Interactive Discussion Reflects on Week Six, ‘The Future of Cities’

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Dozens of Chautauquans gathered Friday afternoon in Smith Wilkes Hall to participate in an interactive discussion moderated by Dan Moulthrop, CEO of The City Club of Cleveland, and Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services for Chautauqua Institution, to cap off Week Six, themed “The Future of Cities.”

Underwritten by presenting sponsor the Cleveland Foundation, the week explored what’s going well, what’s not and what’s left to try in cities across an increasingly urban world. Friday’s discussion gathered community members to reflect on the ideas absorbed throughout the week and determine how individuals can contribute to their future of their own cities.

A preliminary roll call revealed plenty of people from Cleveland, but participants arrived in Chautauqua from all over: Toledo, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; San Diego; Asheville, N.C.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Arlington, Va.; Las Vegas; Hoboken, N.J.; Minneapolis; Sarasota, Fla.

Hailing from a range of cities themselves, participants initially echoed difficulty in prescribing solutions for an entity that escapes definition. One participant referenced Friday’s morning lecture by sociologist Saskia Sassen, who talked about gated communities and office parks that muddle traditional concepts of city. Another participant recalled Wednesday’s morning lecture delivered in conversation between urban planner Kareem Ibrahim and and Michele Dunne, director and senior associate of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who discussed Cairo’s unique amalgam of old city and new city.

Across self-organized groups of five or six, participants broke down different aspects of a future city, in whatever form it takes, and summarized their findings to the hall. One group discussed transit, another the built environment. Connected cities, welcoming cities, public safety, green cities, artistic cities and education were other categories.

Across those categories, some declared education the most important.

“If you do every single thing well on every one of these posters and don’t do education, the city will fail,” one Chautauquan in the education group said to the larger audience.

Numerous participants identified the failure of public education systems as a key urban issue. Public schools serve communities unequally and facilitate the school-to-prison pipeline which disproportionately affects students of color. If young people don’t receive a baseline education, participants said, they won’t contribute culturally, economically, politically or socially. If they’re incarcerated, they won’t contribute much of anything.

Transportation, particularly for the aging, was another major issue. In many cities, cars are the only option to get around. Even if there is a bus system, using it sometimes remains a chore.

“If you live in the inner city and your job is at a suburban shopping mall, the bus literally drops you a mile away,” Moulthrop said.

Other groups discussed smaller, more novel lessons regarding the importance of green space to improve quality of life. Another thread involved using digital technologies to provide services such as education at lower cost. Still others emphasized focusing on people, particularly in the realm of good governance, to achieve change.

Moulthrop ended the discussion an hour later amid praise for the Cleveland Foundation’s efforts in Chautauqua. He accepted the compliment, but mirrored the same challenge he started with: “What can you do in your world?”

Morgan Kinney

The author Morgan Kinney

Morgan Kinney is a Northwestern University journalism student who likes to explain things, particularly science. Read his Twitter thoughts @morgan_kinney.