Month: April 2022

New Paper: “The Space of Ideas: Public Art Policies and the Concept of Urban Model Spaces”

an illustration of cloud gate (bean) in chicago

Noga Keidar and Dan Silver are  excited to announce the publication of their paper in The Journal of Urban Affairs. As a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto Dr. Keidar was inspired to follow public art policies in order to examine the evolution of policy ideas and explain the mechanisms behind their mutations: “Our exploration started in 2016 as part of a research group of scholars from the U of T and OCAD U that worked to improve Toronto’s Percent for Art mechanism. We began collecting policy materials from cities comparable to Toronto to get ideas about how things could be done differently. We were surprised by the richness of policy materials cities produced, and more importantly by the great variance of values, goals and procedural arrangements that developed from this relatively basic policy tool. We wanted to systematically examine how the concept developed over time, across physical space and institutional settings, and to explain why cities used it differently. A key challenge was to develop a method and a theoretical framework to compare many cities. This challenge urged us to develop the Urban Model Space that could be applied in a textual analysis for any other popular policy model. 

Here is a short synopsis of the paper:

One of the central components of the theory of urban evolution concerns the circulation of urban ideas. Ideas about how to physically organize space, what to do there, and who should be there – forms, activities, and groups – carry from place to place what we term “formemes” in “Towards a Model of Urban Evolution.”

Our forthcoming article, “The Space of Ideas,” elaborates a novel approach to studying the role of urban ideas in urban evolution. Using a large corpus of public art policy documents from 1959-2020, we use computational text analysis to uncover the latent structure of the Anglosphere public art discourse and how it evolves along three key dimensions: temporality, scale, and position. We find six recurrent themes predominate in what we term the public art “Urban Model Space.” These themes include topics we describe under headings such as “pedestrianism,” “equitable access,” “creative industries,” “place-based identity,” “creative opportunities,” and “heritage.” Our analysis shows that the adoption of these themes is shaped by factors such as when a city initiates a public art program (temporality), the region or state in which it is located (scale), and its position in the global urban hierarchy or internal agency leading its public art initiatives (position). While the analysis offers important insight into the domain of public art, it also serves as a model for incorporating textual representations of ideas into urban evolutionary research.

To read the full article, click here.

Our study builds upon a dynamic and robust research tradition into Urban Policy Mobility. During the last two decades, this research stream has been documenting an extensive ‘flow’ of “urban models”, like Business Improvement Districts, Arts and Cultural policy, Climate Solutions and Insurgent Practices of slums and shack dwellers (McCann and Ward, 2010; Cociña et al., 2019; Wood, 2016). While these urban models are often described as ‘one-size-fits-all’ formulas shaped by homogenizing forces of globalization, they also generate replications and mutations that may be more ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’, ‘market-led’ or ‘community-oriented’, depending on the interactions with a particular city (McCann, 2011; Jacobs, 2012). The attempt to assess the local formulation of a model is often tackled through a case study method that follows the local translation and compare it with few other translations. However, to fully understand policy replications and mutations, we must examine various translations of the ‘same’ model and locate them as part of the broader structure that explains their emergence. Our study proposes a complementary approach to the standard detailed case study – a textual analysis that delineates the Urban Model Space in which the implementation of the model in a specific location is situated alongside others.

To illustrate the approach, we use public art policy and in particular the Percent for Public Art ordinance – a common funding mechanism in the Anglosphere of setting aside a percentage of the city’s capital budget for public art. We sketch the space of the public art policy model using a corpus of public art policy documents from 26 cities with more than one million residents in the Anglosphere, including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These documents cover the period from when the ordinance was first applied in Philadelphia in 1959 (Carlin, 2004) until 2020. The corpus consists of four types of documents: public art plans, broader cultural plans with public art sections, guidelines, and open-ended research reports. These documents are used for various practical purposes, like creating a basis of common knowledge, standardizing technical procedures, promoting a policy change, or publicizing the city’s policy models over the world. After identifying the main discourses describing public art with Structural Topic Models (STM), we determine where, when, and why they were adopted with a series of regression analyses. Specifically, we ask: How have public art discourses changed over time? Which scale matters more for which topic? And which types of positions matter for the adoption of each discursive category?”

New City Research Insights Features UGP

The latest edition of the School of Cities City Research Insights features the Urban Genome Project. Below is a selection, you can read the whole piece here.

“A multidisciplinary working group, established under the banner of the
Urban Genome Project (UGP), is renewing connections between the life and physical sciences and the social sciences to decode the DNA of the city. Supported by the School of Cities, co-leads Daniel Silver (Sociology) and Mark Fox (Industrial Engineering and Computer Science) are exploring how the concept of evolution can apply beyond the study of living things to help us better understand our cities and the processes that influence change within them.

