Strong Institutions, Good City

by Robert Bellah and Christopher Adams

Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. Christopher Freeman Adams is director of the Voicing Values Project of the Center for Ethics and Social Policy at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and editor of its quarterly publication Ethics & Policy.

This article appeared in The Christian Century June 15-22, 1994 , pp. 604-607. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion On-line by Ted & Winnie Brock.


If we are to reverse the decay of American cities, we must realize that at root their problems are moral. Our social ills are traceable to our deficit of community; if we want to solve them, we must build a moral framework.

"Imagine a Great City" was the slogan of Federico Peña's campaign to become mayor of Denver. He retained the slogan for several months into his first term, pasting it on bumper stickers and billboards across town. But later the motto slipped from use, its grandiose claim mocked by rising crime rates, a hostile civil service, Colorado's failing economy and the city maintenance department's inability to clear snow from the streets.

Having learned the value of humility for those charged with governing, Peña, who is now secretary of transportation in the Clinton administration, today might choose different words to rally the electorate. He might now have the insight to ask Denverites to imagine not a great but a good city. The word "great" refers foremost to size; "good," on the other hand, is a moral term. If we are to reverse the decay of American cities, we must realize that at root their problems are moral. No social program or economic boom alone is enough. Without a moral vision to guide such programs and financial advances, they will accomplish little.

In 1963 Lawrence Haworth published a philosophy of the city called The Good City. Haworth tells us that a good city has two essential ingredients: opportunity and community. Unfortunately, the design and function of modern cities are not equally hospitable to both; they overwhelmingly tend to favor opportunity, often at the expense of community. Indeed, cities became the predominant form of American life in order to exploit the opportunities for economic advancement offered by industrialization. The city was far more qualified than the country or the small town to take advantage of specialization, the key to industrial success. Says Haworth:

Because urban life is specialized it is diverse; the person confronts an unprecedented wealth of opportunities to act, to express himself, to develop his potentialities. What specialization removes from life is community. By promoting a plurality of individual worlds, specialization dissolves the continuity of persons, their sense of living a common life and having common concerns. The problem is that of restoring community to the city in such a way that the distinctive contribution of city life, the wealth of opportunity it offers, is not lost.

How can this be done? People craving community are not likely to find Haworth's answer immediately satisfying. In a large, fragmented, opportunity-rich American city, the way to restore community is by attending to the city's institutions—from schools to businesses, from shopping centers to entertainment centers. According to Haworth, "If the quality of life and mind in the city leave something to be desired—if men are submerged, if there is excessive conformity and a failure of sensitivity and feeling, if each is preoccupied with personal gain and personal comfort, if there is an absence of communication and community—then it is to the institutional structure that we must look for a solution."

In order to understand Haworth, we must realize that an institution is something more than just the phone company or the Department of Motor Vehicles. In its sociological definition, an institution is a pattern of expected actions. Our response to an outstretched hand—a handshake, for example—is an institution. Hospitals, churches, police departments, the flow of automobile traffic, businesses and taxation are also institutions. All these enterprises are expected to act in certain ways. Institutions, in short, are those structures that make life possible, especially in a crowded, busy urban area. As Haworth puts it, "Institutions channel life; they bank its flow." Institutions ground the multitude of opportunities in a city, providing a structure that enables the inhabitant to live a meaningful life in community.

If the recipe for a good city calls for opportunity balanced by community that is made possible by institutions, then our cities today are not measuring up. They are places of institutional collapse. Residents' daily activities are inhibited by fear of crime and violence, their peace of mind is shattered by mistrust, and their souls are made weary by exploitation. Our cities do not embody either opportunity or community.

Opportunity, one of the highest goods a free society can offer, continues to beckon people to cities. Many who come are able to find it: a good job, a rich culture, education, parks, excitement of some sort or another. But for many more, opportunity is more of a pipe dream than a reality. Those who come looking for cultural enrichment are likely to find the museums or libraries closed, cut back or priced out of reach. Those wishing to live in a safe neighborhood (if they can find one) discover that rent and housing prices are exorbitant. Those who seek education find schools in disarray. And for those in search of that most revered form of opportunity—economic—the news is even worse: wages are falling, unemployment is rising, and there is an increasing likelihood that people lucky enough to have jobs will be underemployed.

Even though opportunity is in short supply, we continue to believe that more of it will solve our problems. This tempts us to accept the half-truth that our central task, not just in our cities but in the entire country and the rest of the world, is to increase economic growth. We hope to solve our problems by passing NAFTA, making a faster computer chip or devising a better pricing mechanism for corporations to purchase credits to pollute the environment. What is missing is a moral context for opportunity. For that we need community.

When America began its transformation from an agrarian to an urban nation in the late 19th Century, cities seemed to offer a more fulfilling life. Beckoned by the prospect of relatively high-paying jobs, farmers and small-town dwellers left the countryside in droves. But in the city they found the antithesis of the order and decency they had left behind; they entered a life dominated by factories, slums and ward bosses. The inability of the old moral order to encompass these new social developments set the terms of a cultural debate in which we are still engaged. Where, many wondered, could new limits and directions for individual initiative be found beyond the broken bounds of local self-governing communities?

