Think Intangibly

When my doctor husband first mentioned the trendy phrase “evidence-based medicine,” I asked, “What was it before – guess-based medicine?” It’s popular in this age of Big Data (information from everywhere about everyone) to call almost anything evidence-based, which sounds pretty scientific. Scientific is good, isn’t it?

We are so used to reading charts and statistics that we think all subjects can be quantified. It’s science! Will your child be successful in school? Test scores will tell you, right? Can you find true love? and e-Harmony have a formula. Should government provide mass transit to people who either don’t own cars or prefer to use them sparingly? Let’s crunch the numbers and see.

In the old Ann Arbor News, I always enjoyed how the football writers would evaluate wins and losses and then add up the “intangibles” in predicting the outcome of Michigan football games. Intangibles were things such as the coach’s dislike for the other coach, the need to win on home field, and decades of historical factoids. If you’re trying to get a bunch of teenagers to win a football game or if you’re trying to figure out public policy, those intangibles can be very important.

Last week I visited a friend who is taking some courses at MIT on Public Sector Dispute Resolution. I attended class with her and had the good fortune to meet one of the gurus in this area. Lawrence Susskind applies consensus-building techniques to issues such as urban planning and international water disputes. His blog contains a fascinating discussion of Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a counterpoint to the usual “scientific” statistical methods. Simply put, he advises social scientists to get down and dirty with specific community projects rather than relying solely on numbers and surveys that lead to incorrect generalizations about social change.

Charts and statistics are just a jumping-off point. They can’t necessarily predict future activity and they certainly can’t measure community benefit. My favorite example is the non-motorized path the city built on the north side of Washtenaw Avenue. During the public meetings about it, numerous residents came out to complain that there was no evidence that anyone would use it. Of course there was no evidence – there was no sidewalk! Now that it exists, hundreds of people walk and bike there and more people are willing to take the bus because the stops on that side of the road are accessible. The intangible is that the city made a statement in favor of non-motorized transportation, regardless of “evidence.”

In the coming weeks we will hear a lot of blather from the “we hate everything” group that now has been formed to oppose the proposed AAATA millage in May. The millage will support more efficient bus routes and less waiting time for bus riders, but expect the naysayers to drag out all kinds of statistics showing each penny each resident pays for each hubcap on each tire on each bus. Here are some of the intangibles:  1) As a relatively wealthy community, we owe it to those who aren’t so wealthy to provide reliable transportation; 2) It’s not all about “me” –you might not take the bus but someone else you depend on probably does; and 3) Improved transit provides incentives for employment and for retail opportunities.

Whether it’s the transportation millage, a new building, or crosswalk improvements, be wary of those who rely solely on statistics. It takes social conscience to figure some of these things out. Read up on all the facts and figures, but then feel the love.

Where Has All The Art Gone?

Pete Seeger died last week. Today the Toledo Public Television station was kind enough to air an American Masters program about Seeger from a few years ago. There was an interview with his son, who said his father had never aimed to commercialize folk music – he used it to build community.

Community is still something people seek, even in this age where you can watch movies and meetings and concerts and sports events on your smartphone. In the rapid evolution of new apartment buildings in Ann Arbor, developers have found that the students and others who inhabit these new buildings are more interested in communal spaces than they are in large living spaces. The first “private dorms,” Landmark and Zaragon in the South University area, have mainly 4,5, and 6-bedroom apartments with relatively large central areas within the apartments. The newer buildings, Zaragon West, Varsity, and the non-student Ann Arbor City Apartments all have smaller apartments, mostly one and two-bedrooms, with some studios, but have gone all-out with rooftop party rooms and even a “Zen Garden.”

People want to be with people in an organized way.

It’s a concept many of our public servants fail to understand. What brings people together? Big sporting events, for certain, as we know from the success of the recent Winter Classic. But hordes of people do not necessarily make a community, and sporting events can polarize rather than energize. One message from Pete Seeger is that art and music build community in a sustainable way and a way that fosters common bonds instead of emphasizing differences. That’s why it is such a mistake to forego the opportunity to promote public art.

There is plenty of art around if you are wealthy enough to own paintings and sculpture and if you were raised in a culture that made you appreciate museums and concerts. But public art is a way to bring the arts to everyone and to make everyone feel a part of it. In 1983, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Miami Beach with what sounded like a bizarre and even goofy idea. The result was “Surrounded Islands”:  tiny islands in the intra-coastal waterway between Miami and Miami Beach surrounded by thousands of yards of pink polyester fabric.Christo

Everyone got involved. Just placing the pink material took hundreds of volunteers. The artists had to work with government and local arts organizations to make everything work (it took a couple of years). My brother was one of the lawyers who helped import the pink polyester. My neighbors on one of the causeways that joins the beach to the mainland used their boat to help. People talked about it for years and I’m sure it was a factor that led to renewed interest in the Art Deco preservation movement on what was then a very dilapidated Miami Beach hotel strip.

As I have written about previously, Ann Arbor had an innovative, progressive Percent for Art program that used 1% of budgeted money from otherwise un-artistic capital projects to fund public artworks. But thanks to some councilmembers who think Ann Arbor should be ordinary rather than innovative, the Percent for Art program is dead. Not content to have killed it, one of those councilmembers, Jane Lumm, has now proposed that money in the public art fund – from those projects that have already been successfully built without that 1% of their budgets set aside for art – be “returned” to sewer, water, and roads funds. That would effectively eviscerate the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, which is just what Lumm and her cohort want.

These councilmembers would rather see money spent on potholes and police, even though the road millage taxes pay for street improvements and there is so little crime that the police already spend more than 40% of their time on non-crime, “pro-active” activities. Perhaps it would be wise to pipe in a little Pete Seeger music into the Council Chambers in the hope it might instill a sense of community. Nothing else seems to work.