Metropolitan America in a Globalizing Age: Inequalities and Opportunities

By Daniel Amsterdam and Todd Michney


Metropolitan America emerged from the final decades of the twentieth century transformed: embedded in the global economy as never before, sprawling further into the hinterland, populated by immigrants from around the globe, and riddled with often new forms of inequality, including between city and suburb, between suburbs themselves, between different metropolitan areas, and between those who can and cannot access quality jobs, education, health care, transportation, and even water and air.  On April 22, Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology (HSOC) will host a one-day symposium that seeks to investigate various dimensions of inequality, metropolitan growth, and the impact of America’s heightened globalization since roughly 1970.  It especially seeks to foster a discussion between sociologists and historians to help forge a path for future inquiry.  From the get-go, sociologists have been on the front lines studying many of the changes that metropolitan America has experienced in recent decades.  But too often they have had to proceed without the insights gained from historians’ close scrutiny of context and change over time.  Indeed, urban and metropolitan historians have only recently begun to examine the post-1970 period in the United States.  Through a series of plenary and smaller sessions featuring preeminent scholars, Metropolitan America in a Globalizing Age aims to move toward a compelling, usable account of metropolitan America’s recent past.[1]

Phoenix sprawl
Phoenix, AZ. Uncredited.

The upcoming symposium will feature four distinguished scholars.  Elizabeth Higginbotham, a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware, is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology for this 2015-16 academic year.  She is the co-author of Race and Ethnicity in Society: The Changing Landscape (2012) and author of Too Much to Ask: Black Women in the Era of Integration (2001), among many other books, book chapters, and over thirty articles exploring identity and inequality, and in particular the employment issues facing professional Black women.  Andrew Needham is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at New York University and author of the award-winning Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (2014).  Needham explores the environmental costs of that metropolis’s explosive growth after World War II, and particularly how the process fostered inequality, including in the Navajo Nation which supplies much of the Southwest’s electrical power.  Becky Nicolaides is a Research Associate at UCLA’s Center for Study of Women, the author of My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles (2002) and co-editor of The Suburb Reader (2006).  Her work has been among the most influential in broadening our understanding of suburbia’s historical development by focusing attention on factors including class and ethnicity.  Finally, Thomas Shapiro is a Professor of Law and Social Policy at Brandeis University as well as Director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy there.  His co-written Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (1995) became an instant classic by drawing attention to severe race-based discrepancies in asset accumulation, traceable to past policies restricting black access to jobs and housing; more recently, Shapiro continued this line of inquiry in The Hidden Cost of Being African American (2004).

Professors Higginbotham, Needham, Nicolaides, and Shapiro will conduct a Roundtable, followed by Breakout sessions in which each will lead a discussion about a pertinent topic or article-length reading of their choosing.  Interested participants must register for these sessions at by April 1.  A informative session, “The 1996 Atlanta Olympics: Assessing Multiple Legacies,” will precede the Roundtable (details below).  The symposium will conclude with a reception.  The proceedings will take place at Georgia Tech’s Wardlaw Center from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics: Assessing Multiple Legacies

Moderator: Mary G. McDonald, Georgia Institute of Technology

“The Atlanta Olympics: How the Event Turned Atlanta Around”
– Mike Dobbins, Georgia Institute of Technology
– Leon Eplan, Partner, Urban Mobility Consult, LLC
– Randy Roark, Georgia Institute of Technology

“Lords of the Olympic Rings: Power and Politics as seen through Atlanta’s Centennial Olympics”
– Maurice Hobson, Georgia State University

“Shadow of the Domes: Community Response to the 1992 Georgia Dome and the 2017 Mercedez-Benz Stadium”
– Kate Diedrick, Historic Westside Cultural Arts Council
– Christopher Le Dantec, Georgia Institute of Technology

[1] Historians studying American urban and suburban history have in recent years settled on the descriptor “metropolitan history” as a concept which better encompasses the extensive and fluid connections between cities, suburbs, and in an era of urban sprawl, exurbs.  For some sense of the discussions along these lines, see Matthew D. Lassiter and Christopher Niedt, “Suburban Diversity in Postwar America,” Journal of Urban History 39:1 (January 2013): 3-14.




