Letter from America

Eddy Adams

By Eddy Adams, on March 17th, 2016

> Read Eddy Adams's articles

Boston Brahmins

Which metropolis was recently given the dubious title of America’s most unequal major city? Detroit ? New Orleans?  Well the answer is actually Boston, where recent Brookings Institute research shows that those in the city’s 95th percentile of income earned 17.8 times more than those in the 20th. That might come as a surprise, given Boston’s reputation as a wealthy, liberal city hosting some of the world’s finest universities. But it’s a reality that has shaken the governing authorities there into action, with Mayor Martin Walsh co-ordinating a wide ranging economic and inclusion agenda.

As part of that agenda, a group of global experts – a mix of American and European specialists – came to the city at the Mayor’s invitation in early March 2016. Supported by the Bertelsmann Foundation and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Trans Atlantic Policy Lab was organised through Boston’s participation in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities programme.

We spent an intensive week investigating ways to promote equity in Boston. As well as the city-wide perspective, our mission focused on two of the city’s most deprived neighbourhoods. The first was Roxbury, where 62 % of the local population is black in a city where the median net worth of white families is $247,500 and the equivalent rate for black households is $8, according to the Federal Reserve Bank. . The second was East Boston, which hosts the city airport, has poor air quality levels and is home to a largely Latino population (55% is the official rate), with high numbers of undocumented recent arrivals.

Both of these neighbourhoods have assets that can contribute to a more positive future. Roxbury has high levels of social cohesion and a good local transport infrastructure. East Boston has a youthful population (75% of those aged under 17 have Latino backgrounds), a dynamic small business base and is close to the city centre. In early May our group will present proposals to the city for promoting equity at the neighbourhood and Boston levels.

Widening inequality – a 21st Century Urban Challenge

Cities have always acted as spaces where rich and poor live cheek by jowl. Indeed that is one of their great attractions – with the promise of opportunity and social mobility. Many believe that the scope for social mobility has been diminished, as socioeconomic polarisation is driven by neoliberal economic policies. Some eminent urban thinkers, Boston-based Ed Glaeser for example, has argued that despite this, the poor remain attracted to cities. The alternative, rural poverty, is a worse alternative, in his view.

But a rising number of commentators argue the opposite, highlighting the corrosive nature of widening inequality. In the US, this sense of loss and disaffection amongst the working class (translated in American as ‘middle class’) is strongly fuelling the Presidential runs of outsiders like Sanders and Trump. As another Harvard Professor, Michael Sandel, has recently argued, both tap into the anger ordinary people feel about the long unwinding of America’s economy and, with it, the demise of social mobility. As he pithily concludes, “The American dream is alive and well and living in Denmark.”

Learning by Doing, and by Sharing

Many cities are concerned about the effects of widening inequality. After the environment, it is probably the greatest challenge we face. And it’s important that cities don’t face it alone. That’s why Boston’s courageous step to open its city to external scrutiny and support is to be welcomed. Later this year Athens, another Resilient 100 city, will repeat the experience. Peer to peer platforms like these have a critical role to play, building trust and creating the space where effective learning and transfer of experience takes place.

Back in Europe, the European Commission has mobilised its own peer-to-peer platform in the form of the Urban Development Network (UDN). Its aim is to encourage the most effective investment of EU funding dedicated to urban areas. This means bringing cities together to learn from one another, and a key strand of this is the UDN peer review platform which kicked off in Seville in January. There, four cities shared their experience of implementing integrated sustainable urban development. Again, this required a commitment from participating cities to open up, share their experiences and rely on their critical friends to advise on future improvements.

Because integrated sustainable urban development is hard. If it was easy, all cities would be doing it and we know that’s not the case. Within URBACT, we have ten plus years experience of building city capacity in this area. We do this through providing trusted shared spaces and by supporting cities to learn by doing. That has been the focus of our Action Planning networks, and will also be at the centre of our new implementation networks, launching later this month.

City to city collaboration matters now more than ever, given the complexity of the challenges we face. Across Europe, we can mobilise a great range of support tools to make this happen. But as the world shrinks, and our experiences align, there is a growing need for wider global platforms like the Transatlantic Policy Lab, to widen that learning experience.


Leave a Reply