We can’t have empathy for those we can’t encounter due to the way our cities are built

Editor’s Note: Last month, our friend Carol Coletta spoke to the Kinder Institute in Houston about the critical role that place plays in building a shared sense of community. We’re pleased to reprint her remarks here.

Monday night I headed out to what I expected to be a short political event, featuring blues artist Keb Mo and saxophonist Kirk Whalum – my idea of the perfect political event. I took a notebook along, thinking I might multitask since I hadn’t yet figured out what I wanted to say here tonight.   But the music was too good, and I found myself forgetting the need to write.

Late in the concert, though, Kirk Whalum said something that made me snap to attention. He was explaining empathy to the audience, and he said:

“You can’t feel ‘em, if you can’t see ‘em.”

And I thought, that’s it. That’s what I want to say to Houston.

Because today, we don’t “see” our neighbors, thus, we cannot “feel” our neighbors. And that is, I believe, at the heart of a developing crisis in our cities and in our nation.

At a moment where we are more connected than ever, how can we be so divided? Americans don’t trust government, we don’t trust the church, we don’t trust the media, we don’t trust each other. And Houstonians, it turns out, are even less trusting that the average American.  We didn’t get here overnight. And there is no single cause.

The decline in the commons

The problem starts close to home. We barely know our neighbors, because we spend less and time with them. Only 20% of Americans report spending time regularly with neighbors. And a third of us say we spend no time at all with neighbors. (Greater Houston residents do a little better, but it is only small comfort: 20 percent  of Houstonians report that they never talk to their neighbors.)

That’s not surprising, since we’ve made casual encounters with neighbors so difficult. Thank God for dogs, right? Because otherwise, many of us would never have an unplanned encounter with a neighbor. We’ve engineered walking out of our way of life. And if you have an unplanned encounter with a neighbor while driving, you are probably both in trouble. As the Houston Chronicle reported, Houston, along with Dallas and Phoenix, have the deadliest roads in the country.

The fact is, car-oriented cities reinforce distance between people. Especially in Houston with your outsize expressways. Not surprisingly, Houstonians are in their cars longer than other Americans. Your average commute distance is one-third greater than in the rest of the country. [12 miles v. 9 miles–one-way daily distance.]

Our increasing demographic diversity challenges our notions of communitywho’s in and who’s out – fueled by the fact that our foreign-born population is the highest since 1914. You see this up close, thanks to your glorious diversity.

We know that the internet and social media world amp up our differences and mainstream the fringe – even without foreign intervention – and that results in isolation and greater entrenchment in our beliefs. But the most disturbing trend fueling the decline in trust… fueling our inability to “see” each other and thus our inability to “feel” each other… fueling our loss of empathy… is that our communities have become dramatically more economically segregated in the past twenty years. Almost a third of us now live in neighborhoods where either everyone is rich or everyone is poor.

The number of urban poor people living in neighborhoods where the poverty level is greater than 40% has doubled – doubled! – since 2000.

Far more neighborhoods are declining than are gentrifying. Yet, all the focus – and the fear — seems to be on gentrification. That’s out of whack, given the trends. Why doesn’t the much faster spread of poverty get equal attention?

Perhaps it’s because the flood of college-educated millennials [35% of millennials] into city centers is so visible. With their relative affluence and the expansion of consumption driven by their disposable incomes, college-educated millennials are easy to spot and easy to resent. (They are seen – but in caricature.) And that’s a shame because our cities need these millennials for renewal. And we need them for their money. .

Now, while millennials have repopulated downtowns, middle neighborhoods have disappeared. Cities have become more and more polarized between the well-to- do and the poor and struggling.

The Big Sort is on. It is rare for people of different incomes to live near each other, especially African-Americans of different incomes to live near each other.

This economic polarization has devastating consequences for children growing up in low-income families. Neighborhoods make a difference on generational mobility, and it turns out that the worst place to be poor is in a neighborhood where everyone else is poor. It’s hard, if not impossible, in poor neighborhoods to access opportunity.

And we not only are sorting ourselves by income. We are also sorting ourselves by political belief. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of consistent conservatives and about half (49 percent) of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views.

Finally, racial disparities are growing. Since 2000, white/black economic disparities have widened. In 2000, a black family in America made 70% of what a white family made. Today, black families make barely 50% of what white families make. It’s hard not to notice. And if you’re black, it’s probably hard not to be resentful.

Clearly, these forces of division and polarization won’t sort themselves out naturally. The belief among Americans that “most people can be trusted” has plunged from a majority agreeing with that statement in the ‘70s to only one-third today.

Remember: You can’t feel what you can’t see. And what – and who — you can’t see can too easily be defined by others – inflaming divisions and mistrust even further.

Given we are in the last two weeks of a political cycle, examples of that are all around us.

Restoring trust

How then do communities succeed with such deep fault lines? With such deep distrust? When we cannot feel others?

Now, this is not the way we frame the crisis. Heal the division! Rebuild trust! Make a city people will share so they can see each other! I know that.

These are not the imperatives that make headlines – except maybe in a David Brooks column. They don’t sound like a winning political platform.

But think of it as the crisis before the crisis.

The free fall of trust we are experiencing is deeply dangerous because:

  • Trust is fundamental to a functioning democracy.
  • Trust is fundamental to community problem-solving.
  • And Trust is fundamental to creating equitable cities. Without empathy, why would anyone with privilege care about equity?

We need that loose web of social connections and the trust it enables to combat rising rates of isolation, political polarization, and increasing economic segregation in our cities.

If we want to tackle the big challenges our communities face – resilience, complete communities, equity, poverty – pick an issue! – we have to begin with simple acts of bringing strangers together, not online, not digitally, but in place.

The importance of the public realm

This is why the way we make and manage place – particularly public place – is so critical.

