Reuters

Social movement organizations are strongly correlated to key elements of cities.

"The place where a great city stands is not the place of stretch’d wharves, docks, manufactures, deposits of produce merely," Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass. The great city, he continued, is found where "the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons ... where the citizen is always the head and ideal ... where women ... enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men."

The uprisings of 1848 mostly exploded in cities: Paris and Vienna, Dresden and Berlin, Budapest and Prague. As unruly as they were, cities epitomized the egalitarian ideal, and Whitman was neither the first nor the last to make the connection.

Just this week—with tens of thousands of protestors crowded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and with demonstrators clashing with police in Brazil’s Sao Paulo and Rio—The Economist warned that "a wave of anger is sweeping the cities of the world."

Writing in The Atlantic in 2011, I noted that "the very same mechanisms that unleash our innovative and artistic energies also make cities veritable cauldrons, in which political energy and activism are pressurized and brought to a boil." In the wake of the London riots in the summer of 2011, I cited the late historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who, I wrote:

Long ago noted that a combination of density and the poor being close to centres of political power transformed old-style cities into centres of insurrection. It is no accident that the most innovative U.S. cities also have the highest levels of protest and among the lowest levels of social capital and cohesion.

Is it possible to measure the phenomenon objectively?

Brian B. Knudsen, a research associate at Urban Innovation Analysis (and a former student of mine at Carnegie Mellon), and Terry N. Clark of the University of Chicago have done just that, in a fascinating paper in the Urban Affairs Review, "Walk and Be Moved: How Walking Builds Social Movements."

The study argues that engagement in political activism or social movements is shaped by walkability, density, the physical layout, and the unique experience of cities—"the ways in which an individual interacts with and makes use of urban environments, neighborhoods, and spaces."

Drawing from a long literature of studies on new social movements, it uses data from the U.S. Census to identity "Social Movement Organizations," or SMOs, by zip code. These include human rights, environmental, and other social advocacy organizations. While some are big, well-endowed organizations, most are local grassroots groups.

The study conducts a statistical analysis of the correlation between these social movement organizations and urban attributes like density, mixed-use neighborhoods, walkability, and short city blocks (which bring about greater connectivity), while controlling for other factors. Their analysis covers more than 30,000 zip codes across the United States.

Based on their research, the authors find social movement organizations to be strongly correlated to key elements of cities, including population density, housing density, retail density, employment density, connectivity, and mixed-uses. The report's authors' write:

Cities possess size, density, connectedness, and walkability, which combine to enable learning, speed the creation and transfer of ideas, and generate and enable bridging across diversity. Cities therefore become locales for social change and hubs of innovativeness of many kinds—economic, political, cultural, and even ethical.

The study provides substantial evidence that it is not just density, or the crowding together of people in urban areas that shapes political and social activism, but the direct engagement of the city through walking. As Knudsen told me via email, these "social qualities of walking" operate through two primary mechanisms. On the one hand, walking "activates imagination and creativity" and on the other, "it empowers people to act through creating trust and familiarity." And he adds: "It does both in part through enabling social interactions."  

It’s a conjecture that would no doubt have delighted Walt Whitman, great flaneur and democrat that he was, and that wouldn’t have surprised Jane Jacobs in the least. 

Top image: Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi take part in a protest demanding that Morsi resign at Tahrir Square in Cairo on July 2, 2013. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

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