Christof Brandtner (PhD '19): Reflections on research at Stanford for The Europe Center
Two years ago, the United States decided to walk away from the single most important promise to drastically reduce carbon emissions—the Paris Climate Agreement. The President argued that his responsibility as a leader was with Pittsburgh, not Paris. The mayors from Pittsburgh and Paris scathingly announced their own deal to hold up the goals of the accord. If nations are not taking responsibility, they argued, cities will.
I observed this debate working on my dissertation on what enables cities to take action in response to climate change and other social and environmental challenges. What had begun as a theoretical inquiry into the strategic capabilities of cities had turned into a serious policy matter. While I put finishing touches on my dissertation on a sweltering day this summer, a heat wave broke Paris’s temperature record from 1947 and killed hundreds of people around Europe. Interviewing city leaders in such places as Copenhagen, Vienna, Chicago, and New York with support from the Europe Center’s Graduate Student Grant Competition, I learned that cities were not standing by idly: they were constructing and encouraging green buildings, transforming their transit systems, and engaging with each other to learn about innovative approaches to tackling environmental deterioration.
As my dissertation supports, many cities around the world have indeed taken initiatives to fight climate change. Although liberal mayors of megacities have played a critical role in publicizing the issue, I found that it’s particularly cities with appointed city managers—such as Palo Alto—that have taken on climate issues. Why is that? By tracing how city administrations collaborate with each other, I was able to show that cities that are more central in an emerging global network of city professionals are more attuned to issues of urban sustainability. This suggests that policy makers and foundations should also encourage the inclusion of unlikely cities, including conservative and small ones, to change the mindset of city leaders everywhere.
Population Growth in Vienna, 1869-1923, Wienbibliothek
The work revealed a larger issue underlying the disparity of city action: while many cities have taken promising steps, the majority of places fails to take meaningful action. I found that inaction is not only a matter of a lack of political will and resources. It is the result of underdeveloped civic infrastructures and a dearth of places and organizations that enable people to meet, discuss common problems, and find solutions to these problems. Such civic capacity is often reflected in the strength of local nonprofit sectors, which I found to be strongly associated with city climate policies. Learning more about the interplay between cities and their nonprofit sectors has become one emphasis of a collaborative research project on the Civic Life of Cities, to which I continue to contribute.
At the University of Chicago, I will explore new ways to understand the conditions under which cities embrace responsibility. History has been accompanied by fluctuations in the autonomy and organizational capacity of cities. To understand where cities are headed during today’s illiberal political turn, I have begun investigating a city rising from a struggling nation in the past: Fin de Siècle Vienna. The TEC Austria Visitor Program allowed me to work with the library of the City of Vienna, which contains detailed records of the city’s administrative tasks since its founding. Using computational methods for the analysis of big text data, collaborators and I pinpoint the emergence of the modern city administration at the turn of the 20th century.
Model of the City of Vienna prior to 1848, Karl Lueger Platz
Then, Vienna’s anti-Semitic populist mayor inadvertently laid the groundwork for what became one of the world’s most progressive city administrations. We think that understanding how the city learned to serve its people in these challenging times may help us to illuminate where cities are headed as such issues as a deteriorating natural environment, class tensions, and disparate health outcomes are waiting for urban solutions once again.
Christof Brandtner (PhD in sociology, 2019) is a postdoctoral scholar in sociology at the University of Chicago and a postdoctoral fellow at the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. He conducts research in economic and environmental sociology, organizational theory, and the sociology of cities.