We desperately need institutions and public space that bridge our deep divides – that bring people of different incomes and backgrounds together — that make it convenient and pleasant for us to be in the company of strangers – that do not require us as individuals to be well-intentioned or “progressive.”

Unless we are content to let Houston and other U.S. cities become like those in the developing world – armed camps of the wealthy surrounded by poor people – we must make communities where people enjoy mixing it up with others… where they will live a portion of their lives in public, not because they are forced to do so, but because it is delightful to do so. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.

This is a lot harder than it sounds. But there are some bright spots, and we can learn from them.

At very small scale, the 2015 Pop-up Pool in Philadelphia’s Francisville neighborhood became a terrific vehicle for people coming together across income and race.

You surely know that public pools have tortured racial histories, and as private pools proliferated, support for and investment in public pools waned, leaving a customer base consisting of those with no other options. In Philadelphia, that meant low-income, African-American and mostly under age 18.

A young planner named Ben Bryant took a look at Philly’s pools and saw the potential for a much more dynamic neighborhood asset. Strategically located between a neighborhood of concentrated poverty and a neighborhood that had a lot of new investment, the Francisville pool had the opportunity to become a welcoming place for everyone.

It wasn’t expensive or complicated: Ben added a few beautiful seating options where there were none, brought in a few palm trees, and made the space inviting and aesthetically pleasing. The pool staff added some water Zumba classes to the schedule. Then, Ben promoted it on social media and had an immediate hit. The pool didn’t lose its existing patrons, but it gained new popularity with residents who discovered the pool for the first time. People of different economic status, different ages, and parents and children happily filled up the pool together.

It took less than a month for the City of Philadelphia to announce that it planned to convert more of its pools to the pop-up pool model. And now, New York has followed suit.

At a broader scale, we’ve adopted some of the lessons of the pop-up pool to reimagine the civic infrastructure that exists in neighborhoods all across our communities – the neighborhood parks, pools, libraries, rec centers, community centers, even police stations. Like the pop-up pool, a lot of these assets have been poorly maintained and underinvested, as people who could afford to buy their services elsewhere abandoned the public option. Think about it: If you could afford to join a gym, you stopped going to the community rec center. If you could afford to buy your books and buy your internet access, you stopped going to your local library.

But that only reinforces our divisions and further polarizes us.

For the past three years, the Kresge Foundation, along with partners at Knight, JPB and Rockefeller, has been funding demonstrations by collaborations in five cities to Reimagine the Civic Commons, bringing new design, new management, new programming and new intention about outcomes to these neighborhood-based civic assets. Once reimagined, we expect these assets to produce socio-economic mixing, increased civic engagement, environmental sustainability and increased value in surrounding neighborhoods. Those are the ways we are measuring success.

And it is increasingly the way we will need to measure all future investments. We can no longer afford to build single-use or single-outcome infrastructure. We just don’t have that kind of money.

Sometimes, it’s one of a city’s glamour assets that can play the role of common ground: our riverfront in Memphis, the riverfront in Detroit, your amazing Bayou [By-you] Greenways. I had a chance to ride the Greenways today, and it’s so easy to see the vision for a connected, resilient, civic Houston embodied in this infrastructure. Wow! It’s potential to re-knit Houstonians across the city and across demographic and economic divides is breathtaking.

Portland, Oregon tackled the challenge of polarization at city-scale.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview the founders of modern-day Portland, to discover how that city had set itself on a path from sleepy, third-tier military town to a model of robust public life.

They decided if they were to engage Portlanders in the civic life of their community, they had to be convinced to “live life in public.”

In other words, people had to be lured from the comfort and privacy of their living rooms and backyards to share public life in the company of strangers.

At the time there were a lot of impediments. There was a prohibition against playing music in the park. Sidewalk cafes were illegal. So they set out to eliminate as many of the rules and barriers that discouraged public life. And today, Portland has a wonderfully rich public realm and many signs of robust civic life.

What can cities do?

Can Houston make “encouraging public life” one of the tests of all of its plans for the future? It’s a question you should be asking.

By most measures today, Houston is a success. A lot of things are going right here.

But the future of any city is not inevitable. Today’s success will not last forever.

Remember that Detroit not too long ago was our nation’s equivalent of today’s Silicon Valley. Its innovation and prosperity made it a mecca for people seeking good jobs and a better life for their families. But its fall, when it came, was dramatic, and only now is Detroit clawing its way back into significance, with a lot of help from foundations like Kresge, and entrepreneurs like Dan Gilbert. Even with their efforts, Detroit’s population is still not growing.

And the reverse is also true. A city’s decline does not necessarily define its future.

Consider Seattle. Not quite 50 years ago, there was the famous billboard that read: Will the last person out of Seattle turn out the lights? That’s when Seattle was a Boeing town and lost 65,000 jobs. Now, it’s an Amazon town, and the worry is too many jobs and too much gentrification.

In the 1980s, Jimmy Carter’s Commission for a National Agenda wrote off cities. That’s how desperate the condition of cities was then. The outlook was so bleak for cities that the commission could not imagine a comeback and recommended ending federal place-based funding.

And yet, cities have come back with a vengeance, driven by the emergence of a new urban economy fueled by eds and meds and the desire of highly-educated young people to live in cities. So much for inevitability.

It’s a warning sign for successful cities like Houston:

Tom Bacon, chairman of the Houston Parks Board, recently said: “This is the moment that citizens have to insist that we catapult ourselves to absolute thought leadership in how to develop a city in the 21st century.”

One of the things we know about the 21st century city is this:

It must be developed in ways that allow us – no, compel us — to feel our neighbors.   Because the successful 21st century city will be built with trust, empathy and equity.

I look forward to seeing the 21st century Houston becomes.