all regularly, so I might as well find out about and support whatever alternative sources of entertainment might be found." That attitude captures, I think, a genuine dilemma for nearly all urban areas of the size I am interested in. By and large, only cities of truly significant size generate a socially and economically self-sustaining alternative subcommunity of hip art and culture (before you mention Austin, TX, or Portland, OR, keep in mind that both those cities have metropolitan areas of over 2 million residents each). A city like Wichita, while certainly not the "rural backwater" that many residents and visitors may imagine it to be (after all, we even have our own film festival), nonetheless lacks, shall we say, a critical mass of the sort of accoutrements of cosmopolitan city life so as to make it an enduring part of the city's character. Meaning that anyone attempting to introduce any major civic change of Wichita needs to be conceive of their work on a moderate (or as I say, "mittelpolitan") scale.

This may seem like a rather banal observation--be realistic in one's hopes!--but it cuts deep into how we think about self-government, especially in a mass democratic society. Getting sufficient leverage--meaning, by Peter's analysis, harnessing together sufficient agreement on values, sufficient enabling facts, and sufficient available strategies so as to be able to make real civic action genuinely effectual--on a problem of too large a scale is, as he wrote elsewhere (in specific reference to campaign finance reform, but his insights apply broadly), "a problem of organization and structure that I do not think we have cracked." So often it seems to me, especially as I've been involved in various public-interest campaigns over the years, that the residents of Wichita and other urban areas like it become intimidated by and resigned to the supposed implications of bigness: cosmopolitanism and economic development and all the benefits of real sustainability hangs out there, in the minds of many a city leader with an inferiority complex, inaccessible to those of us living somewhere besides the huge progressive conurbations of America. Given that over 70% of Americans now live in metropolitan areas of one size or another, that perception--and confusion--over scale and the available leverage is a serious democratic problem: it suggest that an ever-increasingly majority of us are living in places which condition us to be unwilling to engage in civil society, to content ourselves with (usually shrinking!) privatized satisfactions, and to give up on the moral satisfactions of civic engagement, because we just don't know how, or when, to scale up or down our cultural or political aspirations to the appropriate "leveragable" point.

The reasons for this inability of most of us to properly grasp ourselves has many causes: the rootlessness of our late capitalism economy, which interferes with the development of real local knowledge; an addiction to media networks which makes us think all political and cultural action begins and ends with our own individuality; the professionalization of interest-group and big-money dominated politics which prevents the overwhelming majority from getting much practice in governement and compromise; and much more. Certainly, much contemporary scholarship doesn't help. Benjamin Barber's latest book, If Mayors Ruled the World, is an interesting read, and filled with genuinely interesting ideas, but he is convinced that, between technological empowerment, economic globalization, and environmental breakdown, the scale of action long associated with the Westphalian state is simply over with (something which Peter, given his past qualified defense of organizing our senses of affectivity along national lines, would presumably disagree), and that the future of actually effectual democratic government lies with cities. And yet, not all cities. Barber clearly, simply by choices of examples, seems the future of the world almost entirely in the hands of massive megacities, the engines of global trade and contemporary ubran culture. (And more specifically, in the hands of the pragmatic, not ideological, and unfailingly cosmopolitan mayors who dominant these cities.) The idea that mittelpolitan city governments, much less the concerted actions of citizens--whether through their marketplaces or in their neighborhoods or out upon their streets--operating on a moderate scale are relevant to the future seems, on this reading of global trends, pretty naive.

I want to push back against this accusation of naivete, if only to be able to articular a theoretical space for thinking about democratic action and sustainable government for those many tens of millions of Americans who live urban (and sometimes even distinctly "cosmopolitan") lives in cities in roughly the 100K to 500K range. No, it would be impossible to imagine a city the size of Wichita characterized by robust republican civic action of the sort which Peter holds out as one important ideal; we can't really have local citizen democracy on our scale. But neither is it impossible to consider the kind of mass leverage which is possible on a middling, a moderate, urban level, distinct from the kind of (often dictatorially administered, top-heavy) consciously cosmopolitanism which presents (and perhaps, due to the pressures of growth and scale, cannot possibly do otherwise than see) our globalized world as the correct model for local governance. The mid-sized city has a distinct way of seeing itself, if it can develop the right lens to look through. Peter's fine book, I think, is helpful in our attempts to build it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mid-Size Meditations #2: The Range of the Mittelpolitan

