Moneyball For City Hall

Dan Koh, the new chief of staff to Boston’s mayor, wants city government to work like Brad Pitt’s team in Moneyball. The Oakland A’s broke through when they broke away from the old way and started crunching the numbers. To do the same trick and build a winning city, Koh says Boston needs a batting average. His team will measure everything from 311 response time and pothole repairs to library utilization and stabbings. It all rolls up into one real-time CityScore to tell Titletown how it’s doing.

A CityScore mockup. (City of Boston)

What’s the score?

The pitch is good management. Koh told us that Boston would rank in the Fortune 1000 if it were a company. His boss should “govern with data” like every other self-respecting CEO.

We all want smoother streets, bike lanes, and something to be done about our parking tickets. But many folks just can’t get comfortable with political sabermetrics. This week, we’ll convene a virtual town meeting — of planners, gadflies, wisemen, Jane Jacobs-types, and Carl Williams of the ACLU — to ask if numbers are the key to the city.

To get ready, we crossed the river to a university city ruled more and more by markets and figures. If Cambridge, which is in full biotech bloom (behold Novartis’s new campus below), gave itself a CityScore, it would be off the charts. But John Summers of The Baffler magazine says his town has been managed to a losing season.

Novartis HQ in Cambridge. (Pat Tomaino)

For John Summers, biotech city planning doesn’t add up.

And the urbanist Richard Florida, superstar talent scout of American cities, will describe the data. In the academy and on CityLab, Florida turns city numbers into prognostic stories about the “creative class” mayors want and the inequality that follows the hipsters.

So, we ask you what we’ll ask him: How and for whom are we managing the American city? In government by the numbers, do we value only what we can measure?

Guest List
Dan Koh
Chief of staff to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh
John Summers
Citizen of Cambridge & mayor of The Baffler
Richard Florida
Urbanist, professor, and co-founder of The Atlantic's CityLab.
Carl Williams
Staff attorney at ACLU Massachusetts and Roxbury resident.

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  • Cambridge Forecast

    How to ponder imponderables?

    The ROS discussion was very interesting, as always and might be enriched by introducing the Lewis Mumford critique of conventional urbanism which posits cities as “machines for
    living” and then, logically, gives them the numerical composite indices, an
    overall efficiency rating as any machine might get, as per this ROS show:

    “Lewis Mumford, KBE (October 19, 1895 – January 26, 1990) was an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic. Particularly noted for his
    study of cities and urban architecture,

    Polytechnics versus monotechnics

    A key idea, introduced in Technics and Civilization (1934) was that technology was twofold:

    Polytechnic, which enlists many different modes of technology, providing a complex framework
    to solve human problems.

    Monotechnic, which is technology only for its own sake, which oppresses humanity as it moves
    along its own trajectory.

    Mumford commonly criticized modern America’s transportation networks as being ‘monotechnic’ in their reliance on cars. Automobiles become obstacles for other modes of transportation, such as walking, bicycle and public transit, because the roads they use consume
    so much space and are such a danger to people. Mumford explains that the
    thousands of maimed and dead each year as a result of automobile accidents are
    a “ritual sacrifice” the American society makes because of its extreme
    reliance on highway transport.

    Urban civilization

    The City in History won the 1962 U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction.
    In this influential book Mumford explored the development of urban
    civilizations. Harshly critical of urban sprawl, Mumford argues that the structure of modern cities is partially responsible for many social problems seen in western society. While pessimistic
    in tone, Mumford argues that urban planning should emphasize an organic relationship between people and their living spaces.

    Mumford uses the example of the medieval city
    as the basis for the “ideal city,” and claims that the modern city is
    too close to the Roman city (the sprawling megalopolis) which ended in
    collapse; if the modern city carries on in the same vein, Mumford argues, then
    it will meet the same fate as the Roman city.

    Mumford wrote critically of urban culture believing the city is “a product of earth … a fact of nature… man’s method of expression.” Further, Mumford recognized the crises
    facing urban culture, distrusting of the growing finance industry, political
    structures, fearful that a local community culture was not being fostered by
    these institutions. Mumford feared “metropolitan finance,” urbanisation, politics, and alienation.
    Mumford wrote: “The physical design of cities and their economic functions
    are secondary to their relationship to the natural environment and to the
    spiritual values of human community.”


    Lastly, a comment on the numerical methodology for city ratings and scores discussed on the show.

    If you look up two related methodologies, you’ll have a better sense of the issues entailed:

    1. Conjoint Analysis

    2. Hedonic Pricing

    roughly: compare two cities or the same city at different times in the same way that you would weigh/weight attributes of a desktop PC or a calculator today compared to one ten years ago.
    (price/performance measures of various kinds combined).

    You should ask whether these types of methodology can capture urban charm, élan, excitement, morale, livability, spirit, “x-factor.” Recall the Gertrude Stein comment on LA, “there’s no there there.”

    How to ponder imponderables?

    Richard Melson

  • jefe68

    Ex mayor Bloomberg is the model for how to run the city of Boston? I would be wary of using his tenure in New York’s city hall as a metric.

    Also cities and governments are not baseball teams.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    This ROS show on the quantification of city realities can be connected in a oblique but
    thought-provoking way, to the recent ROS discussion, “The New New Deal” which
    features Prof. Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School as a panelist. The quantitative evaluation of the urban might be enriched by bringing in the Harvey Cox dimensions of urbanity and secularism and spirituality:

    The 2013 reissue of Harvey Cox’s “The Secular City” is described as follows:

    “Since its initial publication in 1965, The Secular City has been hailed as a classic for
    its nuanced exploration of the relationships among the rise of urban
    civilization, the decline of hierarchical, institutional religion, and the
    place of the secular within society. Now, half a century later, this
    international best seller remains as relevant as when it first appeared. The
    book’s arguments–that secularity has a positive effect on institutions, that
    the city can be a space where people of all faiths fulfill their potential, and
    that God is present in both the secular and formal religious realms–still
    resonate with readers of all backgrounds.”


    The ROS listener should also ponder the following critique of modern city
    hypercapitalism and the potential for “urban anomie production”, via the longer view of the great sociologist Georg Simmel:

    “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (German: Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben) is a 1903 essay by the German sociologist, Georg Simmel, which warns of the “the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism.”
    We read:
    “The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the
    independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of
    society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture
    and technique of life. The antagonism represents the most modern form of the
    conflict which primitive man must carry on with nature for his own bodily
    existence. The eighteenth century may have called for liberation from all the
    ties which grew up historically in politics, in religion, in morality and in
    economics in order to permit the original natural virtue of man, which is equal
    in everyone, to develop without inhibition; the nineteenth century may have
    sought to promote, in addition to man’s freedom, his individuality (which is
    connected with the division of labor) and his achievements which make him
    unique and indispensable but which at the same time make him so much the more
    dependent on the complementary activity of others; Nietzsche
    may have seen the relentless struggle of the individual as the prerequisite for
    his full development, while socialism found the same thing in the suppression
    of all competition – but in each of these the same fundamental motive was at
    work, namely the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up
    in the social-technological mechanism.

    —Georg Simmel The Metropolis and Mental Life, 1903

    Quantittative city-watching needs the addition of the non-quantifiable, a la Ccx and Simmel.

    Richard Melson