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The Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation Could Be a Big Deal

The forthcoming addition to the University of Chicago promises an interdisciplinary approach to solving cities’ problems.

Joe Mansueto in 2012   Photo: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

Yesterday the University of Chicago announced that it was receiving $35 million from Morningstar founder Joe Mansueto and his wife, Rika, to start something called the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. The name suggests a broad mandate, but here’s the key takeaway from the Tribune’s story:

The Mansueto Institute will join scholars of varying expertise to explore facets of urbanization such as health care, housing and violence. Researchers from the humanities, as well as social, natural and computational sciences are expected to collaborate in the work.

We don’t know yet what exactly the Mansuetos’ donation will fund, but here are some of the various, interconnected fields where the U. of C. is already doing promising work:

Becoming a Man

This program, which applies the principles of cognitive-behavioral intervention—literally teaching kids how to think slowly—was designed by an organization called Youth Guidance. Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab tested it and found that it had the intended direct effects (the students took longer to make decisions) and, more important, the intended second-order effects: reduced likelihood of committing violent crimes and better grades in school.

Attention Restoration Theory

In 2015 I wrote about the research of Marc Berman, a University of Chicago psychologist who is examining what about the external environment that our brain recognizes as “natural,” the kind of work that could have implications for how we shape the urban environment for our benefit. It’s a good example of how a couple of the Mansueto Institute’s themes collide. Some of the foundational work in that field focused on public housing in Chicago, finding that the presence of vegetation reduced crime rates and levels of stress and aggression. The theory also has implications for how schools are designed.

30 Million Words

Dana Suskind’s work as a cochlear-implant surgeon led to her realization that children who were hearing fewer words at home as babies and toddlers were falling well behind their peers before their schooling even began. In addition, the types of words they heard, from number words and shape words to positive and negative words, could also make a significant difference. She’s now running a five-year study with 200 Head Start families, expanding a successful control trial into an examination of how talking and reading programs could effect executive function and socio-emotional development.

Violence Networks

Andrew Papachristos, a Yale sociologist who got his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and worked as a research affiliate at the Crime Lab, looked at criminals within “co-offending networks,” social networks constructed by examining people who had been arrested together. Being part of one of those networks, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to a much greater risk of being a gunshot victim. But even if it is unsurprising, it gives scope to the problem, and suggests tools for identifying those at highest risk—who could be targeted for interventions.

Summer Jobs and Violent Crime

Sara Heller, now at the University of Pennsylvania, was not just the lead author on the Becoming a Man study; she also studied the effects of One Summer Plus, a jobs program for students at high-violence high schools who, on average, tended to be at-risk, with low grades and attendance problems. Like Becoming a Man, it too reduced arrest rates, in this case for violent crime.

PTSD and the Gut Microbiome

One of the newest projects coming out of the university is a study funded by the White House’s Precision Medicine Initiative that will focus on “urban minorities, based on preliminary evidence that PTSD susceptibility is linked to early-life environmental exposures related to the establishment of the gut microbiome.” It might sound daft, but the connection between the gut and brain—the “gut-brain axis”—is one of the most promising fields in the study of mental health right now.

 

Awhile back I spoke to another University of Chicago researcher—anthropologist Laurence Ralph, who did his Ph.D. work at the university and is now at Harvard—about his three years studying violence, trauma, and community, and asked him the dumb question journalists like me ask scholars like him: so, what do we do?

His answer: “lots of things that promise modest results.” And that’s what all of the above do. All these disciplines also interconnect. Stress, for example, is at the heart of the gut microbiome work, but also of attention restoration theory and cognitive-behavioral therapy. And it leads to one theory for why children in poor families hear fewer words and more negative ones: talking to children is exhausting, and poor neighborhoods tend to have more dangers that children have to be warned about.

So Ralph was suggesting we surround the problem with lots of ideas—and to surround the problem, you have to build webs between the solutions.

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