Our failure to answer this question is at the heart of almost all of today's urban problems. It has also given rise to a strong pattern in American life: wishing to live one way but in fact living another. Some 90 percent of Americans tell pollsters that they would prefer to live in a town of 10,000 people or less. Not only is this longing impractical, it is dangerous. It allows our desire for community to be dissipated in daydreams of moving to Vermont or Montana. It is the kind of nostalgia that Christopher Lasch called a psychological placebo that allows people to accept regretfully but uncritically whatever is being served up in the name of progress.

Progress has met our wish for community by providing bucolic yet empty suburbs, each sporting ubiquitous "Towne Centres," always with ample parking. The attempts by suburbs to be communities almost always fail. The results of their efforts could more accurately be called "lifestyle enclaves." To city dwellers suffering from a lack of community, the ones flocking to psychotherapists in search of meaning, lifestyle enclaves mimic what they desire. Members are homogeneous, expressing their identity through shared appearance, consumption and leisure activities. These are the kinds of places that allow marketers to figure out people's cereal preferences by their zip codes.

In the popular understanding, community usually means either a group or a place. We speak of the Japanese-American community, the business community, the gay community and so on. At other times "community" may refer to a neighborhood or a retirement village. The word is used as a neutral description. These "communities" may only coincidentally provide the social structures that balance opportunity and make a good city. Wendell Berry says that the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas fiasco was not about sexual harassment, racism or political cowardice; but about the lack of community. Berry is referring to community as a way to adjudicate disputes appropriately, or better yet, as an ethos that would not tolerate sexual harassment, racism or political cowardice in the first place.

In a recent speech Richard Rodriguez said that there is no word harder for Americans to understand than community; and yet it is precisely in this concept that he finds hope. These sentiments were echoed by a Brazilian diplomat living in this country. To him the lack of community in our nation's cities is obvious. He marvels, however, at our consciousness of its lack and our often foundering efforts to create it. In one of the more moving moments of the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton tapped the power behind the American wish to live in community when he told his audience at the University of Notre Dame, "Most of all we are in a crisis of community, a spiritual crisis that calls upon each of us to remember and to act upon our obligations to one another. The purpose of community, the purpose of our government, the purpose of our leaders should be to call us to pursue common values and common good, not simply in the moment of extreme crisis but every day in our lives, starting right now, today."

Clinton understands, at least on a rhetorical level, that community has a moral dimension, that it demands the recognition of interdependence. It is not just free-floating groups banded together for narrow political gain, but an intelligent form of life requiring the constant engagement of its members in discussion and decision-making, in defining and redefining its goals and purposes. It is a context in which argument—even conflict—can occur, especially about how shared values will be actualized in everyday life, but within the bounds of a commitment to the common good.

According to Haworth, "By restoring community to our settlements we incorporate into the order of affairs an inducement to the moral life." If this is true, then the lack of genuine community in our cities is a matter as urgent as drugs or street crime or depleted coffers; in fact, at a deeper level, it is the very same problem. Our social ills are traceable to our deficit of community; if we want to solve them, we must build a moral framework.

The prospects for change are dubious, however. We simply do not know what community would look like in a modern city because our deepest cultural experience with it comes from the 19th century, in the small-town, face-to-face relationships of an agrarian economy. We cannot continue to hope that somehow, someday, something will happen to turn the city into a present-day version of Mayberry. Even if that were possible, it would probably not be desirable. The small town was often oppressive and stifling. It is no accident that many of our greatest artists felt trapped in it and could not work until they landed in the anonymity of the city. The task is to give cities an appropriate moral framework, as small towns once had, while retaining urban opportunities. To do this we must undertake the collective task of learning how a city can be a community.

In a speech at the Progressive Policy-Institute, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros made a remarkable statement about what community means for "a modern, big American city and its relationship with a big Washington bureaucracy." His definition started with the negative: it is not broken-down public housing; not neighborhoods where children and 73-year-olds are on their own; not decision-making in which planners, city officials or federal bureaucrats—everyone but the people call the tune. Rather, community is "neighborhood organizing, strong institutions, local institutions, experts in partnerships with community persons." The redundancy of the word "institutions" is not sloppy speech, but an affirmation by an insightful public servant that institutions are the way community is expressed in cities.

Unfortunately, Americans hate institutions. They fear that strong institutions will impinge on their freedom. The liberal ideology that shaped this nation called for institutions that would be, as far as possible, neutral mechanisms designed for individual use. Small wonder, then, that attacking institutions is the surest way for a politician to win the hearts of the electorate. A recent Gallup poll found that out of 15 institutions, only three—the military, organized religion and the police—garnered confidence ratings of either a "great deal" or "quite a lot" higher than 50 percent. The poor showing of institutions such as the Supreme Court, big business, Congress and organized labor evinces the skepticism and distrust Americans have for the very enterprises that make interdependence and therefore community possible in a modem city.

