Monthly Archives: March 2011

Recent Radio on Towns and Cities

WAMU here in the DC area recently aired a couple of programs that probed some of the topics we’ve discussed a lot in our Towns and Cities discussions. The first is from a relatively new public affairs show, Latitudes, recently focused on “Affordable Housing, Livable Communities.” The program explored “ideas for creating housing that is affordable, healthy, an adapted to the needs of communities — from India to Sweden to the United States.” You can hear the audio at the link above.

The second is a recent episode of Diane Rehm’s show, which hosted a discussion of America’s Shrinking Cities. You can find the audio and a transcript at the link. Most of the conversation focused on Detroit and other mid-western cities. This topic  of managing urban change, especially as industries and populations change, has been a constant theme of our project discussions.


New York’s High Line – Photo Gallery and More From National Geographic Magazine

The role of parks and green space within our towns and cities has been a frequent topic in our conversations about Shaping our Towns and Cities. We’ve also talked about how older transportation infrastructure, such as urban highways, might be transformed. National Geographic has some great images from Diane Cook and Len Jenshel of Manhattan’s High Line park, which has transformed an old elevated railway into an innovative park space. Take a look, and check out the feature story by Paul Goldberger!

New York’s High Line – Photo Gallery – Pictures, More From National Geographic Magazine.

National Geographic: High Line Park

Photograph by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

Toles on Gentrification

Since we’ve talked a lot about gentrification and the social, cultural, and economic aspects of urban and suburban development, here’s Tom Toles from 1998, courtesy of Richard Layman’s photostream on Flickr.

Tom Toles on Gentrification (courtesy of Richard Layman)

Gamification and Motivating Civic Action

How might public policy get people to act in certain ways? The question of how a democratic society could impact the behavior of its citizens is a near constant one in our Interactivity Foundation discussion projects. One type of policy response that often comes up is the general theme of rewards and punishments, incentives and disincentives. But our thinking about such things is often a bit impoverished. We tend to think first of disincentives, of punishments such as fees or other financial penalties. If we do think of rewards, we might think of financial inducements, such as tax credits or other nominal financial rewards. There’s nothing wrong with these ideas, of course, but there’s no reason that panelists should feel hemmed in to thinking first and foremost about disincentives or to limiting their thinking to financial rewards and punishments.

In the Helping America Talk project on civic discourse, the panelists developed a couple of policy ideas that relied on the broad notion of incentives and disincentives. One policy idea relied on the supposition that the quality of public deliberation could be improved if the participants faced the prospect of gaining or losing something based on the quality of the ideas they brought forward. If the ideas they contributed to the public discussion turned out to be genuinely useful, then there ought to be the prospect of some kind of reward. The panelists brought up the notion of a financial reward, but they also talked about the importance of social recognition. They pointed out that reputation tracking systems (such as one finds in online social networks) could be one means of fostering this sort of accountable public thinking with the prospect of social acclaim as a reward for “being right” or thinking well, or a loss of social status as a penalty for “being wrong.”

At the time, more than a few of the panelists thought these ideas, especially of non-financial incentives, might not go over very well in subsequent citizen discussions. They worried that their fellow citizens might see this approach as unrealistic. But a recent public radio story, “Gamifying the system to create better behavior,” indicates their incentive ideas might have been on the right track. The story recounts how Sweden has set up a successful positive reinforcement program to encourage safe driving. They have speed cameras that catch speeding automobiles, but the non-speeders are also caught being good: for safe driving your tag number is put into a lottery to win a portion of the fines paid by the speeders.

This sort of “game playing” approach, or “gamification,” is intended to help people engage in civic space as active and thoughtful problem solvers, just as they’d engage in a game. The  incentives need not be primarily financial—and not even financial at all.  Gabe Zicherman, who has written on this gamification approach in marketing, uses the acronym “SAPS” to explain the hierarchy of incentives to which people respond:

SAPS stands for Status, Access, Power and Stuff. Zichermann says those are things people want in their lives as rewards — in that order. “It turns out,” he says, “that cash isn’t that good of a reward. Status is a fantastic motivator for getting people to do stuff.”

