This month’s expert: Terry Nichols Clark, Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago

Along with two fellow University of Chicago faculty members, Terry Nichols Clark launched the Cultural Amenities Project over five and a half years ago. Clark, Senior Project Coordinator, recently explained to MuniNet editor Mardee Alvaro that when the project was first launched, the goal was to determine how cultural amenities – movie theaters, beaches, shopping centers, restaurants, museums, etc . – contribute to a community’s growth and vitality.

But as the project evolved, it developed into a more sophisticated means of classifying residential locations. The team has now developed a quantitative rubric containing over 700 indicators by which to judge a neighborhood or city in order to compare it to other communities.

The New Political Culture

The team is working to publish the results of the innovative, ongoing study in a book sometime in the near future. In the meantime, Clark and his colleagues, Dan Silver and Lawrence Rothfield, have posted a blog that contains videos, many working papers and related links.

MuniNet: What exactly is a “scene” – and how do scenes define communities?

Clark: A “scene” can be broadly defined as a specific element of urban or neighborhood life. Scenes encompass physical structures (libraries, shopping malls, theaters), demographics (race, class, gender, education, etc.), and activities (attending concert, for example).

Our research has shown that the combination of these elements has a direct impact on a community, and – along with attitudes and values – has a strong influence on where people choose to live.

MuniNet: Can you provide an example of a scene?

Clark: Disney Heaven is one of 12 scenes that we’ve determined to be of prime importance to the American cultural landscape. Clean, efficient, and often bland, Disney Heaven communities – usually suburbs – are best characterized by words like “traditional” and “safe.” These areas generally have low crime rates, modest property taxes, and socio-economic homogeneity (residents who fall in the middle class – not too high, not too low). Think of family restaurants, smiling waiters, and Disneyesque staff who whisk away problems like dust – and you can envision a Disney Heaven neighborhood.

MuniNet: What factors beyond physical structures, demographic and activities does the Cultural Amenities Project consider in classifying a scene?

Clark: This project is unique in that the focus is on the dynamics of people. It goes a step further than others of its kind, considering how personal values impact these components. We have determined that people choose to move into a given area not just because that’s where the jobs are located, as earlier research suggests, but rather that they select a residential location based on a community’s amenities and overall character, including attitudes and values. In this project, we take the core concept of “scene” and then analyze it against a backdrop of 15 scene dimensions (like “glamour,” “formality,” and “charisma,” to name a few).

MuniNet: Is a bland vanilla suburb – a Disney Heaven scene – destined to remain a bland vanilla suburb?

Clark: No, not if the community makes a conscious effort to change. The Urban Innovation in Illinois awards program recognizes local-government led projects that impact the character of a community. Lindenhurst, Illinois – a Chicago suburb with a population just over 12,500 – was recognized as a 2006 UII award recipient for its “Golden Daffodil Project.” Lacking a downtown district or any historic buildings or landmarks, Lindenhurst was a town that felt it had no identity.

So to mark its 50th anniversary, the village adopted the daffodil as its “official” flower, and planted over 50,000 daffodil bulbs in public and private spaces. While the goal was to develop a community identity through this beautification process, the village also accomplished perhaps a more important achievement; in the process of working together to plant the daffodil seeds, and care for the flowers, residents began working closely together, getting to know their neighbors and develop a sense of community.

MuniNet: How was the data for the Cultural Amenities project database collected?

Clark: Over the past five and a half years, our six-person team has compiled data on over 1,000 amenities that combine to create scenes. We’ve collected and analyzed data for over 40,000 zip code areas in the United States, based on information derived from the U.S. Census of Business, online local yellow page sources, and the Unified Database of Arts Organizations which includes data from tax returns and state art councils.

MuniNet: How can the Cultural Amenities project be put to practical use?

Clark: The study models the processes the lead neighborhoods to develop or decline. Therefore, cities or neighborhoods can use the Cultural Amenities framework to develop a clear rationale for strategic planning – not just to become a better community, but rather to become better in terms of specific criteria, from public safety to zoning. If a city is considering whether or not it makes more sense to build a convention center or a new public library, for example, we can provide them with a sharper rationale which stresses packaging a theme into a more general scene that fits their identity.

MuniNet: Who is its intended audience? Does the project have greater applications for certain types of neighborhoods or communities?

Clark: The project has greatest relevance for those involved in urban research, with strong implications for local government – particularly those in the midst of strategic planning. In particular, newer communities, neighborhoods in transition, or those with a more diverse population can use this data to help them make conscious decisions that relate to the future of their community.

MuniNet: How can a local government gain access to this data?

Clark: Some key files are available to the public, and we can provide other data files upon request. Many of our bigger files are posted on online bulletin boards, from which they can be downloaded. There is no charge for a short conversation or brief e-mail exchange, but we also provide fee-based services for communities seeking more in-depth consultation.

For more information, see the Fiscal Austerity and Urban Innovations (FAUI) web site or contact Terry Clark .

Terry Nichols Clark, Ph.D.

Terry Nichols Clark is Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago where he teaches urban courses. His books include City Money, Urban Policy Analysis and Financial Management Handbook for Mayors and City Managers, Urban Innovation, and The City as an Entertainment Machine.

He is coordinator for the Fiscal Austerity and Urban Innovation Project, a survey of all U.S. cities with populations over 25,000, and parallel surveys in 35 other countries. He holds MA and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, Yale, the Sorbonne, and UCLA and worked at the Brookings Institution, The Urban Institute, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and US Conference of Mayors. He has consulted with many local governments and civic and financial institutions over the past 35 years.

Clark has organized Mayors Leadership Institutes with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, for which he prepared Financial Management Handbook for Mayors and City Managers. Over 200 past students work in local governments, and provide continuing liaison with new developments. He has consulted with many individual mayors, most extensively in the Chicago area.

He is Coordinator of Urban Innovation in Illinois, which has made some 100 awards to local governments for creative management, documents these in case studies, and helps officials from innovative locales meet with others nearby.