Francisco Donoso

What is Vital City?

Elizabeth Glazer and Greg Berman

A new venture dedicated to advancing actionable ideas for enduring safety.

A new venture dedicated to advancing actionable ideas for enduring safety.

“The first thing to understand is that the public peace—the sidewalk and street peace—of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as the police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.”

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Ask New Yorkers what makes a vital city and you will hear 8 million different stories. Our stories embody the strands of affection and obligation that bind families, neighborhoods and total strangers together and weave them into a single social fabric. And they reflect the “sidewalk ballet” that characterizes city life: the whir of the trip to work; the hum of voices on the street; and the peace of the parks. It is this common navigation of public space, in all its complexity, that sets city dwellers apart, that makes cities rich and that provides the foundation for safety. Put simply, our social fabric is our safety.

This is not the experience of every New Yorker or every neighborhood, and it never has been. The city’s landscape also bears witness to a history of harms, including segregation, the deprivation of civic services and chronic violence. The neighborhoods that lead the city in shootings today are the same ones that led the city 30 years ago. Here, crowds all manner of social distress—problems that have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. These neighborhoods are home almost entirely to Black and Latino New Yorkers. And they are our poorest neighborhoods.

Here, the apparatus of the criminal justice system is a daily fact of life. Most prominent are the police. But it’s more than that. In neighborhoods like Brownsville or Mott Haven or Rockaway, it is common to hear stories of fathers incarcerated upstate, friends with pending court cases, or neighbors on probation.  

And so, for all too many New Yorkers, public safety has come to mean law enforcement rather than the social fabric. 

There are understandable reasons why police have been deployed as the first line of defense in the fight against crime. The police have in fact produced results, particularly when the city was struggling with high rates of crime a generation ago. This complicated history—of both damage done and safety secured—has led us to our current moment.  We now find ourselves in an increasingly dysfunctional dance, with some urgently calling for the police to ride to our rescue once again while others seek the abolition of policing. The debate has spread to every aspect of the criminal justice system, including the role of prosecutors. The rise in shootings in New York City and across the nation during the pandemic has only sharpened the sides. As the politics and language harden, both in New York City and across the country, it becomes harder to take effective action to address the violence on our streets.  

Vital City seeks to shift the center of gravity away from a debate that focuses simply on expanding or abandoning policing, and towards an approach that deploys a broader range of creative and practical ways to achieve and maintain safety. We believe that durable safety comes first from civic well-being, not the point of a gun. 

Through a policy journal, timely in-depth reports and a focus on data transparency, Vital City will provide decision-makers, both inside and outside of government, with actionable strategies for building and sustaining cities that are healthy, vibrant and safe for all. While our primary focus is on New York City, where we are headquartered, the insights and lessons that we present are applicable to cities across the country and around the world.  

Vital City reflects the best of the liberal democratic tradition: belief in progress, a dedication to the collective work of changing society for the better and a commitment to humility, curiosity and empiricism in the process. Through clear language and engaging graphics, we aim to make those solutions—and the facts behind them—understandable for all, as knowledge and debate are the cornerstones of democracy. Vital City will bring to life the best ideas about how cities can be healthy, vibrant and safe. It will translate thought into action, explaining how good ideas can be embedded into government policy and community life. And it will be open to thinking across a broad political spectrum instead of being hobbled by the stultified clichés that seem to dominate current politics. Our goal is not to assemble a collection of essays that all say the same thing. We won’t agree with every point that every contributor makes, but we intend for every contribution to be thoughtful and well-grounded in data, real-life experience or both. 

For all too many New Yorkers, public safety has come to mean law enforcement rather than the social fabric. 

We end by laying our own cards on the table. Each of us, too, has a story that shapes our different outlooks. 

One of us spent the past two decades running a large criminal justice reform nonprofit. While his career has been predicated on a critique of the justice system, he also believes that the police, courts and other criminal justice agencies are essential to the healthy functioning of society. In recent years, he has also grown increasingly concerned about the narrowing of intellectual debate within the nonprofit sector. 

The other of us made her bones as a federal prosecutor, focusing on violent crime as the city hit the highwater mark of murders in the 1990s. Exposure to the harms that force can inflict and the well-being that access to civic life can bring, has brought her to the edge of abolition. And tugged her back again, pulled by an optimism that government, in all its awesome power, can be a force for good—by, with and for the people. 

Together, over the course of our careers, we have both been witness to remarkable success: against conventional wisdom, New York City managed to become the safest big city in the country while dramatically reducing its jail population. We have also seen how the criminal justice system has often fallen short of its highest ideals and failed some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers. Along the way, we have experienced the strengths and limitations of both government and the nonprofit sector, neither of which can perform the work of strengthening the social fabric without the other (not to mention local businesses, religious congregations and New Yorkers themselves). 

In launching Vital City, we are motivated by our love for New York City and our optimism about the future of cities. We believe that, underneath the noise, most city dwellers want the same thing—to live in safe neighborhoods with clean streets, decent housing, good schools, prospering businesses and verdant parks. The vision isn’t complicated. The challenge is how to get there. What is the best way to strengthen the social fabric of a diverse city? What roles should government, residents, nonprofits, businesses and others play in this process? How can we learn from the past to avoid harms in the future? These are the core questions that will animate Vital City. 

We look forward to hearing your stories and ideas and, most of all, to working with you to advance practical, effective and democratic strategies that will make a vital city for all. ◘

Elizabeth Glazer and Greg Berman
New York City