The Sense of the City
August 21, 2022
The Sense of the City
August 21, 2022

By Tommi Laitio, Inaugural Bloomberg Public Innovation Fellow

My husband and I arrived in Baltimore in January with four suitcases. We moved from Helsinki, Finland, so that I could begin my two-year fellowship at Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins. 

My understanding of the city was based on the university’s stellar reputation, the city’s marketing websites, text messages with future colleagues, John Waters movies, The Wire, and Youtube videos on how to eat crab. The first weeks in the city, now my home, was what Georg Simmel describes as “intensification of nervous stimulation” – from finding the perfect breakfast yogurt and buying a car to choosing a neighborhood to live in, dental insurance, sofa, and a grocery store. At work I took in systems, names, titles, acronyms, places and tried to submit all the forms on time. After the first week, I spent Saturday on the bed overwhelmed by the amount of information and decisions. There was nowhere else to lie down as the sofa had not yet arrived.

I am not alone with this overwhelming experience. Every year, millions of people move to cities for new opportunities. 

The Challenge of Living in a City 

Population density, cultural diversity and a high differentiation of labor in cities create ideal conditions for creativity, individuality, specialization, and innovation. But cities also challenge our sense of self. In a big city, it is close to impossible to understand how our actions impact other people and how others affect us. Many of us cope with this overload by refraining from the public. We direct our energy to areas we can control: the sofa, the family, the job. 

Understanding how one can hold onto a sense of self while staying open to others in an urban metropolis has taken me to Helsinki to study political science, to Amsterdam to run a video festival for teenagers, back to Helsinki first to a non-profit and then to local government, lastly leading a team of 1,800 culture, sports, youth and library professionals. This question of how we can share space with others but hold onto a sense of self is also the issue I have decided to explore as part of my fellowship.

My research will focus on how cities lead, join and enable partnerships in the development of social infrastructure that allows us to be open to others. 

Separate, Yet Together in Public Places 

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg posits that social infrastructure like libraries and parks determine whether social capital develops.

Public libraries, parks and trails are arenas where we share space and explore our interests without an obligation for shared action. 

On a recent Monday morning I got up early and ran up the hill to Druid Hill Park. As I was running, I took in the smell of the forest, which is somehow sweeter than in Finland. I could turn where I wanted, run as fast as I felt like and I did not need to disclose or justify to anyone whether I was listening to a podcast, a book or music.

In March, on my first visit back to Helsinki after the move, I realized I don’t have a home here. I spent 9.5 hours in Helsinki´s central library Oodi running a workshop, writing by myself, eating lunch with former colleagues, and catching up with a friend for coffee in the afternoon sun on the stairs of the children’s section. I witnessed a regular patron talking to himself while reading a newspaper, teenage girls doing their homework, a creative professional hunched over his laptop, a man filling his bag with novels, a homeless Roma woman charging her phone and a neat line of small children exiting an elevator with their neon vests on. 

The physical settings of a library or a park set us free to explore, learn or merely to just hang out. This convivial nature of parks and libraries has the potential to build confidence towards a shared life and shared resources. But that sense of generosity, freedom and conviviality requires intentional design and action.

Balancing Freedom and Structure in Cities

Philosophers Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum coin the delicate balance between freedom and structure as the capabilities approach. According to the theory, a just society creates capabilities for every single individual to craft a life they have reason to value, but society should not dictate how individuals choose to use or not to use those capabilities. As Nussbaum writes, ”there is a huge moral difference between a policy that promotes health and one that promotes health capabilities – the latter, not the former, honors the person’s lifestyle choices.” 

In libraries, parks, and other public infrastructure this abstract notion of capabilities means very concrete things. It’s everything from cleaning, attentive service, improving lighting and pavements, investing in acoustics and accessibility and hosting diverse events to installing a new outdoor gym – while still allowing people to choose if they want to sweat it out, have an endless mimosa picnic, read Knausgård, join a workshop or to stay home and watch Netflix. 

It’s day 172 of my two years in Baltimore. I have read 149 scientific articles and books and talked to 105 researchers, activists, and public servants from 32 cities.Through case studies of cities across the Americas and Europe, I seek to understand what kind of practices and partnerships create better places over the course of my fellowship. 

On a personal note, Baltimore is starting to feel like home. That sense builds from small things like jogging along the Stony Run Trail, brewing a pot of Zeke’s Coffee or getting a library card – and yes, having a sofa.

Tommi Laitio (@tommilaitio) is the inaugural Bloomberg Public Innovation Fellow at Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins. The Bloomberg Public Innovation Fellowship is a two-year program for highly accomplished public innovators from around the world. The Fellowship provides the space and time for them to reflect on their experience, explore and share ideas, and actively contribute to public sector innovation knowledge and practice.

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