Revisiting the Geographies of Smart City Technical Assistance Programs

By Taylor Shelton

On March 10th, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the latest participants in its much-heralded WhatWorksCities program. Launched in April 2015 as a companion to Bloomberg’s existing activities in the world of government innovation, WhatWorksCities is a $42 million program meant to help bring data-driven governance to 100 mid-sized US cities in the next few years. This announcement (not to mention some clerical errors in our initial mapping!) make for an excellent occasion to revisit our map from last December about where these kinds of technical assistance investments are being made around the country, and update it based on the latest data. While there are just six new cities participating in the program, they’re interesting in that they represent a diversity of trajectories in terms of how cities are leveraging their participation in such programs as an attempt to appear – and ultimately become – ‘smarter’.


Perhaps most notable among the six additions to WhatWorksCities is Boston. A city long known for being at the cutting edge of applying technology to city government due to the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Boston now officially represents the leader among cities participating in these technical assistance programs. With its addition to the WWC roster, Boston becomes the first and (as of yet) only city to participate in all seven programs we’re tracking [1]. So even though Boston, much like other larger cities around the country known for the tech industry, doesn’t have to participate in these programs in order to be seen as innovative, there is clearly some value in their continued participation in these programs, even if it’s just for appearances. Moreover, Boston’s ascent to the top of the proverbial league table also tells the bigger story of how the many of the recent investments made by these programs represent a doubling-down of resources in a small number of highly active cities. While Boston got the benefit of the latest round of WWC investments, the 2016 Code for America fellowship cities (also announced since our initial post) are particularly telling of this trend. Of the six cities hosting Code for America fellows this year, five had previously participated in the program (Salt Lake County, Utah being the lone exception here), with four of these five having a total of at least four programs participated in. So rather than focusing largely on spreading these ideas to the places that have yet to come into substantive contact with them, there seems to be a trend of deepening the engagements in the places that have already signaled their interest and desire in becoming ‘smart’ and ‘data-driven.’

Also among the new WhatWorksCities participants are Charlotte, NC and Milwaukee, WI, cities that were among the very first to participate in the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge in 2010 and 2011. Despite being early movers in this space, neither city has actively sought to expand its involvement in these technical assistance programs. Up until now, Milwaukee had seen no further participation, while Charlotte’s hosting of Code for America fellows in 2014 represents its only other engagement since that first round of the Smarter Cities Challenge in 2010. Nonetheless, after a relatively prolonged absence, we can see some of these quick-starting, but also quickly fading, cities attempting to reinsert themselves into these conversations.

But even though the doubling-down of resources in already-successful cities seems to be the new trend, these latest rounds of funding haven’t entirely neglected to reach out to some of the places that have been overlooked by these programs in the past. Before this latest WWC announcement, the Riverside-San Bernardino, CA and Raleigh-Cary, NC MSAs were two of just eleven MSAs across the country with populations greater than 1 million that had yet to see any participation in our seven programs of interest, with the Riverside-San Bernardino MSA having been the largest among these eleven. Even though the Inland Empire has finally gotten on the board, it’s worth noting that it’s thanks to Victorville, which is just the 8th largest city in the metropolitan area! Also of note among the other large metro areas without any participation in our seven technical assistance programs is Columbus, Ohio, the 32nd largest metro area in the country and now the third-largest MSA without any participation. This omission from our own data is despite the city having been named the 2015 Intelligent Community of the Year, as well as being one of seven finalists for the US Department of Transportation’s much-coveted $50 million Smart Cities Challenge competition.



It will be illuminating to observe the distribution of technical assistance programs in the coming years in light of the nation-wide attention the USDoT challenge has brought to the issue of making cities smarter. It is possible that, with greater citizen awareness, grassroots demand may make smarter city projects bloom in the currently underserved great national divide.

