A think tank for all occasions

COLUMN

Policy: Urban research institutes are everywhere these days, but their ability to solve society's problems remains unclear.

February 04, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

After four years of urban unrest and a host of new programs to deal with it, President Lyndon B. Johnson helped create in 1968 a small independent research organization to examine the effectiveness of his antipoverty agenda.

"It was understood by those involved that the programs were not based on an understanding of what works but by a drive to do something," says William Gorham, who founded The Urban Institute and headed it until two years ago.

A third of a century later, the self-described "nonpartisan economic and social policy research organization" has more than 400 staffers, a focus on broad national policy as well as specific city programs -- and plenty of company.

There are university-based urban think tanks and independent urban think tanks; think tanks devoted to national issues and local ones; think tanks on the left, center and right.

There are centers devoted to urban economy and urban poverty; centers that focus on urban land and urban water; centers doing research on urban forests and the insects that inhabit them.

They turn out research papers on topics ranging from changing demographics to mobility of poor people; hold conferences and seminars; produce books and journals and newspaper op-ed pieces.

And their ranks could grow even more if former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani follows through on his plans to create a Center for Urban Affairs -- described as equal parts library, think tank and government crisis consulting.

It would join such other New York-area based urban research outfits as the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University; the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University; the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York; and the independent, conservative-oriented Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

"You can throw a rock in this town and you'll hit some sort of academic or policy institution," says Neil Scott Kleiman, director of the independent New York-based Center for an Urban Future, which was founded five years ago.

The same might be said of Boston, where three new urban-oriented think tanks have sprung up in the last couple of years: the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, which is affiliated with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; CEOs for Cities, which concentrates on "cutting-edge research to help us understand both the economy of our cities and urban trends"; and Northeastern University's Center for Urban and Regional Policy, which bills itself as a "think and do tank."

Even this partial roster doesn't include the broad-based think tanks, such as the centrist RAND or the conservative Heritage Foundation, that periodically issue papers on topics of particular interest to cities, like school vouchers or community policing; or the philanthropies that issue their own studies, such as last year's Fannie Mae Foundation report on the growth of rapidly growing "boomburgs" outside of traditional cities.

The larger ones produce small libraries of research. Last year, the Urban Institute issued 186 books, papers and policy briefs, compared to just 99 in 1995; its budget in the last decade swelled from $17 million to $61 million, made up of government contracts and foundation and private support, as it expanded its focus to a wide range of policy matters that extend beyond the borders of cities.

For all the research that's being done, many cities are still beset by problems with crime, housing and schools. One reason, some experts say, is that the key issue is not a description of the effect of policies but what's going to be done about the problem.

Another is that the focus of too much research -- and action -- is too narrowly drawn.

"For me, the core problem is the concentration of the poor in inner cities and the jurisdictional competition that keep the poor in inner cities," says Sandra Newman, director of the Institute for Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. That's why she says some of the most important studies being done today are those examining the effects of the aborted Moving to Opportunity program, a mid-1990s federal demonstration project in Baltimore and four others cities to help poor people move out of the inner city.

What's behind this overall upsurge in research?

One reason is a general re-awakening of interest in cities themselves, fueled in large measure by the fact that some distressed cities have shown signs of renewal and the hopes that others may follow suit, and in such related issues as growth and sprawl.

"There is a degree of renewal of interest in cities -- in their future in the economy and in social policy and their relation to the region," says Jerold Kayden, an associate professor of urban planning at Harvard University.

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