Fortunately, however, not all the news is negative. In academia there is a renaissance of interest in institutions, what some are calling the "new institutionalism." For example, a Harvard research team led by Robert D. Putnam recently completed a 20-year study of regional governments in Italy (Making Democracy Work). It found that the relatively prosperous and well-governed regions were those parts of the country with a long tradition of civic culture. Where there was institutional trust, cities seemed to generate more trust and stronger institutions. Where civic institutions were weak, improving economic and political functions was a much slower process. Putnam and his colleagues drew heavily on the work of Douglass C. North of Washington University, co-winner of this year's Nobel Prize in economics, recognized for his research on the importance of institutions for economic growth.

The hopeful signs are not limited to the academy. In San Francisco an innovative effort to raise $30 million for the public library has met with great success. Realizing that the library is one of the only public institutions that occupies a position of trust and respect among all the different groups of the city, the staff of the Library Foundation made a risky decision. Instead of taking traditional fund-raising approaches, it decided to ask "affinity groups" to take responsibility both for achieving a financial goal and for planning a specific feature or room in the library. African-Americans, Chinese, Latinos Filipinos, gays/lesbians and a Japanese business group all responded.

In the beginning of the process, critics viewed it as a balkanizing of the fund-raising effort. They did not expect much from what they perceived as self-serving groups with limited resources. But the effort to raise funds for a new library, and the way it was done, actually created community out of these "affinity groups." Martin Paley, the director of the Library Foundation, said, "If we had any doubt about the values inherent in this approach they have all but disappeared. A leader of the Latino Community Campaign took me aside at a fund-raising event and said, 'Thank you for giving us our dignity.' An African-American physician noted that this was the first time his community had been asked to come in at the beginning of an important civic project and play a significant role." According to Paley, this experience has permanently changed philanthropy in San Francisco.

In some instances, whole cities have been improved by the innovative use of institutions. Wallace Katz, a longtime student of American urban areas, suggests in a recent Commonweal article that resources are available for institutional renewal. Referring to such places as Pittsburgh and Cleveland as "cities on the mend," he writes:

In most cases they have overcome both political fragmentation and government overload by replacing their old governmental bureaucracies with an innovative and effective form of governance: coalitions (composed of business, government, nonprofits, universities, neighborhood and minority associations, and religious groups) that develop a cooperative agenda to improve the city and that assume many of the city government’s traditional functions (economic development, long-term planning, educational reform, even care of the homeless), and that also operate like political parties of yore (providing the point of access for new groups and a public realm for discourse, debate, and negotiation concerning matters of the common good) .

No attempt to solve urban problems can ignore the key role played by institutions. Conservatives who dismiss the urban poor by claiming that they are inadequately motivated to take advantage of opportunity do not understand that this opportunity is available only through the very institutions the conservatives are eager to dismantle. Liberals who understand institutions only in their capacity to provide opportunity do not see that opportunity requires personal responsibility, and that personal responsibility requires community.

Just before landing in the New World in 1630, John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, delivered a sermon describing what he and his fellow Puritans intended to found: "a city upon a hill." He enjoined his shipmates to "delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our ... community ... as members of the same body." The acquisition of material wealth was certainly on the agenda too, but the primary purpose was to create a community that would support an ethical and spiritual life.

The hill that formed the backdrop for Wintbrop's speech now has a city upon it, but it bears little resemblance to his vision. Little or no delight is taken in neighbors here (particularly during rush hour traffic); others' conditions are others' business; and the interest of the community is taken into account only to the degree to which it coincides with ones personal interest. Traffic, crime and pollution make reluctant metropolitans out of most inhabitants, giving rise to a nostalgic wish to turn back the clock, go to a different place and find a communal life more closely resembling Winthrop's vision.

In a time when Los Angelinos witness the foundering efforts of "Rebuild L.A." and New Yorkers numbly wait for the annual murder count to surpass the 2,000 mark, we see in the fates of our cities the consequences of inadequate and neglected institutions and can perhaps read a lesson for all of society. Unless we make our large, complex urban centers into something more than grab bags of opportunities, nothing—not enterprise zones, new housing projects or more police officers—will make them good places to live. Opportunity unbalanced by community becomes, as Shakespeare said about appetite, a "universal wolf" that in the end "eats up itself."

The imperative to build community does not end with cities; it is only there that the need for attention is most obvious. Cities are metaphors for our world as a whole. Within them we can see pockets of, First World affluence, professional competence, institutions that work. But we can also see pockets of Third World poverty, despair and institutional collapse. As with our cities, so with our nation and the world. Our cities, our nation and our world bear little resemblance to Winthrop's "city on a hill." But perhaps if we stopped looking for great cities on the hilltops, we might locate the rudiments of something better—the good city.