Title: Cultural Ecology, Neighborhood Vitality, and Social Wellbeing—A Philadelphia Project
Author(s): Mark Stern, Susan Seifert, Ira Goldstein, Scott Haag
Publisher: The Reinvestment Fund / Social Impact of the Arts Project, University of Pennsylvania
Topics: social wellbeing and the arts, creative placemaking, spatial disparities, social justice
Methods: relational analysis of extensive database of cultural assets and indicators of social wellbeing; theoretical and empirical work on composition of a social wellbeing index based on factor analysis; longitudinal analysis of changes in cultural asset concentrations between 1997 and 2010-12 including GIS mapping
What it says: “Cultural Ecology” is the latest milestone in Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP)’s now 20-year project to understand the cultural dynamics of American cities, particularly Philadelphia. This paper was commissioned as part of the launch of CultureBlocks, a massive online data aggregation tool built on top of The Reinvestment Fund (TRF)’s PolicyMap technology, and sought to integrate Stern and Seifert’s prior work on understanding cultural assets in Philadelphia with PolicyMap’s extensive access to data on community life. For “Cultural Ecology,” Stern and Seifert decided to experiment with a new theoretical approach to their work inspired by the so-called “capability approach” of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, as later refined by Sen and economist Joseph Stiglitz. The capability approach gives rise to Stern and Seifert’s definition of “social wellbeing,” a multifactor concept that bears resemblance to national indicator systems like the Human Development Index, and importantly represents a way out of the old debate about intrinsic vs. instrumental benefits of the arts. (If the arts are themselves a dimension of social wellbeing, then the distinction loses much of its salience.)
The first third of “Cultural Ecology” seeks to adapt this definition of social wellbeing to a neighborhood context, and in the process finds that many of the elements of the index (as filtered through various data proxies) are highly correlated with one another. Thus, Stern and Seifert end up combining some indices and breaking others up into subcomponents. Notably, income, education/human capital, and labor force participation end up becoming one blob-like “economic wellbeing” index that has tremendous explanatory power for many of the other factors of social wellbeing. The authors place cultural indicators within the broad domain of social connection, making a decision to separate arts and non-arts social connection indices to help them isolate culture’s role in overall wellbeing.
In the second part of the paper, the authors take a look at how social wellbeing is distributed across Philadelphia by analyzing (mostly) 2005-09 ACS data at the census tract level. They find that much of the city is awash in what they call “concentrated disadvantage,” areas that score poorly on nearly all elements of social wellbeing. Social wellbeing is also highly correlated with race, with majority black and Latino areas making up a large portion of those disadvantaged tracts. Cultural assets are not as much of a factor in social wellbeing as the authors seem to have expected, boasting a positive association with only reduced morbidity (chronic health conditions such as diabetes and obesity) after correcting for economic wellbeing and race. Overall, the authors fail to find strong correlations between the cultural asset index and the two sub-indices within social connection, face-to-face connection and institutional connection. In fact, cultural assets were associated with increased insecurity (crime) and social stress (teen pregnancy, child abuse, etc.), though this does not receive much discussion in the paper. Cultural assets did, however, have a statistically significant (albeit weak) predictive power for growth in per capita income between 2000 and 2005-09 after controlling for the tract’s previous economic standing and racial makeup, which implies that culture can impact social wellbeing as mediated through economic wellbeing.
In “Cultural Ecology”’s final act, Stern and Seifert examine Philadelphia’s cultural assets from a longitudinal perspective, looking at the changes between 1997 and 2010-12. They run regression analyses on factors such as educational attainment, per-capita income, household diversity, income diversity, and racial/ethnic composition to determine the driving forces for the individual components of the cultural asset index (i.e., nonprofits, commercial cultural firms, participation rates, and resident artists) as well as for the cultural asset index as a whole and its “corrected” variant which controls for socioeconomic status of the block group and its distance from Center City. They find a host of statistically significant results, but most of them have minimal explanatory power for the variance seen in changes to cultural asset concentrations. One of the most notable findings is that socioeconomic status had nearly double the explanatory power in the 2010-12 data compared to the 1997 data. Stern and Seifert also analyze the locations of organizations that have dropped off the map as well as new entities that they call “emerging”; these tend to be located in lower-income neighborhoods and so-called “market” districts, respectively, likewise suggesting a trend towards greater inequality in the distribution of cultural assets. The authors express concern about these findings, as they seem to indicate a reduction in the role of arts and cultural assets as social equalizer over the 15-year period under study. A concluding section makes an eloquent case for further investment of public and philanthropic resources to bolster cultural activity outside the areas where market activity is self-sustaining.
What I think about it: “Cultural Ecology” is a massive project, and its extensive scope makes it difficult to analyze as a single unit. As a theoretical exploration into an alternative way of conceptualizing the benefits of the arts, it is immensely compelling, neatly resolving (or, perhaps more accurately, sidestepping) the age-old intrinsic vs. instrumental debates by plugging the arts into what might be the most widely-adopted framework for social progress in existence. Even though it occupies less than a tenth of the paper’s total length, for that contribution alone “Cultural Ecology” is notable and worthy of celebration. The report becomes progressively less successful as it continues, however. Stern and Seifert’s efforts to convert Sen and Stiglitz’s capabilities to data are necessary for the exploration they wish to undertake, but the process requires some eyebrow-raising compromises such as combining data sources ranging as much as seven years apart in age (spanning a boom, a recession, and the subsequent recovery); zooming out to the census tract level, reducing comparability with their previous work; imputing job satisfaction from occupational percentages and GSS survey data; and so forth. Each of these compromises is defensible to one degree or another on its own terms, but taken together they significantly degrade the level of precision possible with this analysis, a poor fit given the highly quantitative approach taken by the authors. The data issues continue with the third portion of the paper, in which the authors face a major conundrum: their methods and data sources for cataloguing cultural assets have shifted between 1997 and 2012. As a result, they do not try to analyze raw growth or decrease in cultural assets across this period, instead looking at relative concentrations – yet it is entirely possible that these differences in methods may have affected not only the total number of assets counted, but also their distribution. Thus, it is necessary to take virtually all of the quantitative findings in the paper with a grain of salt, as suggestive rather than conclusive. On top of this, the lack of a clear hypothesis guiding the research leads to a lingering feeling of “so what?” as one reads the analysis. Indeed, it is not clear that the primary trend documented – towards greater concentration of cultural assets in neighborhoods that already have them – is anything new, although the correlation between economic wellbeing and cultural assets would be consistent with such a finding given increasing inequality generally.
What it all means: It’s important to recognize that there are multiple audiences for this paper who will likely get different things out of it. The descriptive GIS plots cataloguing winners and losers among Philadelphia neighborhoods on various dimensions of social wellbeing won’t be of much interest to a general audience, but they might be tremendously valuable to a Philadelphia policymaker. For Createquity’s purposes, “Cultural Ecology”’s most important takeaway is the integration of arts and culture into the capability approach within an urban environment, a theoretical breakthrough that holds great promise for future study. The authors’ unexpected finding that cultural assets are related to lower incidence of chronic illness (controlling for economic status) is also worth noting and could benefit from scrutiny in other contexts. Stern and Seifert’s call to action at the end – to pay attention to the less advantaged communities in a city – is as persuasive as always, though it’s the same message that they’ve been pushing for a while now. Indeed, while this paper has some problems not seen in Stern and Seifert’s earlier work, its shortcomings do not too greatly detract from what has to be considered one of the richest bodies of scholarship this field has seen to date.