So, following up on my initial posting on Friday, I've received some good feedback (particularly from Doug Merrill of Fistful of Euros, Matt Lister, and my old friend Rob Perkins) about how I'm hoping to define--and thus get a both a conceptual and an empirical hold on--my research topic. Specifically, do to the admittedly arbitrary delineations I mentioned yesterday (cities roughly in the 50,000 to 500,000 person range, and cities without any significant sprawl into or agglomeration of adjacent urban clusters) actually fit the communities I want to look at and theorize about? Would other delineations work better?

My first response is simply to say: yeah, probably. I'm not a trained geographer or demographer or statistician, and I'd like to think the real value of what I have to say comes in the substance of the ideas about governance, identity, and sustainability which I hope to advance; I really don't expect to be able to develop a quantitatively rigorous enough model--derived from population trends, land use, state laws, and more--to get the U.S. Census Bureau to change the way it does things. Still, I need some foundation to work from and refer to, so perhaps some of following information will provide some scope to the context of my arguments.

This pdf from the Census Bureau lists the population of all the micropolitan and metropolitan regions in the United States, as of both 2000 and 2010. Altogether, it counts all the residents of the 3573 recorded urban areas in the U.S., the great majority of which are urban clusters in otherwise rural census tracks. By census-reckoning, out of all the urban spaces in the U.S., there are fully 381 which count as "metropolitan statistical areas"--that is, they have a population greater than 50,000 people in their core area. The majority of those urban core areas are single, distinct cities; even when there is clearly some communal divisions within the individual listings, it is usually only the largest ones (like "Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA" or "Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV") that present those agglomerated divisions directly. (Hence my home city of Wichita is simply the "Wichita" metropolitan statistical area, even though that four country area actually connects over 50 separate--usually tiny--municipalities.) With a different skill set and access to more current and detailed reports, I might choose to crunch different data sets to provide the raw material for my delineations; still, this strikes me as a a good enough baseline to build upon. Here's how it breaks down:

Census DatePopulation

Given my interest is smaller or mid-sized cities, I arranged the metropolitan areas beginning at the bottom boundary of 50,000 residents, below which the Census Bureau and Office of Management and Budget defines an urban area as micropolitan rather than metro. After that, seemed logical to follow the growth patters which overall census data confirms (namely, that America's urban areas are growing larger and more concentrated, with people moving out of rural areas and urban clusters and into fully urbanized areas) and distinguish metropolitan statistical areas as they doubled in size, up to 100K, then 200K, then 400K, then 800K, and then anything 800K and above.

This obviously gives a skewed portrait of the range of American cities (in that final category you would find cities from 800,000 people to ten times that size, and surely the differences between them are massive), but I think it is suggesting larger "mittelpolitan" patterns. In particular, the fact that the middle range of this significant sweep of urban growth and contraction has remained fairly constant--with, of course, a number of cities growing into that category from the first, and others expanding beyond it--implies that there is, even assuming a progressive line of urban growth (which may or may not be true, particularly when an urban area reaches a certain population; while I did count four cases of cities whose population loss took them from the second category into the first, there were none that I found featuring a significant enough loss to go from either the third or fourth category to a lower one), some real "stickiness" to that middle range. In short, it seems reasonable to assume that while smaller cities and rural urban clusters can, under certain circumstances, relatively rapidly be catalyzed and transformed into a growing urbanized area, holding on to population, development, and economic growth up to and beyond the half-million mark is a much slower proposition. Which means, of course, that issues of sustainability and long-term governance may press upon such metropolitan areas in ways quite different from the way they perhaps would with in either 1) rural villages and towns, 2) micropolitan cities experiencing accelerated growth, or 3) metropolitan agglomerations which have entered into the top 2% of all American urban areas.

