The program on culture, capitalism, and global change

The Thriving Cities Project

Take any one of the many problems that today beset our cities: it does not take intimate familiarity or expertise to determine that they cannot be understood, let alone addressed, in isolation from any number of other concerns or from the broader communal and institutional contexts in which they are situated. Whether one is concerned about crime, childhood obesity, economic development, environmental degradation, or affordable housing, it almost goes without saying that a host of external factors and forces shape them in consequential ways.

Take just one obvious example. In the educational arena, success depends on not only what goes on inside schools, whether the talents of teachers or the effectiveness of curricula, but also upon: 

  • the stability of student’s homes and families;
  • the safety and vibrancy of the neighborhoods surrounding schools;
  • the degree and quality of community support for schools and other extracurricular activities in the form of volunteerism and boostership;
  • the existence of highly functioning and well maintained infrastructure;
  • the availability of wholesome food and opportunities for healthy connections to the natural world;
  • the challenges of popular culture and media on the imaginations of children;
  • and of course, on the level of economic prosperity, employment, and available tax base a school district enjoys.

Taken together, these and many other variables press in upon students, parents, and educators on every side, and very often translate into a difference in outcomes, generating either frustration and failure or long-term success. In the end, it cannot be emphasized enough that effective education, like so many other issues we care about, can only occur when its connections to so many other, “extracurricular” issues are mutually reinforcing in positive ways and when the larger institutional and cultural contexts in which they exist are supportive and empowering, rather than oppositional or undermining. When all such interconnections and the larger contextual settings are pushing in the same constructive directions, people and their communities thrive. The opposite is equally true.

The purpose of the Thriving Cities Project is to develop a new method of community assessment that attends to these broader interconnections and larger contextual settings. The project takes urban settings as its focal point because cities have become the primary contexts in which most human beings in the world will be born and raised, make their homes, foster meaningful relationships, secure livelihoods, and pursue their aspirations and interests—in short, live out their lives. For this reason there is ample need to focus on cities as an appropriate level of analysis for questions about what it means to thrive in the contemporary world.

Animating the Thriving Cities Project are two related questions: what does it mean and what does it take to thrive in today’s cities? To answer these questions, the project’s primary endeavor is developing a Thriving Matrix, or assessment framework that illuminates the broad spectrum of perspectives on and determinants of thriving. While existing urban assessment metrics and indices tend to examine cities in terms of their relative economic competitiveness, their environmental sustainability, or on their residents’ objective or subjective notions of “happiness,” the Thriving Cities Project improves upon these existing frameworks through several unique innovations:

  • Conceptually, thriving offers a richer, more comprehensive, holistic, and dynamic picture of social well-being than other leading terms in the area of community assessment—terms such as “quality of life,” “happiness,” “sustainability,” and “resilience.”
  • It offers a context-based and historically-rich approach to assessing well-being across a spectrum of reciprocally-determined aspects of urban life. In defining this spectrum, the project develops the concept of community endowments. As opposed to the language of “capital” prevalent in many models and which implies a-temporal and amoral value, the language of endowments shifts the emphasis to community investments and inheritances held in common that demand fiduciary responsibility and collective obligation.
  • Highlighting the plurality of moral and ethical understandings of thriving, the project characterizes these community endowments as being comprised of the classical ideals of “the True” (the realm of education and knowledge production); “the Good” (the realm of moral and ethical formation); and “the Beautiful” (the realm of art, aesthetics, and design of the built environment); and modern ideals of “the Prosperous” (the realm of economic life and philanthropy); “the Well-ordered and Just” (the realm of politics, civic life, and law and order); and “the Sustainable” (the realm of public health, energy, and the environment).
  • Collectively, these community endowments comprise the project’s most fundamental conceptual innovation: the Human Ecology of cities. By describing and assessing a city’s human ecology, the Thriving Index illuminates the ways in which cities are neither collections of autonomous individuals nor abstract and discrete problem areas (such as poverty or environmental pollution) sealed off from one another. The concept of human ecology encourages us to think about the shape, character, and purposes of actual places and people in culturally and historically interactive terms.

The Thriving Cities Project is designed to produce groundbreaking academic research on the cultural dimensions of contemporary urban contexts and strategic resources for use beyond the academy. The Thriving Index is specifically intended to be a strategic resource for anyone interested in promoting thriving in today’s cities.  

Here is the potential difference the Thriving Cities Project approach to community assessment can make:

  • It can help city leaders, professional practitioners, and concerned residents to ask better questions about how their city works across a wide spectrum of vital areas: education and knowledge production, public health, the built environment and city planning, city governance, civic engagement, arts and leisure, natural environment, public works and infrastructure, and the like.
  • Moreover, information on the historical and institutional context of each of these vital areas, going beyond statistical averages pulled out of context, will provide smarter intelligence for creating better community targets for reform.
  • Understanding the critical synergies between these vital areas, so often missing from standard analyses, can lead to new community-based insights about how to sustain positive or virtuous cycles that lead to greater thriving while at the same time breaking out of vicious cycles and downward spirals that obstruct communities’ ability to thrive.
  • Finally, identifying and articulating the patterns of moral and ethical commitment that are either guiding community decisions and actions in a given area or generating conflict over them (or likely both) can help a community avoid either trivializing or tribalizing over matters of deep difference. In short, it can help communities avoid the kind of “culture war” partisanship that all too commonly fractures communities and keeps them from finding constructive ways of working across their differences for the common good. 

Associated Faculty and Fellows:

 

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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