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The Thriving Cities Project

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What is Thriving Cities?

T hriving Cities is developing a new paradigm for urban analysis, community assessment, and civic engagement based on a holistic framework of community wealth and well-being. Thriving Cities is committed to turning research-based insights into action-oriented tools that will empower key stakeholders—including foundations, city officials, city planners, religious leaders, politicians, educators, business people, academics, non-profits, and residents—to ask and answer the question:

What does it mean and take to thrive in my city, and how can I contribute?

What Is Thriving?

Thriving shifts thinking from conventional deficit perspectives to an asset orientation, empowering leaders and citizens to see beyond common problems to collective possibilities. This starts by securing a basic threshold of material security and civic empowerment, which then underwrites deeper prospects for both the good life and the public good. In this way, thriving rests equally upon the fullest realization of internal capacities as on having the necessary external circumstances in which those capacities can become realized. Thriving means both doing and faring well.

Thriving Cities Framework: a Human Ecology Approach

The Thriving Cities paradigm builds upon a “human ecology” framework. Human ecology stresses the fact that cities are neither collections of autonomous individual or discrete problem areas, each hermetically sealed from one another; nor do cities behave like mechanical systems that can be managed and controlled by rational experts from on high. A human ecology approach sees cities as complex, asymmetric, and dynamic social systems that both empower and constrain the ways of life and life chances of their residents. The concept of human ecology encourages us to think about the shape, character, and normative purposes of actual places and people in culturally and historically interactive terms.

The Six Endowments of Human Ecology

Our framework is based on the concept of human ecology that examines six fundamental areas of community wealth and well-being. They form the most recognizable horizons of human experience and the building blocks of a thriving commonwealth.

THE TRUE | the realm of human knowledge and learning

  • Resources & Practices: Research, innovation, teaching, transfer of knowledge, cultural and historical preservation, etc.
  • Institutions & Places: Universities, libraries, public schools, public squares, media, public art, job training centers, bookstores, community gardens, etc.

THE GOOD | the realm of social mores and ethics

  • Resources & Practices: Parenting, early childhood development, moral formation, charitable giving, volunteering, community conversation, etc.
  • Institutions & Places: Families, religious organizations, after-school programs, charities, schools, community centers, sports, social services, farmer’s markets, etc.

THE BEAUTIFUL | the realm of creativity, aesthetics, and design

  • Resources & Practices: Design of the built environment, city planning, public art, festivals, cultural entertainment, creative placemaking, etc.
  • Institutions & Places: Community planning boards, public art/galleries, restaurants, public spaces/promenades/gardens, commemorative sites, innovation districts, etc.

THE PROSPEROUS | the realm of economic life

  • Resources & Practices: Work, investment, capital exchange, land development, philanthropy, production/consumption, technology, innovation, etc.
  • Institutions & Places: Industries, businesses, real estate, innovation districts, job training centers, transit oriented development, vendors/farmer’s markets, etc.

THE JUST AND WELL-ORDERED | the realm of political and civic life

  • Resources & Practices: Political deliberation, civic engagement, law and order, community organizations, protest/demonstration, city planning, zoning, etc.
  • Institutions & Places: Local government, public spaces for democratic processes, city hall, community centers, civic groups, public transportation and housing, etc.

THE SUSTAINABLE | the realm of natural and physical health

  • Resources & Practices: Management of energy and land, air quality, public/human health, environmental regulations and advocacy, emission, waste, sanitation, etc.
  • Institutions & Places: Public parks/forests, green infrastructure, hospitals/clinics, bike lanes, sidewalks, restaurants, local food hub, environmental organizations, etc.

Application of the Six Endowments

Our distinctively cultural approach, with its emphasis on the dimensions of common life in cities, invites us to see these endowments in terms of six interactive and evolving formative contexts in which we routinely see the exercise of moral agency and practical reasoning across human communities.

Like a mosaic, the endowments are fragments of a broader picture that help to frame a community or city in a holistic light. The first three build on the classical ideals of “The True,” “The Good,” and “The Beautiful;” the last three are the modern ideals of “The Prosperous,” “The Just and Well-Ordered,” and “The Sustainable.”

Crucial to appropriating the six endowments is understanding that though ever present, they function uniquely within the particular contexts of each place. This is the pragmatic promise of Thriving Cities: by applying our framework, we can generate highly specific insights that are distinct to each city’s signature and each city’s mosaic of thriving. Such insights clearly identify the uniqueness and interconnectedness of each community, concurrent with universal characteristics that support and sustain the human ecology.

Civic Substructure & The 4-C’s of Thriving

The possibility of thriving in any city starts by securing basic conditions of material well-being for its citizens, and extends through a range of human connections, collaborative projects, and civic commitments. Taken together, these 4-C’s form what we call a community’s civic substructure. Whereas most urban projects focus on outcomes—e.g., graduation rates, economic output, etc.—the 4-C’s of the civic substructure illuminate the qualitative and human-centered inputs which are fundamental and generative of a thriving human ecology.

CONDITIONS | the basic conditions of material security & social well-being
CONNECTIONS | the relationships & public places that bond & bridge communities
COLLABORATIONS | the unique & unusual forms of collective action
COMMITMENTS | the core identities & values that motivate & sustain care for others


Thriving Cities Toolkit

  • Thriving Cities Website|
    Join the conversation about thriving on Thriving Cities’ new interactive website that features original documentary videos, interviews, and research.
  • City Profiles
    Each pilot city has a corresponding profile. By telling the story of a city in terms of the six endowment framework, each profile provides new and fresh insights that can help local stakeholders better assess and invest in the human ecology of their cities.
  • Case-Method Series
    This series will feature examples of community stakeholders working for the thriving of their city in unique and creative ways. The goal is to give concrete illustrations that will instruct various practitioners in understanding and applying the human ecology framework to their sectors—e.g., education, philanthropy, business, religion, journalism, city planning, and others.
  • Documentaries
    Both short and feature-length films investigate a variety of initiatives, approaches, and places that hold promise for urban thriving. Forthcoming topics include the story of business-led community development in Orlando that promises to be the answer to gentrification, a new social movement of Evangelicals helping cities like Detroit remodel neighborhoods and schools, and to the role that cultural landscape plays on human health and community well-being in partnership with cross-disciplinary longevity research and urban design.
  • Indicator Filtering Tool
    An interactive on-line application that uses the human ecology/endowment framework to help practitioners identify which indicators and metrics are most popular around the country, which ones have solid empirical support, and which are most critical for thriving in a given area.


  • Asa Eslocker, Director of Program Development | email
  • Stephen Assink, Director of Operations and Research | email

Associated Faculty and Fellows:

Explore the Thriving Cities Project Summer 2015 Research Brief >>

Visit the Thriving Cities Website >>

Learn more about Thriving Cities through an animated overview of the project >>

selected project accomplishments

Crawford, Matthew. Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Yates, Joshua J. and James Davison Hunter, eds. Thrift and Thriving in America: Capitalism and Moral Order from the Puritans to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

In collaboration with The Hedgehog Review:

Who We Are

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture is an interdisciplinary research center and intellectual community at the University of Virginia committed to understanding contemporary cultural change and its individual and social consequences, training young scholars, and providing intellectual leadership in service to the public good.

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