There is a concept, an idea, a new way of understanding the impediments to reinvigorated and revitalized cities which I think could be revolutionary. In shorthand it’s that the problem isn’t having too much of the bad, it’s having too little of the good.
This became obvious to me as I analyzed data about violent crime in Boston versus violent crime in my home town. For all of the years for which I could find data at a city data site, Boston’s murder rate (the best data to use when comparing violence from city to city is murder data over a period of years, I’ll address this more thoroughly at a later time) fluctuated from a low of 5.6 to a high of 13.3 per 10,000 inhabitants whereas Springfield’s range over the same time period was 4.7 to 13.2 per 10,000.
What is interesting is the relative negative impact this has on people’s overall attitude toward the cities in question. Those murders seem to have no impact on the willingness of people to go to Boston to see the Red Sox or shop at Fanuiel Hall, in Springfield however the same rate of crime, and a much lower actual number of murders (nearly four times lower) actually does impact attendance at local sports games and at city retailers.
I started thinking about this as just an example of confirmation bias: We tend to reject data which doesn’t conform to our previously held beliefs; and we tend to overvalue data which does conform to our previously held beliefs.
The thoroughly ingrained and deep seated belief that cities are where strangers are murdered, for example, is so strong that it makes its presence felt even when it is objectively not an accurate representation of a specific act of violence. Like the time a woman from a suburban town was murdered on the side of a highway in another suburban town and the local tv news reporter did a “stand-up” report about “danger on the highways” standing in front of the skyline of downtown Springfield. I’ve written short essays and letters that I will rewrite and/or republish here on the topic in the future, but suffice it for now to say that city “stranger danger” barely makes a ripple in urban murder statistics, but what is clear is that, even when a woman who lives in a suburb is murdered in a suburb, the problem is perceived to be an urban one.
The topic of this essay, however, is not suburban versus urban, but rather urban versus urban. Why does the same type of crime, occurring at the same rate (but at much higher absolute numbers) have almost no impact on the way people perceive Boston? I do think that confirmation bias (“Boston is a great place, I like it”) plays a role, but a secondary one. The reason people have a bias (“Boston is great”) to confirm is that there are so many great things there. A smaller city like Springfield no longer has the plethora of great places it once had, suburbanites(and even residents themselves) no longer have an array of overwhelmingly positive things to cling to create a positive view of the city, and so the confirmation bias works in a different direction.
What I have noticed is this; Boston, Madrid, and New York have just as much trash per block and just as many homeless people per mile as the smaller, less fashionable cities on which this blog focuses. The real problem for smaller cities is that on those blocks there is not as much to do, among those people there are not as many people who are not homeless. The problem isn’t “too much of the bad”, it is “not enough of the good”.
When people say that they don’t come to certain cities because of the litter, the homeless, the crime, they really believe that is why they choose to stay away. I simply believe that the evidence shows that they are wrong in that analysis of their own motivation. This matters because cities have expended a great deal of effort to mitigate the aforementioned problems, but in most cases they have not been as successful as they would have hoped at attracting people to their cores. Perhaps the focus has been slightly misplaced. While certainly the ratio of good to bad matters, the more important, more determinative, and more impactful focus should be on expanding number and quality of positive experiences people have in the city.
There is a difference. “Clean it up, and they will come” is different from “have something for them to come to, and the litter won’t be noticed”. I remember the downtown business organization a number of years ago had a slogan that went something like: “Clean it up, sweep it up, shine it up, and sell it.” If the playing field of the attitudes of visitors to the city were a level one, then that might work, but it isn’t. No matter how clean you make it, it will be dirty, no matter how shiny you make it, it won’t have luster. The change in perception will come only after the attraction of the city is so strong that people’s attitudes change regardless of the actual evidence.
Don’t misunderstand, maintaining (and improving) the appearance of cities matters. Anti urban bias along with confirmation bias demand we be better just to be viewed as bad. Not to mention, I live in the city and I want it clean. The point is that tackling the perceived negatives of the city alone will never suffice to alter the previously established mind set. That can only be done by giving people things to do that they love in the city, and then they will come to love the city.
Having more great things to do matters more than being able to do what you do in a pristine environment. Getting more people of all kinds into the city matters more than hiding the indigent. Having more good matters more than having less bad.