There’s power in numbers. That was the consensus in the workshops I visited this Friday at the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission’s Data Day in Boston.

MAPC Data Day logo

The name “Data Day” may not conjure up visions of dramatic reversals of public policy. But the community advocates and data experts at the conference knew otherwise. Here are two stories they told about how data can change how we judge people and situations – both socially and legally.

There are many ways environmental organizations can use data to change conversations. The Knight Foundation funded a data-sharing project which bridged divides between environmental justice groups. Projects like this one can yield local stories for both traditional and social media. What chemicals are in your neighborhood’s backyard?

Although the EPA’s approach to reporting potential flooding may seem dry, reports on climate change indicators in the United States can also provide story ideas for journalists. If climate change produces floods or disrupts the growing season, superimposing those maps on maps of crop production could yield interesting results – especially for crops grown in low-lying areas. In some states, the answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” may be very different in a few years from what it is today.

By any cold-blooded measurement of pulse and heartbeat, cities are dead. Like shells, they provide a home for the living creatures who construct them.

Shell
Seashell by candlelight (Source: stock.xchng)

But an intriguing post at Treehugger.com links to a video which says cities are alive. Not in the literal, breathing sense of the term – but in the interconnected, fractal, neural network sense of the word. Cities may not live and die the way we do, but they do exist as vibrant, organized webs of activity. Here’s the video which inspired the original post.

TO UNDERSTAND IS TO PERCEIVE PATTERNS from jason silva on Vimeo

This quote from Steven Johnson sums up the idea beautifully:

“Coral reefs are sometimes called ‘the cities of the sea,’ and part of the argument is that we need to take the metaphor seriously: the reef ecosystem is so innovative because it shares some defining characteristics with actual cities. These patterns of innovation and creativity are fractal: they reappear in recognizable form as you zoom in and out, from molecule to neuron to pixel to sidewalk. Whether you’re looking at original innovations of carbon-based life or the explosion of news tools on the web, the same shapes keep turning up… when life gets creative, it has a tendency to gravitate toward certain recurring patterns, whether those patterns are self-organizing, or whether they are deliberately crafted by human agents.”

No wonder reading about news tools online is so entertaining. I’m watching a city of knowledge being built.

Extrapolating this idea to other environments could yield fascinating results.

Urban visionary Majora Carter described her ability to reimagine cities and neighborhoods at the Boston Museum of Science on Nov. 2. She told the story of her work to “green the ghetto” by connecting young people with environmental jobs, her efforts to transform an abandoned dump and a jail into community-friendly spaces, and her plans to use civic spirit to spruce up the image of local food.

When some people visit a city, they fall in love with a scenic vista. Majora Carter fell in love with the view of brilliant sunlight on the Bronx River behind a garbage dump. After cleaning up the waterfront, she got married in the park she helped create. The park won the Rudy Bruner Award in 2009. Her work has received many awards and has also been the subject of a TED talk.

Hunt's Point Riverside Park before the redesign
Hunt's Point Riverside Park before the redesign (Source: Majora Carter Group)
Hunt's Point Riverside Park after the redesign
Hunt's Point Riverside Park after the redesign (Source: Sessions College)

Carter described the community where she grew up, the South Bronx, as “a war zone.” She grew up surrounded by poverty, white flight and arson; her father worked as a janitor at a local jail. Landlords torched their own properties instead of renting to low-income people of color.

Carter decided to leave the neighborhood and chose higher education as the best route. But her quest for education led her to move back to the South Bronx to save money during graduate school.

“The hopeful ones” leave low-income neighborhoods when it’s no longer legal for landlords to segregate by race, Carter said. The departure of entrepreneurial youth and lack of investment leave two types of businesses in poor communities – marginal businesses that are unwanted in other neighborhoods and exploitative companies such as payday loan businesses.

When she rediscovered the South Bronx, Carter was impatient to change her neighborhood. She began by cleaning up the riverfront. “Public space is the great democratizer,” Carter said. She is now making plans to convert the jail where her father worked into a business development center and apartment building. She described standing outside the former jail with posters of her ideas to get feedback from people in the community.

“Poor kids who do poorly in school go to jail in this country,” said Carter. She links pollution – specifically, fossil fuel pollution – to the learning disabilities which put children on the path toward a life of crime.

One solution to deepening poverty and frequent incarceration is to put people to work. Green jobs programs can increase workers’ income, integrate them into the community, inspire them to seek higher education, and keep them out of the prison system. Carter built the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST), which taught green jobs candidates workplace skills and routed them into urban environmental careers. She said 85 percent of the graduates are still employed and 10 percent have gone to college. She believes this approach should be the norm, not an exception, in low-income communities. She showed a slide of her neighborhood covered with green rooftops; this is her goal.

“No one has to move out of their neighborhood to live in a better one,” said Carter. But to transform cities, neighborhoods need to organize around a vision of a better community. When Carter became involved in the environmental justice movement, she said, “we were good at fighting against stuff, but we weren’t really good at figuring out what we wanted to fight for.”

One answer: fight for your city. Civic pride is the motif of a new national brand of locally grown food which Carter is developing collaboratively. The brand has a simple label: Root for [your city]. Each participating city will have its own Root brand.

Carter’s work encourages civic pride in low-income communities. There are many places like the South Bronx in the United States – neighborhoods that need vision, energy and optimism. “Good uses will drive out the bad ones,” Carter said. “It is going to raise the bar for what is beautiful and what is acceptable and what is needed in our communities.”