Five takeaways from the TED Radio Hour on building better cities

     Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed holds his six-month-old daughter Maria Kristan while boarding an Atlanta Streetcar with wife Sarah-Elizabeth, left, for its inaugural trip through downtown Atlanta in 2014. Reed says the streetcar's 2.7-mile route will connect neighbors to several tourist attractions, museums and entertainment venues. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed holds his six-month-old daughter Maria Kristan while boarding an Atlanta Streetcar with wife Sarah-Elizabeth, left, for its inaugural trip through downtown Atlanta in 2014. Reed says the streetcar's 2.7-mile route will connect neighbors to several tourist attractions, museums and entertainment venues. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    Takeaways from the episode on how urban hubs inform the world.

    Host Guy Roz talks with public officials, academics and an engineer about their ideas for building better cities, and why it matters.

    The show aired last week. Listen to it, in full, here.

    My takeaways:

    Cities can tackle problems, “even when opaque, stubborn nations refuse to.”

    So says Benjamin Barber, a senior researcher at the City University of New York’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and author of If Mayors Ruled the World, in which he lays out a suggested structure for a “global parliament of mayors.”

    Climate change is an example, Barber says.

    Cities have instituted congestion fees, pedestrian zones and emissions limits, he says. Bike share programs have spread to hundreds of cities since originating decades ago in Latin America. And, he points out, nearly a dozen cities have jointed a carbon emissions reduction initiative launched in 2008 by Los Angeles.

    “Violence is migrating to the metropol.”

    Robert Muggah admits he’s pretty pessimistic from decades studying crime and violence in the “fragile cities” of the developing world. But Muggah says he’s also hopeful when he looks at “inspired mayors around the world who’ve managed to turn things around.” For example: Medellín, Colombia.

    “In the late 1990s, Medellín was the murder capital of the world, but it changed course, and it did this by deliberately investing in its low-income and most violent areas and integrating them with the middle-class ones through a network of cable cars, of public transport, and first-class infrastructure, and in the process, it dropped homicide by 79 percent in just under two decades.” 

    “We can also focus on … hot spots. … Did you know that between one and two percent of street addresses in any fragile city can predict up to 99 percent of violent crime? Take the case of São Paulo, where I’ve been working. It’s gone from being Brazil’s most dangerous city to one of its safest, and it did this by doubling down on information collection, hot spot mapping, and police reform, and in the process, it dropped homicide by 70 percent in just over 10 years.”

    Muggah says he gets calls daily from – and sees examples elsewhere of – wealthier, more stable cities looking to glean such lessons from these “fragile cities.”

    “The road to global democracy doesn’t run through states, it runs through cities.”

    “Cities still function with some semblance of democracy like no other political institutions do,” Barber says.

    Mayors have an advantage over prime ministers and presidents, he says.

    While heads of state must have an ideology, that’s the very thing mayors must put aside to solve problems and get things done, Barber says. 

    There’s pressure and momentum created by the proximity of elected leaders to their constituents. 

    “You can see your mayor in the grocery store,” says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

    What’s more, Reed says, any resident who wants to “shift the direction of something” needs only get support from mayor and council. In Atlanta, that’s nine people.

    “If you spread that across the 50 largest metros in the U.S., you’re actually impacting about 70 percent of population and about 75 percent of GDP. And so, as government resources are more and more strained, cities are finding creative ways to take on challenges and meet needs, so that’s why I think cities are so exciting.”

    Walk, then run

    Reed also says:

    “If you don’t take care of the basics, and do them very well (make sure finances of the city are well-run, make sure you provide police services, pick up trash, fix the pot holes) that you will never be able to do anything aspirational. And once you take on those issues and solve them, the public will then allow you to spend resources on the things that you care about.”

    The show’s first vignette dealt with an initiative that’s beyond the basics, though: “happy maps.”

    The idea is to give people a more enjoyable path, even if it’s not the most efficient option.

    Five years ago, computer scientist Daniele Quercia found his preferred bike route through Boston to work at MIT wasn’t the most direct one dictated by his GIS-powered mapping app. It was longer, but took him through tree-lined streets where he chanced “looking people in the eyes.”

    Quercia says the route charted for enjoyment, rather than efficiency, is determined by users’ votes on which is most “beautiful, quiet, and happy” among various sets of photos of urban scenes. His team’s applied the model in Berlin, Boston and London. His team’s work in London and Torino. My driveway moment

    About 28 minutes into the show, Reed described a pivotal encounter with one city resident during his first bid for mayor.

    Reed was knocking on doors, and arrived at the home of Mrs. Davis. Reed pledged to leverage Atlanta’s high concentration of Fortune 500 companies, international airport and restaurants to make the city even greater, even stronger.

    “She looked at me as if I was a Martian,” Reed recalled to the audience at TEDCity2.0 in September 2013, less than two months before he’d win a second term.

    Then, Reed says, she directed his gaze to an empty community pool where a group of boys were shooting dice. Next, a gang-graffitied gazebo full guys playing too-loud music. She said:

    “That’s the Atlanta I know, baby. Let me tell you something else. I’m a pretty good cook myself. So I don’t go to the restaurants you’re talking about. And if I was gonna go to restaurants, I’d need to take [a] bus and I don’t really feel safe going out at night right now. And that airport that you all are always talking about? Baby, I don’t fly.”

    Reed continued:

    “I changed that day. Because what I understood from that visit with Mrs. Davis was, until you see a city how the people most in need of help see it, you’re never gonna reach ‘em.”

    Reed later ran into Mrs. Davis at an event for senior citizens. He asked her how he was doing.

    “She said, ‘You’re doing okay, and we’re doing okay, and you filled that pool.’ I looked at her, choked up a bit, and watched her walk off. And I wondered, did she know that, in that moment on her porch so many months ago, that she helped to make a mayor and that she changed a city?”

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