Inclusive Cities Interview Series
The Inclusive Cities Interview Series was created as a final project for the 2021 UNA-USA Emerging Leaders Fellowship. The theme of the fellowship was ‘reducing inequalities.’ and this project looks specifically at cities – both through a wide lens and through a narrow one.
Elizabeth Kostina interviewed Richard Florida, a renowned urbanist and scholar, and Marietta La Barbera spoke to Krystal Garcia, the Director of Policy & Research at the Boston Mayor’s Office for Health & Human Services.
Richard Florida is a researcher and professor, currently a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and is a Distinguished Fellow at NYU’s Schack School of Real Estate. He is a writer and journalist, having penned several global bestsellers, including the award-winning The Rise of the Creative Class and his most recent book: The New Urban Crisis. He is also the co-founder of CityLab, the leading publication devoted to cities and urbanism, and an entrepreneur who founded the Creative Class Group.
Do you think the achievement of urban equality would remove or decrease competition in urban innovation? Is it centered around economic growth? Is it the modern urban environment that creates disparities?
I think the nature of our economy creates inequity and disparity. The knowledge economy, by its very nature, is driven not just by a winner-take-all reward system – which other economists have written about. I think its underlying characteristic is a winner-take-all geography. Knowledge, innovation, and talent all tend to cluster. That is the driving force for innovation and economic growth. So, if left to its own devices we get tremendous spatial inequality.
I also think that inequality is a characteristic of the rise of new economic systems. We saw tremendous inequality during the Industrial Revolution. It was only after the New Deal, the postwar period, and the creation of a new social compact and government policy that we saw inequity reduced for a short period. It is surging again with the transformation from an industrial to a knowledge economy. I do think the new knowledge economy, by its very nature, is more spatially unequal than the old industrial economy.
Ultimately, SDG 11 does call for building more inclusive cities. But I also think we’re at the infancy of that effort. It’s going to take more than just cities – it’s going to take a massive effort involving all of us and all levels of government.
What are your thoughts on this quote from Jane Jacobs? “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Love that quote. I agree that the motivating idea should be centered on more inclusive innovation and more inclusive prosperity. Every single human being is creative. We need to stoke the creative furnace that lies within each of us. Creativity does not respect the siloed social categories of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. It is up to us to build a social and economic structure that mobilizes the creativity of each and every human being.
How does the idea of ‘truth’ in dealing with urban inequality and reducing inequality in general play out or complicate this?
To be honest I am really mainly a qualitative scholar. I really try to do what Jane Jacobs did. I observe cities, I talk to people, I read history. I work with other people to do quantitative research. All of us have to be objective, do actual research, and be thoughtful about the patterns and data we uncover.
One of the things that bothers me about urban scholarship – including a lot of urban scholarship on the left – is that it’s driven more by pre-disposition or ideology than by data. I believe in science. If the data changes if the facts on the ground change, it’s time to adapt theory.
Where do you see major (or minor) policy changes that need to occur in order to reduce inequalities in American cities?
Ultimately, I think urbanists have shied away from policy, and I think they’ve even shied away from making their research and findings digestible to the policy community. If you think about what economists do, they translate their findings and research to government policymakers. Economists like Galbraith, Friedman, Krugman, or Stiglitz, and many more – have been at the forefront of this.
Urbanists aside from Jane Jacobs have been content to sit in their academic corners and talk to one another. Often in jargon policymakers can’t understand. And if you look at what’s happening on the left with critical urbanists, they often berate policymakers and consider policy to be a force of gentrification. Everything that’s done to make a city better makes it worse and their view. This is a no-win situation. Policy-makers – mayors, governors, national leaders make decisions. And there is data and evidence that can help them.
This is what I’ve devoted my career to. I’ve said that urbanism has some of the best data and information in the world. We have to make it available to the policy community. This is why I write accessible books and this is why I founded CityLab. It’s been the motivating force of my entire career. I would say most urban academics don’t like it, and they would even make fun of it and call it things like “pop urbanism,” or suggest that I’ve done it for some self-serving reason. But I know that it helps policymakers, I know that it helps mayors, and I know that it helps economic developers because I talk to them all the time.
How does this (if it does) relate to post-COVID recovery in cities?
I’ve written a ton about this and given lots of presentations. All on my website. But I think the key is that we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to rebuild our cities in a more inclusive, equitable, sustainable, and resilient way. The question is, will we take it? Will we do what’s necessary? That’s the big one.