Big Data, Local Data, Counter Data: A Contested Outlook for Housing


by Yanni Loukissas and Firaz Peer,
Program in Digital Media; School of Literature, Media and Communication


Every day,, an online housing marketplace, reassesses the value of your home. In fact, the company is continuously updating its ‘zestimate’ — the name for Zillow’s proprietary approach to generating a market-based estimate — for about one hundred million houses and apartments nationwide, whether or not they are for sale. Their business relies on data from public records as well as privately held multiple listing services. Because of the widespread availability of these data, Zillow doesn’t need complex financial models of the housing market to assess your home’s worth. They can use simple algorithms to fit the details of your property to comparable listings in the same area. Zillow doesn’t create these listings or sell access to them. Like most successful web companies, Zillow survives off of advertising revenue—a kind of surplus value created when it aggregates existing data into a new form of context for understanding the housing market.

The value of property has long been assessed in relation to its context; however, the scale and visibility that Zillow provides is unprecedented. Their zestimate is what Nick Seaver calls an “algorithmic system.” It combines computational modeling with human steering from both experts and the crowd (you can also update the details of your home’s listing). It is one of many examples of how data might take a more direct role in shaping perceptions of property value, and thus development. From Zillow’s perspective, the future of housing — and of cities — will be shaped by Big Data.

In Atlanta, this version of the future is not going uncontested. Trent, an Intown real estate agent, confronts an uncertain outlook for his job. How can he continue to justify the cost of his services (commission in Metro Atlanta is typically 6%) at a time when almost anyone can access listings for sale and rent online? “I can’t hold data hostage,” he jokes. But Trent’s situation is serious, and one he equates with the circumstance of the travel agent a few decades ago. Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia, among others, have all but put an end to that vocation. “In the past, someone needed my services,” Trent recalls of his early days in the business just ten years ago. “Buyers and sellers wouldn’t know what houses were on the market without agents.” Today, Trent must find leverage elsewhere. It is no longer access to data that realtors provide, he argues. Rather, it is context: “the context necessary to understand what it might be like to actually live in a neighborhood or an apartment complex.” From Trent’s point of view, access to data isn’t going away — but local agents will play an important role in interpreting it.

Both the developers of Zillow and the agents that resist its encroachment into real estate believe that making sense of housing data requires an understanding of context. But they disagree on what context means. In terms outlined by Paul Dourish, Zillow’s definition of context is “representational,” relying on statistics and algorithms to assess the housing market. In contrast, Trent’s definition is “interactional.” His sense of what a house could go for on any given day is contingent on the dialog he is able to establish between buyers and sellers. In an interactional model, writes Dourish, “context isn’t something that describes a setting; it is something that people do.” As such, the interactional context of the housing market can vary enormously depending on who you talk to and when.

Oscar, an organizer based in Atlanta, talks mostly to people of color, renters who have been driven out of communities they grew up in. These residents are being priced out in the immediate sense and, ultimately, pushed out by financial speculation and gentrification. In Atlanta, there are almost no regulatory policies that protect low-income residents from the inevitable outcomes of a market on the rise. “A crisis is hitting renters. We need data to declare a renters’ state of emergency,” asserts Oscar urgently. He sees a broader context for the data available on what is for sale or rent; they are only part of the picture. “Whenever any information or data is created, it is created in the interest of a group,” he explains. “Zillow serves the wealthy.” But a critical reading of existing data isn’t enough to change the tide. Oscar needs “counter data” to fight gentrification. “How can we produce data to serve the oppressed?” he challenges. Oscar contends that collecting data on “the truth of the system” can give rise to a new sensibility for Atlanta’s development. “We need data on how many people are being displaced. We need data on their mental, emotional, and physical health. Who’s being displaced and what is the consequence of that? We need data to show that there is mass displacement that is causing great suffering.” Part of Oscar’s work is filling in that missing context, which shows that the 2007 housing crisis is not over.

