Category Archives: Reviews and Reactions

Snapshots of City Life: Our Top Reads

We at Common Place read many articles this year on issues facing our cities and communities. Here are some of our favorite reads, in no particular order.

“5 Key Themes Emerging From the ‘New Science of Cities,'” Michael Mehaffy
What exactly is a city? According to Citylab journalist Michael Mehaffy, “a remarkable body of scientific research has begun to shed new light on the dynamic behavior of cities, carrying important implications for city-makers.” That is, “cities are complex, adaptive systems with their own characteristic dynamics, and—if they are going to perform well from a human point of view—they need to be dealt with as such.” By emphasizing concepts such as connectivity and human scale, this new approach to the urban environment will change not only the way cities are conceptualized, but also how they are assessed as healthy and vibrant.

“The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats,” Nick Hanauer
Though not city-focused, this article from “zillionaire” Nick Hanauer does touch on many themes pertinent to urban communities—wages, jobs, and demographic insularity or “skyboxification.” The stratification of communities (explored here on Common Place) is a worrying trend, as it can exacerbate class divisions and power imbalances. Hanauer is concerned about these trends and offers some prescriptions, but will his fellow rich care?

“Liberalism and Gentrification,” Gavin Mueller
There have been many articles this year devoted to covering gentrification; yet none have attracted the attention Gavin Mueller’s piece did. Strongly polemical, passionately written, and at times overly simplistic, Mueller’s take on gentrification begins with Janes Jacobs and ends with an attack on liberalism, capitalism, and how those forces are destroying Washington, D.C.: “It’s important to understand what’s going on [in D.C]. A powerful capitalist class of bankers, real-estate developers, and investors is driving gentrification, using a mixture of huge loans (to which only they have access) and government funding to push land values higher.” However one feels about Mueller’s take, cities will need to understand and confront the complexities of gentrification.

“Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young?,” Claire Cain Miller
Not many cities have the cultural cachet of Portland, Oregon. With a relatively low cost of living, an abundance of natural beauty, an educated population, and a much-celebrated (or satirized) urban culture, Portland has become the ideal city. Claire Cain Miller set off a debate when she questioned the economic sustainability and wisdom of Portland’s lauded bohemian-esque vibe—even Thriving Cities’ own Tom Krattenmaker weighed in.

“Young and Restless: How is Your City Doing?”
Published in October, this report by City Observatory highlights several cities that experienced population growth from millennials. When they move into cities, millennials bring higher levels of income, creativity, technological familiarity, and social tolerance. Though there are legitimate worries about this influx of young folks, cities should be doing what they can to welcome America’s largest generation.

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There Goes the Neighborhood

First published as an article in 1995, Robert Putnam’s famous book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Communitysolidified many Americans’ concern about the disappearance of community life. Nearly 20 years later, this worry has only increased, as other scholars—Charles Murray, Claude Fischer, Bill Bishop, and Theda Skocpol—have continued to document this social trend.

vanishing neighborMarc Dunkelman’s The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community is the latest iteration of this ongoing dialogue. At the core of Dunkelman’s transformation thesis is the subtle hollowing-out of the “middle-ring” relationships that historically defined American social life. These relationships according to Dunkelman:

are defined by a familiarity that allows acquaintances to carry on conversations about personal subjects even if they aren’t entirely private. They represent, in essence, the people with whom an individual is familiar but not intimate, friendly but not close.

Dunkelman begins with that essential early reporter of American life, Tocqueville, who first noticed how relationships formed the basic structure of the American township: “municipalities were integrated units determined not by a remote central authority, but by the realities of everyday life.” People of all stripes knew one another. They shared common practices and formed civic associations unaided by the state. And they built their social and political institutions on these relationships. This “bottom up” social architecture soon became the bedrock of American society.

Even as America urbanized in the early twentieth century, middle-ring relationships still formed much of the social fabric, despite the fears of urban sociologists. As observed by Jane Jacobs in the 1950s, the daily interaction and relationships between neighbors formed the basis of thriving communities. Not surprisingly, Jacobs argued for a built environment predicated on diversity in its functions and social arrangements as a model facilitating the greatest potential for middle-ring relationships.

