On 'civic vitality'
Recently at Verdunity we’ve tried to get a handle on some words to define issues that many cities face. A single city staff can quickly find a common language to discuss shared issues. As consultants we converse with many cities simultaneously about roughly the same issues, but each city has established a different vernacular for problems we see commonly across many cities. Some cities adopt a better vocabulary than others, but the diversity becomes the problem. I love cities, and I love words, so I’ve enjoyed wrestling this particular issue. In a recent discussion we came up with the phrase civic vitality to describe what we hope our work can help cities achieve.
First, it's a palindrome that is both lovely to look at and satisfying to say. Its description in Merriam-Webster reads: “of or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs." Oxford puts it a bit differently: “relating to the duties or activities of people in relation to their town, city, or local area."
It isn't a palindrome, but it embodies something even more substantial regarding cities. Merriam-Webster says: “power of enduring; the peculiarity distinguishing the living from the non-living.” Says Oxford: “the state of being strong and active; energy. The power giving continuance of life, present in all living things.”
For us, civic vitality describes our professional goal for cities as an ongoing condition of progress and improvement, while avoiding silver-bullet syndrome. A healthy life comes from a confluence of many mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual factors operating continually. One week of diet and exercise won’t fix years of rough living. One good conversation won’t fix years of trauma. We’ve built cities poorly for decades; one round of visioning and public input with a few tactical urbanism projects won’t fix our issues. That’s a healthy start, but it won’t change much if it ends there.
At Verdunity, we frame our desired outcomes in terms of civic vitality to remind ourselves that people make cities, and like people, cities thrive or fail based on a complex system of decisions, actions, and environment. The nature of cities requires we carry out our work with equity and walk a narrow path among a variety of professional and social environments. We cannot afford to silo engineers from planners, elected officials from citizens, or the rich from the poor. Somehow, our efforts cannot lose sight of the people or the person.
We focus much of our work on fiscal sustainability because it’s little understood and an exciting new lens through which to look at civic vitality. However, money fails to paint anything close to a complete picture. People are more than the sum of their paychecks. We aim to explore the social, psychological, aesthetic, and environmental component of civic vitality as well.
Our project of building civic vitality will continue through our work, blog, and podcasts. We take no solace in quick or easy answers to complex problems. We plan to settle into the complexity and discover good long-term solutions. If you enjoy the struggle as much as we do, we’d enjoy your company and thoughtful input.