While technologists and realtors are working to define the context in which their clients might make the best possible choices in a local market, Oscar seeks to reveal another condition: one which calls the logic of the market into question. These three ways of approaching the question of context — aggregating Big Data, interpreting that data using local knowledge, and generating counter data — are competing strategies for imagining the future of Atlanta. All of these strategies implicitly accept that data are now a necessary medium for understanding urbanism, which has reached a scale that would be difficult to contemplate otherwise. Nevertheless, data have become a site of contestation, which will determine how cities evolve and for whose benefit.

With support from the Georgia Tech Center for Urban Innovation, the Local Data Design Lab is intervening in this contest by prototyping new tools for thinking critically about data and their role in urban change. Our tools are meant to serve education, journalism, activism, and even art — practices that have the power to reshape the social image of the city. In a course hosted by the lab in the fall of 2015, students worked with our new code library to reflect on what gentrification in Atlanta looks like through data. They developed projects to test a variety of approaches: analyzing implicit discourses on gentrification embedded in Zillow listings, visualizing patterns in home values affected by the new BeltLine, and gaming out the implications of luxury development for the sustainability of low-cost housing. As our underlying toolset is refined, the lab will work with communities in Atlanta to question housing data and the context for their interpretation. It is not enough for data “to be free” — a platitude opined by Stewart Brand in the late 1960s and appropriated by enterprising technologists ever since. The Local Data Design Lab is building new capacities for data literacy, so that not only housing experts but the broader public can confront the social and political implications of this medium for shaping perspectives on the future of the city.

How Anti-Homeless Agendas are Built into Public Space

By Robert Rosenberger

The problem of homelessness in the United States is quickly growing out of control.  According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual report, more than 560,000 people experience homelessness on a given night, including those in shelters and other programs, and those known to be on the street.  Since last fall, a state of emergency over the issue has been declared in the cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, as well as the state of Hawaii.   

Cities approach this crisis in a variety of ways, from increasing their efforts at outreach and temporary sheltering, to developing longer-term housing solutions.  But as I and others argue, many cities also take up another strategy entirely: a systematic effort to push the homeless out of public spaces.  Such efforts involve a different conception of the problem itself.  Rather than focus on assisting the less fortunate, the focus is instead placed on policing how public spaces can be used, and on decreasing the visibility of the city’s homelessness problem.  This agenda can include both anti-homeless laws and anti-homeless public-space designs.

There are a variety of laws aimed at the homeless, most targeting normal and necessary aspects of everyday life.  For example, there are “sit/lie” laws that prohibit behaviors such as sleeping in public, sitting and lying down, camping, and loitering.  As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reports, cities in the US have seen a spike in the enactment of such laws in the last few years.  Activists have responded with a push for ‘Right to Rest’ legislation that would overturn and prohibit these kinds of ordinances, but these efforts face stiff resistance.  Other laws prohibit everything from pushing shopping carts, to sleeping in cars, to panhandling, to storing personal items in public space.  

Series of ‘No Trespassing’ signs along an i-75 onramp in downtown Atlanta


Taken together, this panoply of regulations is often understood to amount to the criminalization of homelessness itself, offloading the problem to the criminal justice system.  An effect of this effort — and I argue its central goal — is to force the homeless out of public areas and into less visible and less safe parts of the city.

How does design contribute to this agenda?  To answer this question, we must first think about the ways in which the typical objects found in public spaces are somehow open to different coherent designs, and also open to fitting into a variety of different societal purposes.

Let’s start with a simple example: the garbage can.  Garbage cans of course serve a main societal purpose: they offer a place to deposit refuse.  This is the purpose for which garbage cans are designed, manufactured, sold, and installed.  But as a public-space object, they are subject to different interpretations, and they are put to different uses by different people.  For example, garbage cans are one of many surfaces that get tagged with graffiti.  This example is instructive because anti-graffiti campaigns operate not only through policies such as the imposition of fines, but also through strategic re-designs.  Designers develop garbage can surfaces that are not conducive to spray paint tags, markings, and art.  One popular version is metal can casings fit with vertical slats.