Despite challenges such as rapid industrialization, this social arrangement persisted in American life, but, as scholars and writers have for the past two decades noted, community cohesion is in decline. Conservatives point to the growth of the state or the erosion of religion. Liberals blame the market or rising inequality. Although Dunkelman sees legitimacy in both claims, for him, the thinning of middle-ring relationships lies mostly in the thickening of what he terms “inner-ring” relationships:

The prima facie evidence suggests first that Americans have chosen to invest more time in the inner rings. Desperate for affirmation, and equipped with new tools to keep in touch with a few prized connections, we’ve chosen to double down on the small group of people [close friends and family] we hold most dear.

At the same time, Dunkelman argues, there has been an explosion and intensification of “outer-ring” connections, or “relationships that connect individuals on nothing more than a single plane of interest.” The factors for this shift include the proliferation of mobile and communication technologies, which make it easier to stay connected with friends and family as well as to find like-minded groups online. In addition, outer-ring relationships have increased with the growth of surburbia and the sorting out of American society into distinct socio-economic enclaves. Even the way we organize social movements has changed:

In lieu of forming semiautonomous local chapters, national groups now more embraced a hub-and-spoke model, where organizers headquartered in Washington or elsewhere would reach out directly to members. The one-time supposition that members would attend a regularly scheduled tea was replaced by the request that members send donations designed to fund the work of professional staffers, who would then carry the banner.

Small town evening (4691861030)

Small Kansas town in the evening.

For Dunkelman, “Because we all have a limited amount of time and attention, social capital invested in one ring generally requires divestment from another.” In other words, “What limited time and energy Americans have today is devoted to our most intimate relations and a set of much more one-dimensional connections.” The verdict then is clear:  “The township, in essence, is dying.” The upshot of all these changes is that, despite an increase in diversity, Americans now seek out and spend more time with people similar to themselves. This new reality has profound consequences for our economy, politics, and society.

With the thinning out of middle-ring relations, certain rhythms of social life change. Historically, as Dunkelman shows, these rhythms facilitated advantages throughout society. In economic areas, these connections spurred creativity and innovation, as well as helping communities weather economic turmoil by “giving residents—or, at least many of them—the wherewithal to transition into a new industry and a new career.”

Politically, the dearth of middle-ring relationships hurts our democracy. For Dunkelman, the problem is not that people are more ideologically polarized. Rather, they no longer see compromise as a political good: “Those on the other side of any given issue now are not only wrong, they’re almost alien.”

Dunkelman also points out that even though certain groups may have been excluded from American social life in the past, middle-ring structures tended to bring people together. Once certain social activities and places were opened to all, people from different races, ethnicities, and classes mixed in a variety of social activities from schools to churches to public entertainment.

The temptation to nostalgia may be strong as one reads this book, but Dunkelman does not encourage this interpretation, urging instead a recognition that things have changed and that there is an urgent need to move forward. For Dunkelman, America is transitioning from a township society to networked one. There are still strong communities, but today many are now being defined by “loosely connected contacts, born from farther-out connections.” As with any sweeping social change, there are trade-offs. With more far-reaching connections, we have the freedom and ability to meet people from all over the world, and we tend to grow more tolerant and curious. “Townships weren’t just seedbeds for mutual understanding,” writes Dunkelman, “they also cultivated the prejudice and division that has plagued American history.”

Throughout, Dunkelman bases his argument on the fact that “social capital invested in one ring generally requires divestment from another.” Yet, as Robert Putnam argues:

Too often, without really thinking about it, we assume that bridging social capital and bonding social capital are inversely correlated in a kind of zero-sum relationship: if I have lots of bonding ties, I must have few bridging ties, and vice versa. As an empirical matter, I believe that assumption is often false. In other words, high bonding might well be compatible with high bridging, and low bonding with low bridging. In the United States, for example, whites who have more non-white friends also have more white friends.