What about the population distribution amongst those urban areas--is there similarly some "stickiness" to these enduring mid-sized cities that is reflected in geography? Consider a couple of census maps. The first one charts the location of all the metropolitan and micropolitan areas in the United States, which makes it easy to imagine them all being essentially joined together, with wide rural spaces between:

But this map conceives of things slightly differently:

Focusing solely upon urbanized areas of over 50,000 residents in a single statistical area allows to see that while, obviously, there is a great deal of agglomeration in the United States, there is also, particularly across the American South, Great Plains, and Midwest, dozens of cities of significant size which stand nonetheless physically disconnected from greater urban conurbations, and thus presumably need to think about themselves as distinct entities. (This map, contrasting metropolitan urban areas and micropolitan urban clusters, makes the same point.)

The United States is relatively unique in many ways, of course, but it seems to me reasonable to assume that most technologically and economically developed states will likely reveal a similar phenomenon--the concentration of huge numbers of people in financial, industrial, and political capital cities, but a not insignificant number of others abiding in cities of significant but not globally impressive size, and working to understand and to sustain their communities, with their own set of (often shared, but also often distinctive) virtues, vices, problems and possibilities. As I said at the beginning, I'm not claiming to have mastered sufficient geographic data to be able to insist upon the creation of a new and formal statistical category of urban life. I only want to make it clear that there is some actual demographic grounding to my choice of a "mittelpolitan" site upon which I want to advance some theoretical reflections. Having laid out all this, though, I need to get on what some of those reflections may actually be.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mid-Sized Meditations #1: The Mittelpolitan Possibility

When I first expressed an interest in studying, and hopefully writing a book about, a theory of mid-sized cities for my sabbatical, I had all sorts of random ideas in mind. Then, when I finally had a chance to start pursuing those ideas in earnest, I had a somewhat clearer list of things to do. So where do things stand, here in the middle of September?

As is typical, I haven't done as much as I'd hoped--but I have been able to get some of it done. Not much writing, or much bicycling (thanks, anonymous bicycle thief back in late June!), but a good deal of reading. I have probably 10-15 books that I still want to read as part of my research, which coincides with the 10-15 weeks I have left in my sabbatical, more or less (I won't have to be back in the classroom teaching for another four months, but obviously as the spring semester draws closer I'll be drawn back into advising, syllabi-writing, and all the rest...and plus, nothing really ever gets done between Thanksgiving and New Years, anyway). What I'd like to do here--and really, I intended to start this back in August--is to jot down a series of observations and/excerpts from my larger writing project, some of which were or will hopefully become stand-alone conference papers and submission to academic journals, and some of which will just be here to remind me of points I hope to able to eventually make, when (don't say if!) that larger project becomes the book I want it to be.

So, that brings me around to my first meditation on the mid-sized city: what's with the term "mittelpolitan"? It is, for now, a title I'm playing with, or at least a term of art that I find myself relying upon more and more as I work out some of my thoughts in my head. The meaning is pretty obvious--mittel is German for "middle" (but also, interesting, for "means" or "way"), while politan has the same derivation as metropolitan or cosmopolitan: it's a reference to the "polis," or the city. So perhaps it can be read as playing on the idea of a mid-sized "way" for cities, or of the "tools" for cities of a middling size. But beyond the play, there is, I think, an actual need for some new nomenclature here.

The U.S. Census, in tabulating where the people of the United States live, makes two primary distinctions: urban and rural. Urban America is then broken down again, into "Urbanized Areas" (UAs), where 50,000 or more people live in a designated census block, or "Urban Clusters" (UCs), where you have 2500 to 50,000 people living. Any designated block with less than 2500 residents is "Rural." (Whether the small cities or ex-urban areas that constitute those UCs ought to be included in the popular understanding of "rural" is an abiding demographic dispute.) Still, while small towns and rural counties are fascinating subjects all their own (after all, they are what theoretically give us the agrarian "villages" that are posed in our imagination against industrialized "cities"), my interest is with cities of a certain size--certainly larger than 50,000 people.

