Podcast Series: An Interview with Sarah Goodyear of the Atlantic’s CityLab

blogimage_PhilanthropyPodcastEver wonder where civic innovations like 311, urban recycling, and bike sharing come from? Take an electronic stroll through the incredible pieces of visual reporting in the most recent City Makers series from The Atlantic’s CityLab, and wonder no longer. CityLab is nearly always part of our morning read here at The Intersector Project, and we were intrigued to come across the publication’s series examining how urban breakthroughs spread and evolve  not only because these interactive histories are truly engaging to “read,” but also because we noticed an ongoing theme of collaboration across silos.

We asked Sarah Goodyear, who did the reporting work for these pieces, to talk with us about the series and to share with us her observations on urban breakthroughs and on cross-sector collaboration.

I find it really intriguing the way that cities will look at each other and say, “Oh, this is possible,” and then adapt that for their own environment and their own local culture.

Tune into our podcast below for our entire conversation with Sarah. (To read her excellent series, visit the City Makers: Connections series here.)

The Intersector Project: Sarah, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Sarah Goodyear: Thank you very much for having me.

The Intersector Project: Let me start by asking you to tell us a bit about the City Makers: Connections series.

Sarah: My editor at CityLab approached me about doing the series with the idea that we were looking at initiatives that had begun in one city and that had spread from one city to another. We were looking at how that happens, and we wanted to find stories that were visually intriguing that would be fun to tell in a visual interactive format and where the stories behind how those innovations spread might not be something that the public was aware of. It might be something that they had seen come to their city but not known the backstory of how that innovative idea had moved from one city to another.

I was really excited about it because I find it really intriguing the way that cities will look at each other and say, “Oh, this is possible,” and then adapt that for their own environment and their own local culture  being inspired by a city maybe in a completely different part of the country but then being able to bring that into their own local milieu and culture in a way that is appropriate for them.

The Intersector Project: Can you tell me how you and the CityLab team chose the specific topics you would cover in the series?

Sarah: We were really looking for subjects that had a visual appeal and that would be able to be illustrated graphically. We were also interested in finding things that people might not be aware of what the backstory was to something; that it might be something that they had just seen in the news or popping up in their own local area and they didn’t know where that had come from; where it might seem like something that just fell out of the sky, but actually there’s a long backstory to it.

For instance, with 311 and city services, that was one that we did that frankly, I was really surprised to find out the history of. I live in New York City. I remember when the Bloomberg administration started the 311 service. It seemed like an idea out of the blue to me, but when I went to research that, I found out that actually it had begun many years earlier in Baltimore and that Baltimore had piloted it and that that had been successful enough that the federal government had then done the work necessary to free up that number, 311, for cities around the country to use. And then it had been very slowly taken up until really the beginning of the 21st century but that it actually began back in the 20th century.

That was one that for me, I had not had any idea where that innovation came from and in researching it found out that actually it had been a long process where governments had been looking at each other and it was an initiative that had been moved along by federal efforts, by city efforts, by state efforts, and actually now it’s an international movement as well, but I had no idea.

That was kind of what we were looking for. Something that had come to your city or it may have popped up that you might take for granted, or think just fell out of the sky, and trying to find out where did that come from and who worked on it and who made that something that became part of a general consciousness in municipal planning or organization.

The Intersector Project: You know, Sarah, you just touched on this with your discussion of the 311 series. But I’m wondering, have there been any other interesting surprising things that you’ve found so far in developing these stories?

Sarah: Well, Rails to Trails is a good example as well of something that had all sorts of backstory that I was not aware of. That you know, back in Midwestern states, even in the 60s and 70s, there were people trying to develop these old rail right of ways. That actually the movement that began to convert rail right of ways to trails is part of the story of how America became a car culture, because those right of ways were freed up, precisely because of the development of the interstate highway system and the rise of car culture and the decline of train culture. And so that Rails to Trails narrative fit into this larger narrative of the increasing role of the automobile in American life. That’s something that I’ve looked at from other angles for many years, looking at how car dependency has shaped our communities and our health and our mental state and our relationships with other human beings. I hadn’t really thought, “Oh, that’s why there’s a rail trail in Iowa, is that rail traffic became so unprofitable that these rights of way were abandoned. And that’s a really good outcome of the decline of that infrastructure, when you compare it to say, the destruction of Penn Station in New York City in the early 1960s. That train station was destroyed for the same reason that these rail trails eventually became possible, but with a much more negative outcome. So that was a really interesting juxtaposition of things that I’ve known about but hadn’t really put those pieces together for myself.

The Intersector Project: Sarah, from what you’ve seen so far, have you observed like any kind of secret sauce to these urban breakthroughs? Any commonalities or themes that you see emerging?

Sarah: One thing that is common to all of them, and we looked at solid waste recycling, we looked at Rails to Trails, we looked at bike sharing, and we looked at 311. What all of those have in common for me is… there were people, individuals, and city governments that were willing to look at problems that seemed perhaps intractable, or at pieces of infrastructure that seemed to have no use, or at civic relationships that weren’t working and instead of trying to micromanage the details of how those things were happening, instead they really took a big step back and tried to see the entire thing in a different light and to really jump into another frame of mind and do a real paradigm shift.

Instead of saying, “American cities just are not good for bicycles and there’s no way that bike share can work,” instead there were some very brave people in American municipal government who said, “I’ve seen that this can work in European cities and I’m going to take the chance of stepping outside of the entire paradigm that we have of American cities work and transportation works in American cities and I’m going to say that this can work here and I’m going to take a chance.”

