The recent Princeton Forum on the Future of the City had one overarching theme: We are in the midst of an urban age. Numerous speakers quoted the oft-cited statistic that 2007 marked the year that more than 50% of the world’s population was living in cities. Digital technology, which was supposed to mark the ‘death of distance’ and make it possible to work from anywhere, is, in fact, proliferating in conjunction with an unprecedented urban concentration. “Instead of spreading out” stated urban economist Edward Glaeser “people are clustering in.”
One of the main reasons cities have become increasingly important is the productivity gains that come with tight proximity. When people share the same space, they tend to share knowledge as well. (This is why, as Glaeser pointed out, trading floors are so crowded. Though they are filled with people wealthy enough to afford large offices, what traders value most is the information that seeps through in high frequency face to face encounters). In addition to their, by now well reported, economic advantages, cities are better for one’s health (the massive urban/rural health gap extends far beyond China) and, paradoxically, ultimately, provide a ‘greener’ way of life (“if you love nature,” said Glaeser echoing an argument by David Owen, “it is best to stay away”).
Amongst the most compelling urban optimists speaking at the conference was Daniel Bell (whose advocacy of both Confucianism and cities makes him one of the more interesting thinkers in China today). Bell’s talk, which was based on his book The Spirit of Cities, began with the argument that there is a deep human need for an attachment to communities that is rooted in particularity. Throughout the 20th century, he maintained, this was tied to the nation state. Yet, while there isn’t a term for nationalism or patriotism on the urban scale (Bell uses a slightly clunky neologism ‘civicism’), the passion one feels towards one’s city, Bell contends, has many advantages over one’s attachment to the state. Cities are extremely effective and countering the homogenizing effects of globalization by actively promoting their own particular culture and style. (This often occurs through long time rivalries with other cities — nowhere more so than in the competition between Beijing and Shanghai). When countries do this they tend to support a narrow closed-mindedness that is often dangerous. Cities, on the other hand, can invest in their own particularities while still being open and cosmopolitan. They can powerfully promote their own singular ethos and style without threatening their links to the outside (partly, of course, because cities don’t go to war.)
Personally, I am highly sympathetic to the notion of an urban rather than national citizenship. Though I have no desire to be, nor will I ever be accepted, as Chinese, I am very comfortable identifying with my love for Shanghai. It seems to me, moreover, that an enthusiastic –even zealous – urbanism is one of the defining traits of contemporary culture worldwide. In my hometown of Hamilton, an old industrial center on the outskirts of Toronto, wildly different from the dynamic megacity of Shanghai, all my friends share an avid interest in urban politics and a passion for local culture. As a result Hamilton is experiencing a small but spirited Jane Jacobs style downtown revival. My brother, a popular musician, and part-owner of a downtown neighborhood bar is a passionate Hamiltonian. “This city has always been my muse,” he recently tweeted “my great love…” As Bell writes “city-zens of the world unite!”