Cities and the future

Across so many different nations of the world, central governments find themselves immobilized by dysfunction, mired in partisanship, and stymied by populist demagoguery. Yet, the problems of basic governance persist – problems of ensuring that people get access to basic public goods like clean water and housing, that people get access to security and effective policing, and that people actually get to exercise their political rights. Historically, whether in the richest nations or poorest, it’s often been the case that much of this work gets done at the most local levels of government. Today, with the coincidence of failing central governance and the breakneck pace of urbanization worldwide, this is more true than ever.

“Cities are the future; it’s where all the population growth is going to take place and where poverty and social exclusion will be concentrated. All too often, we focus on national issues and not sufficiently on local issues, yet cities magnify all of the contemporary social issues, including inequality, sustainability, migration, democracy, inclusion, and governance,” said Patrick Heller, professor of Sociology and International Studies at the Watson Institute. 

Brown University’s Watson Institute is uniquely qualified to address, analyze, and evaluate issues affecting global citizenry, given its nine regional and area-focused centers and initiatives, diverse and knowledgeable faculty, and global partners with whom it frequently collaborates. To that end, the Watson Institute hosted several dozen scholars to learn from one another, share experiences, and explore future research initiatives at its first Cities, Citizens and Government in the 21st Century conference. 

The universality of these issues drew dozens of global scholars, including many at Brown, to discuss how citizens access or don’t access rights, services, goods and certain types of spaces. “These issues, while not new, have a tremendous new urgency, given current challenges of displacement and migrations, nationalism and populism,” said Ed Steinfeld, Watson Institute director. “No region or place faces these issues alone; they are all comparable, and we can all learn from one another in comparison.” 

This conference – the kickoff to a multi-year commitment to conducting comparative research initiatives – grew organically from conversations among Watson’s centers and initiatives. Susan Moffitt, director of Watson’s Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy and a conference organizer, said that the conference’s initial aim is to identify where researchers have common ground and how to leverage our different perspectives that push our research forward to palpably support the communities in which we work. 

Our distorted view of American democracy

In her keynote address, The State from Below: Urban Citizenship in Policed Communities, Vesla Weaver, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor, Political Science and Sociology at Johns Hopkins University, discussed her research addressing disparate policing practices and community responses to such practices.

Upending the traditional research methods, Weaver employed the Portal Project, which invites an individual to enter a large, gold-painted container with audio-visual technology and connect remotely with an individual located in one of 48 sites. The Portal Project’s listening framework, she said, enables researchers to “explore how people are reasoning through their experiences.” These frank accounts of personal stories and experiences with policing constitute a rich archive of 14,000 pages of transcribed conversations from college students, mothers of homicide victims, business executives, and formerly incarcerated individuals, among others, said Weaver, who noted that these first-hand accounts reveal our “distorted view of democracy in America.”

Portal participants understand that police are supposed to protect and serve the public, yet many report distorted police responsiveness – unnecessarily authoritarian behavior in benign situations and lackadaisical or nonexistent responses to true emergencies. The portals – which span the globe – reveal a new, but obvious, story about race, class and citizenship in America, said Weaver.

During the conference, a “baker’s dozen” of global scholars, including the Watson Institute’s John Friedman, associate professor of economics and international and public affairs, and Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia, presented their urban-centric research in their respective sessions on Geography and Space, and Rights and Participation.

Geography matters

Margaret Weir, professor of international and public affairs and political science, deftly moderated, fielding dozens of participants’ questions for Friedman and his fellow Geography and Space panelists. Neighborhoods – whether in urban Rhode Island communities or Indian communities – impact one’s life circumstances, both Friedman and Varshney discovered.

Using big data, Friedman measured the impact of upward mobility of adults who were born in the early 1980s into economically impoverished families by tracking the geographic movements and earning power of 20 million such individuals throughout a 25- to 30-year period. These data, compiled at, reveal two Americas. Providing affordable housing in high opportunity neighborhoods and investing in low-opportunity neighborhoods can improve the economic futures of young children, asserted Friedman, who acknowledged that family stability, early childhood education, quality schools, social capital and mentorship, affordable housing, and college/career mentoring all matter. “Barriers that families face that are not insurmountable and can be moved by policy [changes],” he said. “We don’t need to look at national data; we can look locally to see how different neighborhoods … are driving the differences.” 

In contrast to Friedman’s big data analysis, Anant Maringanti, with the Hyderabad Urban Lab Foundation, mapped mobility in several urban Indian communities by interviewing women in households to assess how household changes over time reflect mobility and impact urban space. By conducting a series of “house biographies” in one neighborhood, he used house histories to map out different layers of a neighborhood. 

Meaningful civic participation requires full access to rights

The Rights and Participation Panel’s scholars presented their research on how the impact of access – or lack of access – to rights affects individuals’ daily lives in such diverse locations as the Global South, Africa, and India. Romina Paola Del Tredici, with the National University of San General Martin in Argentina, and Harvard’s Maria Maroto shared their research evaluating the rights and responsibilities among citizens in the Global South. Marcus Walton, from South Africa’s Public Affairs Research Institute, evaluated the local dynamics and politics in Lagos, Nigeria and Johannesburg, South Africa, where residents fought for access to fuel and affordable housing, respectively.

While rural India is exhaustively researched, evaluating urban India – expected to have 500 million residents within 10 years – is the “next frontier,” said Varshney. His research, in which Heller is collaborating, found that inequalities in engaging in public activities – beyond merely voting – are largely driven by differences in individuals’ knowledge of civic and political affairs.

In earlier panels, Services and Developments, and Migration and Mobility, scholars from Brazil, China, India, Kenya and Mexico shared their respective research outcomes. Recognizing how widespread these complex issues are, Heller identified essential concepts that future research projects must address: How autonomous is the local government? What are the rates of urbanization?

Future research collaborations are possible

In evaluating possible collaborative research opportunities, participants wrestled with provocative questions: How are cities governed? How do citizens become incorporated into the city and get access to and experience urban opportunities? When and how do citizens hold cities accountable? Who provides what services to which individuals, how are those services delivered, and who funds them? What are the metrics of livable cities? 

Panel presentations and lively discussions reinforced the relevance of and need for studying cities, citizens, and governments, regardless of where those citizens reside. Conference attendees’ debates during lunch and coffee breaks and the provocative questions of panel presenters demonstrated the clear potential for future policy-based original and comparative research initiatives.

The conference is helping to create synergies, partnerships, and collaborations across Brown and to build collaborative relationships with other institutions and individual partners, said Daniel Smith, director of Watson’s Africa Initiative and chair of the University’s Anthropology Department. Smith, a conference organizer, welcomes the goal of applying academic interest, research, and scholarship to build a larger corpus of theoretical knowledge that will have practical implications for problems plaguing the world’s cities.