I guess it’s the willingness to really, really look at the bigger picture, to look at international examples, to say what can be done in one place, maybe far away can come to my place and work here on our own terms and then to take a chance on something that might seem completely impossible in a local context, but be willing to take a chance on it.

I think it’s important that leaders look at cities as systems, rather than as a bunch of siloed departments. In other words, 311 works because it was willing to take a system that had been originally devised for the police department, which was having too many 911 calls and they were feeling overwhelmed by that because people were calling 911 about their neighbors noise or about a broken sidewalk or whatever. 311 was originally developed to address that problem but then they were able to see, some very visionary people were able to see, “Hey, we can take this and use this to offer the full menu of government services to our constituents.” It’s not just about police, it’s about the way that public safety interacts with public works, and the way that you know, the public health department works, the way that sanitation works. All of these different departments actually are part of a system. They’re not individual fiefdoms.

Often in civic government, it’s very difficult for different departments to give up their sovereignty, and to allow their turf to be trodden upon by other departments. But ultimately, that’s what a lot of these initiatives show. For instance, in bike share, the Department of Transportation is working with bike share in a way that then can complement the Department of Tourism, and economic development. With rails to trails, you know, you have all sorts of different organizations and entities that are looking at that and saying, “Oh, okay, this is how this fits into our, in what we do for the city,” and they’re able to break down those walls. I think that’s really important for civic leaders to be looking at cities as systems, rather than as a bunch of departments in a portfolio. It’s just like an ecosystem. One part of it affects the other very directly and if you can come to see that, then I think that it’s easier for innovative thinking to happen.

The Intersector Project: Well, Sarah, you’re really sort of touching on my next question a bit, which is, in your work, both on this series and also just covering innovation in cities in general, what observations have you made, if any, on the role of collaboration across business, government, non-profit sectors in driving these urban breakthroughs?

Sarah: I think it’s really vital and I think it’s much more common than it used to be. Some of that is because of necessity. Because of strapped budgets, governments have been forced to look at partnering with non-profits, with the private sector in order to get things done. The example of bike share in New York City, which is completely funded by corporate sponsorship, is such an example. We wouldn’t have bike share in New York City most likely if that model hadn’t been developed because there was just so much resistance to putting public money into it. But now it’s turning out to be a public benefit and of course, the public sector is contributing quite substantially in the form of the streets, where the bike share stations are. But that kind of solution, I think is becoming more prominent and I think it’s a good thing. It’s not always a good thing though, because that leads to private interests in having too much say in what government is doing.

But I think that in general, this generation of government officials, bureaucrats, leaders, all these people are much more open to cross-pollination with each other in different departments; looking at other cities and getting solutions from them; and then also partnering with the private sector and non-profits to implement solutions and to fund them. Certainly, what happened with the park system in New York City over the last 35 years is a good example of that and I think a lot of people have seen that model of public private partnership and, you know, conservancies and so forth, that that can get the job done when there just isn’t the money in the budget to get the job done otherwise.

The Intersector Project: Sarah, my last question for you… You know, we’re big fans of CityLab over here. We read it every day. And it’s a relatively rare publication, I think in its focus not just on cities, but really highlighting solutions and innovation rather than perhaps just problems and process. Do you think there should be more of this in journalism  more of this highlighting solutions and innovation? And if so, maybe you can speak to why there isn’t.

Sarah: This is a very vexed question for me. Because, as a journalist, I have found that sometimes writing about solutions is a lot less compelling to readers than it is to write about problems. I mean, the ultimate is to write about the problem that’s been solved, dramatically. That’s sort of the golden story, right? But the truth is that conflict and difficulty, that’s inherently part of what makes narrative interesting. When people are reading journalism, they often just don’t want to just hear, “Hey, here’s a great story about somebody that did something nice or did something that worked.” That’s not always the most compelling story as a story, just from a storytelling perspective.

That’s a real issue and I think, you know, the media is often faulted for highlighting the negative, but it’s just a truth of narrative, and Aristotle would be happy to tell you about it  that you do want to have conflict in a story, otherwise there’s not really a story there. So just writing about solutions, you need to also have a good understanding of, and illumination of, the problem that the solution is solving. So I think that, as a journalist, what I believe in is looking for stories, not topics. Not solutions. But looking for a story of something that is happening and I think that if you look for a story, that’s where you’re going to find the compelling content that will bring in readers and listeners and viewers who want to learn about what problems and solutions are.

I think that just focusing on solutions can be reductive and it can put you in a box and it can also force you into a position where you’re trying to oversimplify. That’s not what we do at CityLab. What we’re looking for are stories that have the same kind of journalistic imperative that any other stories on any other beat would have. What’s happening out there? What does it show us about who we are as a society and what does it show us about how we can approach the very difficult problems that are not going away?

As a journalist, a long time ago, an editor told me, I came to him with an idea and he said, “That’s not a story. That’s a topic.” And I really think about that every day. I want to tell a story of what’s happened and for it to be grounded in reporting and reality and so I kind of try to build things from the bottom up, rather than going in saying, “Hey, how can I find out about what great solutions people are doing?” Finding out what people are doing, and then figuring out what that means for a city or a society.

The Intersector Project: Sarah, that was a really fascinating discussion. Thanks so much for being with us on the podcast today.

Sarah: Thanks very much for having me.