I have written a good amount about the importance and value of institutions. The systems and structures, both formal and informal, that create appropriate venues for discussion and help shape our norms and rules are crucial to our culture and to the development of society and knowledge. In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss ways in which rediscovering institutions within American cities is leading to a rebirth of metropolitan areas. Large cities are important because they pull people together, unite them around local problem solving, and produce benefits for the entire society to enjoy. As people have begun moving back to cities and re-creating them to be more livable and social, they are discovering new institutions and new value in places that had been forgotten and previously experienced periods of disinvestment.
The authors write, “Placemaking uncovers the inherent value of a community and redefines its potential by integrating its historical identity with contemporary uses. As American cities lost population and dynamism, many of the grand institutions and buildings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fell into decline or disrepair. Late twentieth-century place-making rediscovered what still existed and repurposed it for a new era.”
This quote provides encouraging notes about reinventing and returning to valuable institutions, and also a cautionary tale about deserting institutions. When we have physical structures in place and enough people to remember institutions from that past which had served us well, we can always return to those institutions and even find new ways to use them and incorporate them into our lives. However, if we chose not to support our institutions and allow them to decay, they can languish and sit in disregard, becoming more of a headache than a valuable tool.
I think this is true for any type of institution, be it a physical institution such as a library, or a non-tangible institution such as a value of equality. For various complex reasons (some sensible like finding clean playgrounds for children and some not so wholesome such as new forms of racial segregation) American cities experienced a period of declining populations as (primarily white middle and upper class) citizens abandoned city centers for outlying suburbs. Katz and Nowak argue that this weakened the institutions that had made cities thriving places and had originally helped them grow and develop. Negative stereotypes of city centers persisted and while they may have been economic engines, they were not the cultural and in many ways not the institutional centers they had once been. New Localism is in some ways a return to the institutions of cities that had been abandoned in the past. As cities gentrify (a challenge in itself that is still tinged by racial disparity) they are becoming more attractive places to live, and the institutions which had once served city populations are being reinvented and reinvigorated.
We should recognize the positive in this story and celebrate and strengthen those institutions which fuel progress, improve our lives, and help promote equality and democracy. We should look at the squalor that cities and their institutions were put through and avoid throwing many of our modern institutions through those same tortures. We should remember that our suburbs are valuable as well, and support the populations and institutions of suburbs as people begin to move from suburbs and rural areas back into dense cities. This creates a two (or maybe three) front situation in terms of protecting and strengthening institutions, and the lessons we learned from abandoning and rediscovering and reinventing city institutions can help us navigate this new challenge brought about by New Localism.