After the pandemic and racial upheaval, this group saw cities as the solution, not the problem

Over the last decade or so, many aging cities across America experienced something of a renaissance. In Greater Cincinnati, this urban revitalization was typified by the transformation of Over-the-Rhine and the return of business and residents to the urban cores of Covington and Newport.

Then 2020 happened.

The emergence of the highly contagious Covid-19 virus suddenly made it uncomfortable to be around others, to work in offices, and the greener spaces of the suburbs and beyond beckoned.

Then the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests, vandalism, and violence in cities across the country, including in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
The convergence of these cataclysmic events threatened to unwind decades of slow progress. An old narrative re-emerged: cities are congested, noisy, unsafe and unhealthy hotbeds of crime and poverty.

Some who have spent much of their lives advocating for cities were dismayed. So they did something.

“When these negative narratives emerged around Black Lives Matter and Covid, it seemed they could undo 20 years of work that was resulting in some modest resurgence in American cities,” says Terry Grundy. Grundy, an adjunct professor at UC’s School of Planning, retired United Way executive, and dedicated urbanist, gathered with like-minded people at the School of Planning to think about a way to counter the revisionist description of city life.

The result was a year-long project called The Case for Cities, a series of monthly conversations with local and national thought leaders, led by School of Planning faculty, on issues vital to urban life: health, sustainability, housing, food, transportation, entrepreneurship, justice.

Terry GrundyThe conversations were hosted by The Mercantile Library using the CrowdCast digital platform for live video events, and were funded by the Haile Foundation and UC’s Simpson Center for Urban Futures.

To date, more than 600 people, some from other countries, have registered to participate in nine conversations.

Two conversations remain. On Wednesday, June 16, the topic will be “City of Art and Culture.” Hosted by UC School of Planning Chairman Danilo Palazzo, the discussion will feature four experts who will talk about the role that investments in arts and culture play in the success of cities: Leonardo Vazquez of Rutgers University’s school of planning, an expert in issues relevant to Latino communities; Andrew Salzbrun, managing partner of Cincinnati experiential studio AGAR, who has worked to bring international muralists to Cincinnati; Tiffany Cooper, director of community engagement and diversity at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; and Ed Rigaud, a Cincinnati businessman who was the first executive director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.   

On Wednesday, July 14, “The Philanthropic City” will be a discussion hosted by Eric Avner, vice president and program manager of the Haile Foundation, that will examine the role foundations and private philanthropy play in revitalizing urban areas.

Both events will be held virtually beginning at 7:30 PM. Registration is free and is available here.

The series has as a motif the concept that cities should be places where people of means choose to live – cities of choice – as well as places where people who have traditionally been underprivileged can find equitable and dignified lives – cities of justice.   

“If you’re going to think about cities and their futures in a wholesome way, in a way that’s sustainable and morally defensible, you have to simultaneously affirm both of these values – city of choice and city of justice,” Grundy says. “You can’t just affirm one over another.”

Danilo PalazzoLast October’s event “The Public City,” for example, examined how public spaces are important measures of the quality of life in cities and neighborhoods, and also places to express diverse opinions and demand justice.

November’s “The Healthy City” delved into how well-planned cities are walkable and bikeable, and places where robust public transportation systems can reduce the carbon footprint. The discussion also addressed the health disparities that can be found across urban neighborhoods.

“If you want to become a city of choice, then you have to be a city of justice,” Grundy says.

UC’s Palazzo says the School of Planning faculty members who helped organize and moderate the series have a broader perspective that goes beyond typical urban planning curricula.  “We have a different vision than strict planners would have,” he says. “It’s more about the importance and relevance of city life. It has more to do with the future of the city.”      

They also have a strong international bent.

Vikas Mehta is a professor of urbanism and expert in public spaces who started his career as an architect in New Delhi, India. Conrad Kickert (who recently moved to the University of Buffalo) was educated and worked in The Netherlands. Chris Auffrey is an expert on local neighborhood demographics who has presented papers in China and elsewhere. Palazzo himself was born and educated in Milan, Italy, an ancient city of more than 3 million people.

“I believe in living in a place where density is a value,” Palazzo says. “Where you can have the opportunity to be free, but at the same time you have the opportunity to meet other people where a concentration of art, culture, and sport happens that you can’t have in other places.”

Palazzo and the other leaders of the series plan to continue and amplify the conversation with a book based on the discussions and presentations that took place over the last nine months.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.