Garbage cans fit with vertical metal slat casings, rain hoods, and built-in hasps for padlocks on Georgia Tech’s campus

Corrugated and perforated surfaces can also serve this purpose.  The websites of garbage can manufacturers often market these designs explicitly as anti-graffiti features.  Graffiti-resistant paint and surfaces are also available.  Another very different example is a garbage can’s potential as a place to hide a bomb, as we learn from the ubiquitous “If You See Something, Say Something”-style consciousness-raising campaigns.  In the effort to deter terrorism, garbage can designs may feature casings that allow law enforcement and others to easily look inside to check for suspicious items.  Cans with clear cases and bags, or even simple horizontal rings from which hang a clear trash bag, proliferated across train platforms and other public venues in the US after 9/11.

These same dynamics of garbage can design can be seen in relation to the problem of homelessness.  The homeless will at times search through garbage cans for discarded food and other items, and the homeless will also sometimes collect bottles from recycling bins that can be traded in for small amounts of money.  To discourage this behavior, cans are often fit with a “rain hood,” a feature that in addition to keeping rain water out of the open can also functions to discourage one from reaching down inside.  

Two prevalent forms of recycling can in downtown Denver, both enclosed, and both with locking mechanisms built into the casing

Locking mechanisms are also often built into the casing, or hasps are attached to the casing so that the can may be closed securely with an external padlock.  The combination of an exterior casing, a fixed rain hood, and a locking mechanism makes it almost impossible to easily pick trash or recyclables from such cans.

Another example is benches.  Once more we can spell out the central societal purpose for which benches are made, bought, and installed in public spaces: they afford a place to sit.  They are of course a common feature of public parks, subway platforms, and bus stops.  And we can think of many other purposes to which a bench may be put.  It might be used as a makeshift table.  Joggers might use the bench as a fixture to lean against while stretching.  Cyclists may use a bench as a place to chain up a bike.  

But of course benches play an iconic role in cities with regard to issues of homelessness; they are sometimes used by the homeless as beds.  Again, cities often utilize design options that discourage this behavior.  One popular feature is the addition of armrests.

An anti-sleep bench beside an anti-pick garbage can in New York City


Armrests and other dividers functionally break up the seating surface and discourage the bench’s use as a bed.  These designs are occasionally marketed on manufacturers’ websites as anti-loitering features.  Other designs that perform this anti-sleep function include sloping surfaces and bucket seating.

An individual anti-pick garbage can or anti-sleep bench may discourage a homeless person from spending time in a particular area, say, the area around that particular can or bench.  But the experience of such devices must be taken together with any number of other anti-homeless designs that pervade many downtowns.  Hillsides, greenspaces, and other in-between areas are often fenced off.  Alcoves, alleyways, and sidewalks are sometimes hosed off at night and left drenched.  Ledges are sometimes set with spikes.  In addition, rather than modify particular amenities to prohibit the uses favored by the homeless, sometimes cities will remove those amenities entirely.  Parks may roll on with no benches at all.  Entire districts may be devoid of public restrooms, save perhaps for those available only to paying customers.  Stretches of sidewalks in Southern cities, where it gets blisteringly hot in the summer, may continue along with no sign of shade.  These and any number of other anti-homeless design measures, combined with the array of anti-homeless laws tallied above, can effectively flush the homeless out of shared public spaces, and render the problem of homelessness itself invisible.  In this way, these designs instantiate and enforce a city’s larger anti-homeless agenda.

With the assistance of a seed grant from the Center for Urban Innovation, I am currently working on a polemical pamphlet expanding this line of argumentation.  Tentatively entitled Guilty Technology, this small book searches for novel ways to draw out and criticize this increasingly pervasive anti-homeless agenda built directly into the objects of our city’s shared public spaces.  A central project of this work is to use insights from social theory and the philosophy of technology to formulate a set of concepts and arguments that make it easier to see this trend in policy and design, and make it harder to ignore the unjust and immoral consequences.