Originally inspired by the Human Genome Project, UGP has involved ongoing collaboration among faculty and graduate students from sociology, industrial engineering, computer science, architecture, biology, economic geography, and others at U of T and partner universities.

While the application of evolutionary concepts to cities is not entirely new, the Urban Genome Project is attempting to join them together into a novel general evolutionary model for cities. The model provides a framework for understanding how various city characteristics appear at different rates and in different places, and for understanding how those characteristics may have shared or divergent development patterns across time and space.

An urban evolutionary approach can reveal why and how certain urban characteristics – such as porches, cul-de-sacs or racial segregation – exist within cities, how those characteristics come into being, and why the number of them and how they function changes over time. Using an evolutionary lens can also tell us about how urban neighbourhoods and communities adapt to changes in built form or changing demographics, how our views of places change as the city evolves, and how to introduce policy interventions that are informed by and responsive to what is happening in a given place and time.”

Public-Spiritedness in the Metropolis

What place is there for public spiritedness in the metropolis? Here, public spiritedness is broadly defined as a sense of obligation to others, which is presupposed by a sense of community. This definition considers the humanity of others, even if they are strangers. It suggests that there is a spirit, a personal philosophy, that is rooted in the desire to consider the welfare of not just the self, but of others too. Public spiritedness in this sense is most conducive to desirable outcomes in a society when it is practised by the masses. Otherwise, the incentive to care for others when others do not care for you diminishes. There is no pleasure in being a victim amidst a collective action problem: no one wants to be in an unfair position of supporting a “free-rider”. As such, public-spiritedness is a way of life that is practised by the self, but yields maximal benefit and becomes most compelling when it is practiced by a collective.

The anonymized nature of being in a city makes the practice of public-spiritedness more difficult than in a smaller community—like one typical of a rural area. In a city with millions of people, it becomes more difficult to consider the humanity of others due to the impossibility of meaningfully engaging with a sizeable fraction of a city’s residents. This lack of engagement not merely inhibits one’s ability to consider the humanity of the other when most of the others are unknown. It also inhibits one’s ability to gauge the level of public-spiritedness practiced by others in the city. As such, it may seem that the rational position is to act selfishly without regard for other community members.

Given the desirability of public-spiritedness, what place does it occupy in a city? Surely, there ought to be physical venues in which acts stemming from public-spiritedness can be displayed. Displays of this sort are prime examples of “signals” in the Toronto Urban Evolution Model: they transmit ideas about how to properly organize urban life. Signals can include formal material such as policy documents but they also include the everyday ways in which urbanities communicate to one another the models of urban life they value. Accordingly, some physical venues may signal the practice of selflessness to deter suspicions relating to collective action issues, but also emphasize the goodness of a city’s inhabitants. But the practice of public-spiritedness is also a private one that manifests in situations away from the public eye. To be conscientious of the humanity of the other requires an internalized understanding of how neighbours, no matter how near or how far, are people, too. They may be someone’s mother or someone’s brother. They have basic needs like access to food and water, but also personal needs like dignity and love.

This essay will focus on the porch as physical places for cultivating public- spiritedness and a key site for the evolution of “formemes.” It does not suggest the decline of the porch coincides with the loss of a sense of public-spiritedness, as Richard H. Thomas suggests in his “From Porch to Patio.” This essay is a celebration of the porch as an historically significant space for public gathering, both intentional and accidental.

Porches have evolved over millennia to reflect architectural waves and cultural contexts. Porches predate the bible, in which they may be referred to as “covered ways,” “porticoes” and “colonnades.” The porch, in the biblical context, more closely resembles the agoras (open place of assembly) observed in Greek documents like Plato’s Republic. By this, I mean the porch is a place at which individuals congregate intentionally, rather than on a whim as one might in the case of a neighbor’s porch in the context of a modern American suburb. In Acts 5:12 (Common English Bible), “The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. They would come together regularly at Solomon’s Porch.” This porch is not a small enclosure by a home’s entry way. This religious place of prayer and miracle is more fittingly built as a long pillared walkway running the entire eastern side of the Temple’s Outer Court in Jerusalem. As Solomon’s Porch, along with the rest of Herod’s temple, was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, modern-day understanding of porch’s purpose and appearance largely relies on its observations in the Bible.

