Goodbye to the Ideas Man for American Cities

Bill Barnes, Who Died Last Week, Strengthened and Deepened a 'Republic of Conversations'

Goodbye to the Ideas Man for American Cities | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

In his work, Bill Barnes focused on "tangible impacts, not just utopian visions." Image courtesy of author

When we think of ideas that change our lives, we often think of a great genius, a single discovery, a major technological breakthrough. But often the greater role is played by thinkers who bring others together to share ideas, learn, and innovate together.

That is why Bill Barnes, who died last week at age 77, was one of the most influential thinkers about cities and local democracy of the past 40 years. Barnes believed in the power of ideas, and he made them more powerful by creating spaces for people to absorb, criticize, assess, and—on occasion—make fun of them.

In his work as research director for the National League of Cities (NLC), the country’s largest association for local elected officials, Barnes wrote about regional governance, urban policy, municipal finance, and public engagement. He produced his own books, articles, and reports on these topics, but his ability to facilitate other people’s thinking may have been even more important than his own writing. At conferences and in many other settings, he convened hundreds of opportunities for local officials to learn from and with each other.

Barnes called all this exchange a “republic of conversations” among people who care about cities. As it unfolded over several decades it had a profound influence on urban leadership and scholarship. Through the 1990s and early 2000s it propelled regionalism—the idea that metropolitan regions (not just cities, suburbs, and states divided by purely political boundaries) are the fundamental units of our economy.

Thinking regionally has helped officials develop more effective approaches to economic development; it has also helped them more effectively address racial and economic inequities through changes related to housing, human services, and public transit. The FasTracks light- and commuter-rail system in Denver is one high-profile example of regional planning in action; the region-wide land use and development plan for Greater Kalamazoo, Michigan, is one where Barnes played an even more important role.

In recent years, Barnes continued to promote regionalism not as a cheerleader but as a humble, constructive critic. “Regionalism is a means, not an end; it’s a question, not the answer to everything,” he wrote.

Public engagement in local democracy became a key topic of Barnes’ republic of conversations in throughout the 2000s and 2010s. He called it “democratic governance”—better ongoing ways for city officials, staff, and residents to make decisions and solve problems together. The City Futures Panel on Democratic Governance Barnes convened included 30 local officials who explored new methods for public deliberation and collaboration. They also chartered research, tried new tools and practices, and met with the public to understand what kinds of democracy citizens wanted.

At one such meeting, in a suburb of Denver, a resident pointed out that most public meetings—where officials sit on a dais and follow the hidebound Robert’s Rules of Order—reinforce a condescending “parent-child relationship” between government and citizens. The image not only illustrated the aging 20-century dynamic that the panel members were reacting against, it also helped them to visualize more productive and respectful forms of democracy. Ideas like participatory budgeting, a Brazilian innovation that engages citizens in deciding how public funds should be spent, came to America in part through the meetings of the panel. It is now a city-wide process in New York City.

The republic of conversations Barnes convened didn’t just take place in conferences and city halls.

This was not just an intellectual shift. It was an emotional one, as Barnes well knew. Particularly for mayors and city councilmembers, who often come to office thinking that they have been picked to make all the decisions, dealing with angry citizens can be a humbling, infuriating, and soul-searching process. Working with Barnes, members shared their experiences, venting to one another and sometimes wondering aloud why they went into public service in the first place. Then, with that behind them, they could focus on ways to address the problems at hand and rethink local democracy.

As they did so, Barnes kept them focused on tangible impacts, not just utopian visions. “That is the key driver of all this change,” he wrote. “People who care about their community are looking for ways to solve problems and seize opportunities, and the shared power of the citizen/government relationship is crucial to their ability to do that.”

Barnes’s vision of local democracy was, therefore, grounded in the day-to-day life of residents—democratic governance had to be something they valued, that they enjoyed, that met their needs. “Public engagement is not a separate thing; it is not a one-time event,” he wrote. “It is ways of thinking and ways of doing the governance you need to do to make your community better.”

The republic of conversations Barnes convened didn’t just take place in conferences and city halls. Barnes’ house in Northwest DC was a welcoming space for officials, professors, high school students, city staffers, and civic innovators of all kinds, bringing their big ideas for a new paper, a new reform, a new book.

Barnes’s wife, Eva Dömötör, was an enthusiastic participant and valuable foil in these discussions. Over dinner, husband and wife would subject their guests to friendly, thoughtful, and relentless interrogation about their work. They were endlessly convivial and always challenging, and you knew that if your big idea survived dinner with Bill and Eva, you might actually have something.

In my case, dinner table conversations with them helped me figure out how to tell stories about new forms of democracy—the subject of my first book—in ways that allowed me to strike a delicate balance between assessing the ideas critically while also praising local leaders as they implemented them. Barnes and Eva also assisted in finding the historical perspective that Syracuse scholar Tina Nabatchi and I used in Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy, to provide a more contextual and even-handed description of the clash between older institutions and a new generation of citizens. Barnes was right: new ideas sometimes solve difficult problems—and when they do, they usually create challenging new problems.

Barnes was also a role model in bringing a racial equity and justice conversation to NLC. That now seems commonplace in many organizations, but it was fairly unusual in associations and gatherings of city leaders in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Barnes brought local officials and staff together with researchers and advocates from outside government. Long before “white ally” became a common term, Barnes talked about the role of white people (males in particular) as partners in the pursuit of racial justice. Clarksburg (WV) city councilman Jim Hunt, who served as NLC president in 2006, launched a nationwide “Partnership for Inclusive Communities” that grew to include more than 100 cities.

Barnes also leavened ideas with humor. Though he looked the part of a serious intellectual, complete with graying beard and pipe, he loved ridiculous puns that made people groan. Once, when a discussion had arrived at what seemed to be a significant paradigm shift, Barnes leapt to the whiteboard to draw two circles, the number 10 in each, and a big arrow.

This kind of irreverent attitude helped people appraise ideas without glorifying them. In one essay on the great urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Barnes urged readers to not to be paeans to Jacobs, but rather to test and appraise her ideas. Barnes advocated “studies that follow Jacobs’ advice: closely observed, fearless studies of the way things do or don’t function on the ground in big cities and also in towns, suburbs and little cities, and regions. We don’t need acolytes of Jane Jacobs; we need people who will think as hard and as well as she did about ‘the kind of problem a city is.’”

Barnes was a lifelong Washingtonian, whose primary focus was on cities and towns outside the Beltway. His attitude toward intellectual life was fundamentally egalitarian and democratic, and it seemed refreshingly unusual in a city that often seems to worship expertise and meritocracy rather than what ordinary people think or say.

In city halls and at his dinner table, Barnes treated citizens as adults, and people as intellectuals. He coaxed them toward paradigm shifts, and teased them with pairs of dimes, shifting. In times of polarization, disrespect, and mistrust, this style of leadership is more valuable than ever. In remembering Bill Barnes, let us strengthen and deepen our republic of conversations.


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