So we dig further into the data. The Census Bureau and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget maintain lengthy lists of all America's UAs, and provides delineations that identify those UAs as either Metropolitan or Micropolitan Statistical Areas. The agreed upon demarcations is that if the Core Based Statistical Area (CBSA) consists of a UC of over 10,000 people, but less than 50,000, it counts as "Micropolitan"; if it is a UA of 50,000 or more, it becomes "Metropolitan." Of course, there are all sorts of ways in which the latter term is used in culture and popular discourse, far beyond its statistical definition; once referring to the "mother city" of an urbanized area of any population, to be labeled (or to simply be) "metropolitan" today has associations that take us into the conceptual realm of cosmopolitanism, travel, trade, wealth, access, reach, influence, sophistication, and so forth. Those conceptions have an effect on our thinking that any theory of how cities of a middling sized are governed or made sustainable needs to take into consideration--but we to be able to distinguish cities conceptually beyond the metropolitan level, because the increasing power of (and increasing attention paid to) the metropolises at the top of that list can skew our perspective entirely.

Warren Magnusson observes in his thoughtful book Politics of Urbanism that "modern life is urban," and that therefore, predictably, "rural life is becoming more and more like urban life." By the same token, globalization and the continual unfolding of modernization is causing urban life--as we conceive of it intellectually and develop policies for it politically, anyway--to be constantly scaled up, towards the "global cities" or "megacities" or other instances of urban agglomeration which achieve primary due to their concentration of, as Mark Abrahamson puts it in Global Cities, "jobs and investment funds" (primarily, anyway; government, educational, and religious centers also matter). Looking at the scholarly study of the 21st-century transformation and rising importance of urban life, you see this scaling-up constantly assumed. Three recent books (Benjamin Barber's If Mayors Ruled the World, Daniel Bell and Avner de-Shalit's The Spirit of Cities, and Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley's The Metropolitan Revolution, all of which argue for the idea that, in the near future, it is city governments rather that states which can and will do the most to develop the sort of interconnected identities and shared resources necessary to address global problems) look at numerous cities as part of their reflections--and the arguments they advance are, I think, for the most part fascinating and even important. However, almost without exception, the cities they look huge, with populations in the millions. New York City, Seoul, Montreal, Beijing, Denver, Bogata, Paris, Singapore, Houston, Palermo, Berlin, Singapore, Delhi--with the single outlier of Oxford (population of around 150,000), the smallest cities any of them consider (places like Stuttgart or Cleveland) are themselves major metropolitan areas. Clearly, to speak of cities of a certain size today, and work against the current which seemingly pulls all urban life towards great conurbations, will require some clear distinctions.

For my purposes, I'm looking at two things: first, cities between the micro- and (dominant) macro- divisions, perhaps from 50,000 to 500,000 in population; and second, cities that are separate enough, environmentally and spatially, to not be subject to any (and not to the source themselves of any extensive) sprawling or direct agglomeration. And this does, in fact, describe many hundreds of cities around the United States (such as Abilene, TX, Ames, IA, Anchorage, AK, Ann Arbor, MI, Appleton, WI, Auburn, AL, just to run through a few of the As), not to mention thousands of similar cities around the globe. What to call this distinct group? I thought about "mid-metropolitan" for a while, but ultimately decided that was clumsy. "Mittelpolitan," though, is not. The idea is to capture and theorize about that particular moment in a city's growth and development (a "moment" that may, depending on numerous demographic, environmental, and economic factors, sustain itself for decades) when it is surely not a micropolitan urban cluster--that is, it has grown beyond and achieved sufficient remove from any natural or agrarian environmental basis to be anything like "rural"--but neither is it an extensive metropolitan urbanized area--that is, it has not yet, and perhaps never will, for any number of cultural or political or historical reasons, attract the level of financial investment and consequent employment opportunities which would enable it to sustain a population of may hundreds of thousands of people, much less millions. I said before that we have a well established theoretical language for thinking about governance and sustainability in the hypothetical rural, agrarian, republican village, as well as in the ideally urbanized, cosmopolitan, liberal city. The small town or city, the urban cluster which serves rural areas, may or may be distinct from that former type of language; what I want to argue is that the mid-sized city has, or at least deserves, a mittelpolitan theory which is, if obviously not wholly original, than at least distinctly (perhaps even statistically!) its own.

What is that theory, specifically? I don't know yet--but as I said at the beginning, I have some ideas. Stay tuned.