So the next time Interactivity Foundation discussion panelists start thinking of policies with incentives and disincentives, that’s a good time to remember the value of positive reinforcements rather than just negative ones. And it’s a good time to remember that it’s not all about the money. It turns out that money, or material reward, is likely not the most powerful motivator for civic behavior. It’s a good time to encourage panelists to think broadly about what might really motivate us as democratic citizens to act in certain ways.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Cross posted at the Interactivity Foundation Perspectives Blog.

The Roads that Divide Us

We often think of roads as things that connect us. They help us get from point A to point B. But they can also be an obstacle, a divider, especially when you’re a pedestrian and these are major roadways or highways. The possibility of having walkable neighborhoods, towns, or cities, has been a major theme in the Shaping our Towns & Cities project. We’ve talked, too, about the problem of urban highways that bisect or isolate neighborhoods. Jeremy Kutner’s Christian Science Monitor article “Downtown need a makeover? More cities are razing urban highways” looks into how some cities are seeking to revitalize their declining downtown areas by getting rid of these roadways that have shut them off. Many of these urban highways are nearing the end of their lifespan, so it could be an opportune time to explore alternatives, including visions of more connected and pedestrian friendly downtown neighborhoods.

–Jeff Prudhomme

Shrinking Communities

The shrinking of some of our towns and cities has been an ongoing topic in the Shaping our Towns & Cities discussions. Here’s an interesting piece by the AP’s Hope Yen about how “Census estimates show 1 in 4 US counties are dying.” Our discussions have circled now and then back to concerns about communities that are being left behind–especially rural and small town communities–as highlighted in Yen’s article. As Yen points out, this decline is not just about rural areas–there is also an emerging phenomenon of metro areas that overbuilt during the run-up of the housing market:

James Follain, senior fellow and economist at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University of Albany, said a new kind of declining city may be emerging in the wake of the housing bust — metropolitan areas that rapidly overbuilt earlier in the decade and then suffered massive foreclosures.

He cited as examples Las Vegas, Miami, parts of Arizona, and Stockton, Modesto, Fresno and Riverside in California. Like traditional ghost towns, Follain says, portions of these areas could spiral down from persistent loss of jobs and population and lose their reason for being.

Of course, as some areas decline, others grow:

Not all U.S. areas are declining. Most places with the fastest growth since 2000 were able to retain or attract college graduates and young professionals who came for jobs and later started families. Metro areas with diversified economies such as Austin, Texas, Raleigh, N.C., and Portland, Ore., all saw gains in college graduates; other places seeing gains or reduced losses in young adults, such as Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco, have burgeoning biotech industries.

What policy lessons might we draw from this?

–Jeff Prudhomme

Maker Culture, New Technologies, and Cities

Our cities and towns are shaped in part by their capacity for making, their capacity for some kind of “industry”–broadly understood. This has been a key theme in our project discussions on Shaping our Towns and Cities. Another key theme has been the exploration of the ways that technologies impact the ways we design our communities. One line of exploration has been to ask just what could be the new city-shaping technologies emerging that today. Just think of how the advent and proliferation of the technology of the automobile has changed the design of our communities.

These themes come together when you think about new technologies that could enable more localized small-scale manufacturing–or models of distributed manufacturing. Dave Davisson gives a nice compendium of these technologies and the proliferation of “Maker Culture” in an entry on his “Re/Creating Tampa” blog. With distributed manufacturing, people might not need to design spaces for manufacturing centers. If technologies like 3-D printing proliferate (you’ll find a longer discussion of 3-D printing at the Kojo Nnamdi show here), there could be a profound impact on the ways people relate to manufacturing and the design of our urban spaces.

–Jeff Prudhomme