Civic Life of Cities Lab


The Civic Life of Cities Lab (CLCL) distinguishes itself by analyzing samples of nonprofit organizations in five global cities and comparing insights by city. This research will contribute to the nonprofit sector and its interaction with urban society, particularly given that comparative research of this kind is virtually unknown. Country comparisons are common in the social sector, but few provide side-by-side comparisons of cities. In addition, much of the existing research on the nonprofit sector is derived from qualitative studies of special cases or surveys of large, select organizations.

The research team will employ a comprehensive approach in studying the five cities and the organizations in them by using qualitative and quantitative techniques. The team will draw representative random samples from tax records of the nonprofit sector in each city, and administer a single survey across five cities with common modules on leadership, staffing, decision making, collaboration, advocacy, funding, impact, performance, digital practices, and community integration. Leadership of organizations will also be interviewed to build a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of an organization’s work.  

Cross-city comparative work of this scale and structure requires extensive collaboration with the global research team. Researchers from Stanford, the University of Washington, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of New South Wales, the University of Technology – Sydney, and Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien will collaborate over the next three years to complete this project.

Focus on Cities

Above is the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, rising in stark contrast to a homeless encampment in field towards the center of the image. This is a striking example of the economic inequality that exists, and that civil society organizations address, across cities worldwide.

Cities play a critical role in the governance of society.

Cities are the regional sites of economic productivity and innovation. They are where citizens experience global problems most personally (e.g., immigration, climate change, the gains and disruptions of the new economy), and engage local governments in collective pursuit of (local) solutions. Cities sign multilateral treaties to reduce carbon emissions and collaborate with other cities to learn about sustainability solutions. City governments attempt to handle refugee crises and become sanctuary cities, even when their national states are inhospitable.

Considering the important role cities play in the social sector, little is known about the civic life of cities, outside of a few select studies of metropolitan communities. We conduct comparative cross-city research to shed light about the consequences of civic associational life for the vitality of urban areas.

CLCL focuses on five cities – the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle (the Puget Sound Region, including Tacoma and Olympia), Shenzhen, China, Sydney, Australia, and Vienna, Austria.  These cities provide a unique landscape for the study. They are places where people migrate to and then have to deal with a constant influx of people.  San Francisco and Shenzhen are tech centers; Seattle and San Francisco are liberal west coast cities, Vienna and Sydney are in nations with strong social safety nets.

San Francisco has recently taken an aggressive approach to removing tent camps in the city, cutting the total number of tents in half since 2016. This approach may be a preview of a similar strategy in Seattle (pictured above) as Mayor Jenny Durkan has faced increasing pressure to address growing homelessness. In 2018, the city has already cleared more homeless encampments than it did in the whole of 2017 (220 currently to the 191 camps cleared last year). 

These cities are consequential “lifestyle” cities, noted for their quality of life, attention to public health issues, citizen involvement, and innovation. Although none are world financial capitals, such as Hong Kong, London or New York, they are all in the forefront of global rankings. Seattle, Sydney and Vienna are leaders in environmental sustainability. From its humble beginning as a fishing village, Shenzhen is now a mega-city, founded under China’s open door policy in 1978. Shenzhen was unique in its inception as a special economic zone, and the first city in China to adopt western urban development practices. It is now a hub for technology development and is known as China’s Silicon Valley. The independent and comparative analyses of these cities promises a rich perspective into the complex relationships between nonprofit organizations and their urban environments.