The porch has lived on as a symbol for congregation vital to the health of communities. TADAMUN Initiative declares “public libraries, community centers, public schools and places of worship […] [as] the “front porches” of civil society” in their declaration for the need of public spaces “accessible to all citizens, regardless of race, age, gender, income, or religion”. Here, the porch is a space not exclusive to any religious population: it is an open and public space to achieve the goods necessary for a community’s standards of a good life (e.g. access to education, social connection, freedom to worship).

Robert Putnam, when referring to social capital in “Bowling Alone,” also mentions the role of the porch in a healthy community. He observes “porch stoops” as places for “the community ‘mothers’ [to serve] as the neighborhood’s eyes and ears”. He admires the Rosteans, the inhabitants of Roseto, a modest village nestled in Eastern Pennsylvania, for their abundant social capital: “By day they congregated on front porches to watch the comings and goings, and by night they gravitated to local social clubs. In the 1960s the researchers began to suspect that social capital (though they didn’t use the term) was the key to Rosetans’ healthy hearts.” In this context, the porch is a necessary venue for companionship and support during the day. In his research on the decline of social capital, Putnam observes the rise of vocational communities amidst the decline of locational communities (like the Rosteans’). In writing, “perhaps we have simply transferred more of our friendships, more of our civic discussions, and more of our community ties from the front porch to the water cooler,” Putnam suggests the function of the porch has been transferred from home-based to work-based spaces.

Like Putnam, Richard H. Thomas identifies the necessity of deliberation among community members and likewise the importance of spaces to host such deliberation. In his “From Porch to Patio,” he laments the fall of the front-facing porch amidst the rise of the private, enclosed back patio. Whereas the sense of community that “often characterized the nineteenth-century village resulted from the forms of social interaction that the porch facilitated,” the “twentieth century man has achieved the sense of privacy in his patio [in exchange for] part of his public nature” (126-127). The back facing patio, irrespective of whether it is enclosed or not, is by nature private from the public eye. As such, its occupation by inhabitants however social or its decoration by landscaping however intricate, would not invite impromptu deliberations or even mere interactions from passersby. The back patio is engineered to deter the cultivation of public- spiritedness, it is a refuge from the public in attempt to maintain privacy. The porch, by contrast, is an accidental venue for inviting nods of approval from passengers of carriages (121), impromptu deliberations by neighbours (compared to pre-planned neighbourhood coffees and bridge parties) (122), and quick greetings (122). These are all social interactions necessary in maintaining public-spiritedness. A love of the neighbor (referred to as ‘agape’ in the Bible), or the mere reminder of the humanity of the other requires the lived experience of social interaction. The porch has survived throughout millennia as a place for such interaction, and by extension: as the physical venue for cultivating public-spiritedness.

Encouragingly, Urban Genome Project member Khalil Martin’s research finds that the number of porches has dramatically increased in the past twenty five years. This disputes Richard H. Thomas’s theory of the porch’s decline amidst growing interest in back patios. Martin has found, using data from the U.S. Survey of Construction, that the proportion of American single-family homes that include a porch has increased from around 50% in 2000 to 64% in 2020. Furthermore, owner-built and contractor-built homes were consistently more likely to include a porch than homes built for sale or rent. This seems to indicate that people generally choose to have a porch when they can. 

Martin’s research finds that the porch continues to be recognized in North America to be an important social infrastructure and has gained status as “an icon for community and civic mindedness, through the spontaneous and liminal interactions it affords.” 

The American front porch has been used for a space for social rituals and ceremonies, such as summer tea rituals, courtship rituals, and seasonal events. Previously, American front porch has been used as a stage for performance and self-presentation, such as the various “porch campaigns” in early American politics, “porch concerts” (which also popularized during the pandemic), and even for social movements–for example when MLK preached on front porches. To add, the American front porch has also been used as a cultural signifier. Consider the adoption of Neo-classical porch styles by many statesmen, the mounting of national flags of porch posts, and other various style trends.


His research hopes to show how people have adopted, and adapted, threshold forms to meet their contexts and create collective identity. A further step is to also explore how the diversity and dynamism of threshold form features and uses relate to the notion of community thriving. Khalil frames his work as a means to “understand the opportunities for spatial agency and participation, in the urban context”

As a side note, Martin notes there may have been a decline in porch adoption between 1945 and 1995, but that data his research focused on ranged between 2000 and 2020.

Although the strength or spread of public spiritedness is difficult to measure, it should be encouraged on the basis of cultivating moral respect. I argue that greater consideration paid to the humanity of the other will bolster a sense of obligation to others, and consequently reduce partisanship and alienation common of large heterogeneous cities. Further thought should be devoted to porch-like spaces in public, vocational, and private spaces in the interest of supporting a good life for members of locational and vocational communities alike.