Krystal Garcia is the Director of Policy & Research at the Boston Mayor’s Office for Health & Human Services.
Can you tell me about the Office of Health & Human Services and your role there?
Of course! The Office of Health & Human Services is a Cabinet under the Mayor of the City of Boston. We have 10 departments within the cabinet, which serve everyone in the city – anything from food access to Boston youth (Boston Children Youth & Families, BCYF), community violence intervention and prevention programs, and our older adult residents. It’s a broad spectrum. The Boston Public Health Commission is also a key part of our department, which for the purposes of this conversation, is a really important department. In my role as the Director of Policy and Research for Health & Human Services, directly serving Chief Martinez and HHS’ departments, I support the growth and development of the policy efforts of the ten HHS Departments and their respective divisions and provides leadership and direction for HHS policy campaigns.
What about the current vaccine equity initiatives and how they’re being enforced in Boston in these early stages?
We started off trying our best from the beginning, to ensure equitable access to the vaccine for all who were eligible, based on the eligibility categories provided by the state. There was such a rush when the vaccine appointments became available and many people from disproportionately impacted communities were not accessing the appointments quickly enough. To mitigate that issue, we set up different systems to help folks get access to appointments while making sure folks had reliable information about the vaccine.
One way we assisted residents was by setting up the Equity & Vaccine Access (EVA) Line, which is a multilingual call center and an online form where you can request assistance to get an appointment. That was really important because we did not have many vaccines and the Equity & Vaccine Access (EVA) Line enabled us to call people and say “we have an appointment for you.” Also, many people we work with don’t have access to a strong internet connection or don’t feel comfortable using the internet, etc. The EVA Line was really focused on getting people of color, people who live in neighborhoods disproportionately impacted, and folks who are eligible (now anyone).
Another strategy: HHS worked with the state to set aside slots at the Reggie Lewis Center. We strongly advocated for the RLC in Roxbury to be opened a mass vaccination site so that there was easy access in the communities that have been most impacted by the pandemic in Boston; people living in Roxbury, Dorchester, and also Black and Latino residents, who to this day are still being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. In addition to these strategies, we also have the Vaccine Equity Grant Initiative that we announced. Those are specifically to link community-based & clinical partners together and give them resources to get people vaccinated. What we are seeing is that a lot of people don’t have the desire to go to a major mass vaccination site like Hynes or Reggie, whether it’s fear of documentation or fear of the space, or because people trust their community organization over the people at a mass vaccination site. So we’re working with those community-based partners and clinical partners to get the word out and set people up with immediate appointments and transportation. Anything we can do to lessen the burden to get people to the vaccination site, we’re trying to do.
I was thinking a bit about the disparity that’s bound to grow between communities because there will be people coming out of the pandemic while others will still be in lockdown. What is your take on that growing disparity and what the city can do to level the playing field?
Our goal is always to try and lessen the burden on folks and to create a path to equitable recovery. We are working to minimize the barriers in people’s lives that keep them from thriving. There is so much happening across the local government that I can’t answer to, but I think that one of the most important things that we’re trying to do is send a message of hope and trying to give community-based organizations the resources to help people.
A lot of the culturally appropriate ways to go about helping people are ways that rely heavily on our community-based partners, and those partners are so burnt out that we need to assist them too. When I say community partners I’m not just talking about nonprofits. I also mean faith-based organizations, immigrant-serving organizations — a lot of these organizations do not have enough resources to serve folks the way they want to. So continuing to support them in partnership with the city can help more people.
From a policy perspective, we need to advocate for policy that is sensitive to what you mentioned. Not everyone is going to pick up and be where they were 2 years ago. One of our strategies, from a governmental perspective, is to advocate on both the state and federal level for continued support for our businesses, and community-based organizations to receive grant dollars, housing, and public health infrastructure. To ensure that as we live with this new reality, folks will have a place to live, and access to food, etc. All that can’t happen if we’re not continuously advocating.
For more on post-COVID recovery in cities, check out these links:
Learn more about Florida’s work at https://creativeclass.com.
For more information about initiatives for equitable recovery post-COVID-19 in Boston:
- The City of Boston – “Boston’ COVID-19 Recovery”
- The City of Boston – “‘All-Inclusive Boston’ Campaign Promotes Equitable Recovery from COVID-19