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GUEST COLUMN: What makes a great city?

Monday, May 25, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 1:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 30, 2010

"A city is what it is because its citizens are what they are.” — Plato

Recently Columbia was named one of the 10 best small cities in the U.S. by Forbes magazine. Columbia had previously received a similar honor by Money magazine.

I was surprised when poor, underemployed, unemployed and marginalized individuals expressed the same pride in the designations as the “well-to-do” inhabitants of Columbia. I stated over and over again to the disenfranchised that the designation did not consider them — to no avail. I reiterated “until you have equal opportunity, protection, responsibility, justice and resources, the city is not the ‘best’ for you.”

I am reminded of poor, socially conservative patriots who take pride in being sent off to war by the wealthy, and other oxymoronic situations. The criteria for the best city allude to career opportunities, comfortable incomes, good housing, health care and educational opportunities. Because I am African-American, I sought some similar designations that might fit an African-American population. The most prevalent designation I found had been made by Black Enterprise magazine.

The Black Enterprise criteria mirror the Forbes and Money magazine criteria, except for a requirement that the city contain a high African-American population. None of the magazines’ criteria addressed patterns of arrest, profiling and conviction rates, or access to legal representation that minorities trust. Promotion rates within the career categories by minorities were absent. Gentrification and displacement were ignored. Eminent domain and police review commissions were not mentioned by any of the three magazines.

In Columbia, African-Americans are rarely promoted within the ranks at businesses or public organizations. There is no recorded instance of an African-American promoted to the top of an organization. There have been hires by outsiders to several top positions. However “Good Ole Boys” go from one top position to another within the city.

I suspect Columbia is not alone in this diversity charade. Well-known, progressive cities have problems keeping minorities. San Francisco is attempting to attract black residents.

As a consequence of my interest in this subject I have attempted to develop my own set of criteria. Here is what I would consider if I were seeking an attractive city for me. I attempted to rank order my criteria with the exception of proximity and access to close family and friends. My criteria are intended for all citizens.

  1. Relative danger in the environment (ecological, personal, social, political and judicial)
  2. Employment: career opportunities, stability and advancement
  3. Educational resources and opportunities
  4. Adequate housing and healthy neighborhoods
  5. Health resources, services and availability
  6. Cultural amenities
  7. Acceptable availability of peers within the city
  8. Diversity of social, income levels, ethnic and religious groups
  9. Proximity and accessibility to other communities via roads and transportation
  10. Dynamic positive interaction among people and organizations
  11. Affordability for a range of income levels
  12. Integrity of elected, appointed and hired officials
  13. A hospitable environment
  14. All citizens feel a sense of ownership of the city
  15. Physical attractiveness
  16. A fair, impartial, accountable and rigorous media
  17. A tradition of community service

As you can see, my list is somewhat different from the three magazines that I mentioned. What are your criteria? What is the most important for you? How does your city measure up for you? Feel free to contact me and share your criteria and/or your comments at robertsonw@missouri.edu.


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