21st Century Cities Initiative hires new director Matthew Kahn

By JAKE LEFKOVITZ | September 5, 2019

The 21st Century Cities (21CC) Initiative, an on-campus center for students and faculty interested in using data to solve modern urban challenges, hired Matthew Kahn as its new director in June. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, the noted urban and environmental economist reflected on his life, career and goals for 21CC.

Kahn who is also a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of economics and business, discussed the fundamental approach he plans to take in his new leadership role.

“Earning the trust of urban politicians, piloting new ideas, doing a rigorous statistical evaluation of whether these projects work and then if they work, figuring out whether you can transplant them to other cities — this would be my game plan for improving urban governance and thus improving urban quality of life,” he said.

When asked what he is looking forward to now that he is at Hopkins, Kahn had several answers. 

First, he plans to dive back into some of the traditional work of urban economists: poverty and inequality. 

For this, he said, Baltimore City is a rich subject. He said that he looks forward to giving to a community that he sees as facing great challenges but also as facing new possibilities.

Kahn said that from what he has seen, he is confident that University President Ronald J. Daniels also takes the University’s relationship with Baltimore seriously. 

Growing up in the New York City of the early 1970s, he said he felt the chilling effects of the then-widespread perception that his city was not a safe one. He was not comfortable being out after dark. He says that in hindsight this led him to forego many valuable opportunities. 

This experience contributed to his current views on what determines a city’s quality of life. 

“It starts with street safety and with people who love the city spending time there, living there or visiting there,” he said. “This creates the base for pushing environmental laws and shopkeepers making investments.”

He argued that these positive developments, which reflect perceptions of street-level safety, create a virtuous cycle that drives opportunity and boosts quality of life. 

In addition, Kahn is eager to continue working at the intersection of urban economics and environmental economics. His upcoming book explores the obstacles that Baltimore and other cities will experience due to climate change. The thesis of all his work so far, he said, is that cities can spur economic growth by taking on beautification and greenification projects that make the city more appealing to skilled workers.

Kahn believes that American cities are not only engines of economic and cultural vitality, but also susceptible to difficult challenges which threaten that. As an undergraduate at Hamilton College, he found that economics was the discipline that helped him best to understand that balance.

He says that his own experience of using economics to grapple with these problems during his undergraduate years is what fuels Kahn’s excitement to bring undergraduate students into 21CC. 

Sidney Wertimer, his first undergraduate economics professor, enabled Kahn to understand what the political battles he was reading about in articles from The New York Times were really about. 

Kahn said that he will prioritize helping Hopkins undergraduate students to achieve their full potential in the same way that Wertimer did for him.

“At Hopkins, with the talent of our students, if I can get enough of you into the room, eating pizza and talking to each other, I’m very confident that very good ideas will emerge,” he said.

Aside from his upcoming course in urban economics planned for this spring semester, Kahn is most excited to explore the environment here at Hopkins and in Baltimore. 

“I’m always trying to learn, and I think I’m going to learn a heck of a lot at Hopkins,” he said. 

Kahn outlined several ways he plans to engage Hopkins undergraduates. One of his strategies is to directly hire them to work for 21CC. These students will be working on urban projects aimed at solving issues of quality of life and access to economic opportunity through big-data analysis. He also said that two Hopkins undergraduates have begun doing exactly this.

For students who might not be so inclined or are too busy — here Kahn offered that he himself had flunked out of his pre-medical program in college — there will be lectures given on campus by Nobel Laureates and other superstar lecturers.

Finally, Kahn stated that 21CC will act as a matchmaker for Hopkins students looking for high-quality urban policy-focused internships and think tanks and city governments along the East Coast looking for bright and motivated workers.

In collaboration with other divisions, like the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence and the Carey Business School, Kahn envisions 21CC making a difference not just in Baltimore, but in localities all across the U.S. and beyond. 

“There’s really the opportunity at Hopkins, when we identify what works, to spread the word and create a kind of multiplier effect,” he said.

Kahn went on to define his primary goal as 21CC director.

“One of the criteria I’d like to judge my 21CC on is, ‘Does it help Hopkins to be a better neighbor in Baltimore?’” he said.

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