Distributed February 11, 2002
News Service Contact: Kristen Cole
Providence residents: There’s more to a hot city than a great downtown
Police protection, street repairs, race relations and political leadership were foremost in residents minds when determining whether their city was doing well, according to a case study of Rhode Island’s state capital published in the Urban Affairs Review.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Residents do not view a revamped downtown as the primary indicator their city is doing well. Police protection, street repairs, race relations and political leadership all have a stronger impact on their perception of city life.
Using Rhode Island’s state capital as a case study of a city on the “comeback,” two Brown University political scientists surveyed citizens about their views on urban revitalization. Their findings appear in the January 2002 issue of Urban Affairs Review.
“If you’re going to be a ‘hot’ city you must do more than the physical revitalization,” said Marion E. Orr, associate professor of political science, who conducted the study with Darrell M. West, the John Hazen White Professor of Public Policy and Political Science. “A mayor who only focuses on the downtown may find him or herself in trouble with the residents.”
Providence first received attention as a “renaissance” city in the late 1990s. The national press spotlighted its Waterplace Park, upscale shopping mall, convention center, and a network television show named for the city.
Orr and West looked at three measures of urban revitalization: city success, downtown improvement and quality of life.
More than 70 percent of the 324 people surveyed in 1999 said they believed things in Providence were headed in the right direction; only 10 percent thought the city was off on the wrong track.
Police protection was the most important factor in shaping citizens’ views about the city’s direction. Residents who felt police protection was good were more likely to feel the city was headed in the right direction, a finding that reflected decades of decline in crime, according to Orr. Like many major cities, Providence witnessed a significant drop in its crime rate during the 1990s, for which the police have been given much credit.
Political leadership did not show any significant relationship to the way residents thought about their city’s direction. Yet when asked to consider downtown improvement, political leadership was the most important factor in explaining why residents had positive views.
People who felt that Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci had done a good job as mayor were much more likely to say that downtown Providence looked better. The finding demonstrates that on dimensions such as improving a downtown area, a mayor can claim and earn credit from the general public, said Orr.
Two factors stood out as major predictors of satisfaction with the overall quality of life: those who felt street repairs were good and those who gave favorable ratings to race relationships within the city.
Regarding street repairs, past research has shown that city residents consider traditional public services foremost when rating a city’s quality of life, according to Orr. Street condition is especially important in Providence, a city with limited mass transit options.
It was not a surprise, considering Providence’s changing demographics, that residents would be concerned about race relations, Orr added. However, as the city’s Hispanic and Asian communities continue to grow, their concerns will become a critical factor in the city’s future.
In general, residents responded more positively about the city’s political leadership and services such as police and fire than qualities such as taxes and employment prospects. When asked to rate taxes as an aspect of life in Providence, 64 percent gave a negative response. Just 10 percent characterized employment opportunities as excellent or good and 46 percent as only fair or poor.
Providence is not the first city noted to be on a comeback. In the 1980s, several cities spent money to rehabilitate their downtown areas, including Baltimore, Atlanta and Cleveland.
Scholars who study urban revitalization efforts often focus on the role of political leadership, the business community and the quality of city services without seeking residents’ input. “This omission is problematic because revitalization involves much more than positive press clippings and leadership cheerleading,” wrote Orr and West.
As significant to a city’s comeback is the perception of the residents who pay taxes, attend schools, work in local industry and frequent businesses. For a city to really turn around, the person on the street must believe the hype and support changes, Orr said.