Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How ‘Mesofacts’ — and Their Perception — Can Make or Break a City

It can take decades for slowly changing circumstances to alter the understanding of a region's strengths or weaknesses. That can have an impact on everything from revitalization to political discourse.

Pittsburgh's steelmaking reputation has continued long since the mills departed, leaving a cleaner, more beautiful city. (Shutterstock)
Remember "mesofacts"? You may have heard of the term; coined by the self-described "complexity scientist" Samuel Arbesman, it had a minor moment about 10 years ago. Simply put, mesofacts are facts that change slowly over time, as opposed to those that either change regularly, like the daily temperature, or not at all, like the measured length of an inch or a foot. As they relate to cities, which are always in various states of flux, the perception of mesofacts matters.

Another way to explain it is that mesofacts are facts that were once true but no longer are. Pittsburgh, for example, was for nearly a century a dominant steel-producing city, full of prosperous blue-collar workers and grit. But steel collapsed and Pittsburgh learned to rely on other assets, such as the robotics and biotech research coming out of its strong higher education institutions, to survive and recover. Pittsburgh shifted over time. But the city's perception as a blue-collar steel town, even among its public officials and residents, lasted much longer than its reality, and to its disadvantage.

Mesofacts can work in the opposite direction, too. Los Angeles was able to trade on its reputation as a place to live the California Dream long after its ability to fulfill it to the masses. People were drawn to the area for its weather and its wealth of opportunities in manufacturing, media and entertainment. While many transplants did make it, many more did not and Los Angeles became somewhat a victim of its own success. Decades of explosive population growth have ended. Its auto, aerospace and other industries have declined. Los Angeles County's homeless population is second only to New York City's. And a significant share of film and TV production has moved elsewhere in search of lower costs.

And how many Americans think the Cuyahoga River flowing through Cleveland still catches fire from flammable industrial pollutants? It hasn't happened since 1969. Today, Clevelanders eat fish caught in the river and stroll along a picturesque towpath riverwalk.


The Cuyahoga River on fire in 1952, one of 13 times the river was in flames. (Photo: Cleveland State University Library)

The slow transformations represented in mesofacts have their roots in changing technology as well as evolving political and cultural views, leading to broader economic change. In the case of cities and regions, a shift from a manufacturing economy to a service- or information-based economy favors some places over others, while technology can broaden the places where people choose to live. People move, bringing new thoughts and ideas with them.

Public officials, economic developers, urbanists and others should take particular note of how mesofacts contribute to the perception of place. Places are shaped by forces that are always changing, but our perceptions don't always keep up with the pace of change. Some cities ride the wave of a positive mesofact long after it can still be delivered, while others are stuck with negative, outdated mesofacts that act against revitalization.

Outdated mesofacts also contribute to political discourse and disinformation. This past summer, for example, President Trump implicitly employed a mesofact to drive up support against protesters in the aftermath of George Floyd's disturbing killing at the hands of Minneapolis police: Impoverished, racially mixed inner cities are surrounded by affluent, lily-white suburbs. His implication was that he needed to be re-elected to protect suburbia from urban dystopia.

The truth is that narrative has been changing for the last 30 years or more, so much so that the majority of people of color in America now live in suburbia. The fallacy of Trump's argument became clear during the 2020 presidential election, as we saw suburban Atlanta counties like Cobb and Gwinnett, once Republican strongholds, deliver strong majorities to Democrat Joe Biden, and earlier this month provide the winning margins for Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the Senate special elections. The suburbs of Atlanta are not what they used to be.

But that's exactly how mesofacts should be viewed. Things change, slowly but unalterably. Entering the 20th century, Atlanta was still reeling from the Civil War, Reconstruction and the advent of Jim Crow. No one anticipated that it would be at the forefront of the New South by the 1980s. Few believed its electoral power would rise to the point that it would flip a traditionally Republican state for the Democrats.

Recently, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote that Atlanta and Georgia's role in the 2020 election suggested that the South is now ripe for a Second Great Migration — a reversal of the last century's departure of millions of African Americans from the South — that could contribute to greater Black electoral power at the state and federal level. He may be right.

Doing so, however, assumes that the trends that brought Atlanta to this point are constant. It assumes that Atlanta and other Sun Belt cities have risen to their rightful place at the top of urban hierarchy, and will stay there. The way mesofacts operate suggests otherwise.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

A writer and researcher on urbanism and public policy
Special Projects