Whether Putnam is right or wrong, this critique does raise important questions about the cause of these changes. Although Dunkelman chronicles several seismic factors, he largely ignores how new forms of capitalism and technocratic public policy have contributed to the weakening of traditional communities.

In addition, Dunkelman neglects the underlying beliefs and symbols—a common civil religion as well as a shared sense of the American destiny—that undergirded our middle-ring relationships at the birth of our republic. Today, the struggle over community is not simply a matter of technological or structural change, but real differences surrounding our substantive conceptions of what is good and right.

Still, Dunkelman accurately observes how the decrease of middle-ring relationships is deeply intertwined with the tensions that many feel about contemporary life:

It feels as though things are falling apart because institutions built for township society don’t work without middle rings. The networked society that’s emerged is still searching for ways to exploit the advantages of stronger inner- and outer-ring ties.

In the end, Dunkelman is cautiously optimistic. We may not be able to go back (nor, as many argue, should we), but we can go forward, harnessing the creative power of new kinds of relationships. Whether that is enough—or even the answer—remains to be seen. At the very least, Dunkelman’s book is helpful, clarifying much about the changing dynamics of American community. Presenting his expertise and familiarity with social capital scholarship in a coherent and readable narrative makes this book a worthwhile and timely read.

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Was there ever a truly natural city? The Byzantines thought so.

Constantinople mural, Istanbul Archaeological Museums; Wikimedia Commons

A medieval mural in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums depicting the seaward walls of the Byzantine capital; Wikimedia Commons

In an age that emphasizes sustainable urbanization and green growth in cities across the globe, it makes sense to look to the past to see if human beings have ever really attempted, much less achieved, a truly “natural” city—one in which the human and the natural were connected so that both would thrive. As it turns out, new research suggests that Constantinople may have been such a city, at least in the aspirations of its inhabitants.

From ancient times, the Greeks believed humans could achieve their full potential only within the context of a city, and perhaps no city built by Greeks more fully reflected their ideal of the polis as the crucial element of paideia (the formation or education of the citizen) than Constantinople. The heart and soul of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was the nexus of East and West, Empire and Church, heaven and earth, man and nature, the old and the new. Even after the Muslim Turks conquered the city in 1453 and up to the present, Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, has been a bridge between two worlds, whether it is Europe and Asia, the Islamic world and the West, or the modern and the traditional. Although the Byzantine capital ceased to exist more than five centuries ago, the legacy and spirit of Byzantium have continued and may even have important lessons for city dwellers today.

In The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible,  Bruce Foltz asks whether Constantinople was in fact such a “natural city.” Foltz, a professor of philosophy at Eckerd College, examines not just the built environment and the civic structures put in place by the Byzantines, but also the deeper cultural and philosophical systems that formed  their vision of what a city should be. Constantinople, he points out, was founded as a “sacred city” that celebrated the connections among the divine, human, and natural realms as an integrated whole. Foltz says that for Byzantine Christians,

[T]he Fall is a disorder of the whole cosmos…[and] redemption…[is] a restoration of humanity and nature alike…returning them to their paradisiacal state….Humanity [is to be]…that being through which the divine image within all creation becomes fully realized, the nodal point through which creation apprehends and consecrates its own inner divinity.

For Orthodox believers, there was an intimate connection between man and nature expressed and experienced not just on the individual or even communal level but also through the imperial city itself. Constantinople, the golden city, shone as the beacon and the paradigm for those living throughout the Byzantine realm and beyond.

Contemporary view of Hagia Sophia; photo by Murat Taner; #166989598 /


The focal point of Constantinople was Hagia Sophia, Church of the Divine Wisdom, considered by many to be one of the great wonders of the world because of its scale, complexity, and beauty. The function of this architectural wonder was to symbolize the Byzantine understanding of the relationship among God, man, and nature, and to reveal their coming together in space and time. As  Foltz describes it,

The Divine Wisdom is the eternal Logos, seen as shaping the cosmos and holding it together. It is thus also the inner logos of each being that, when fully realized, joins it to the whole in a love that must be understood ontologically.… The Great Church of the Divine Wisdom, then, itself serves to bring together all elements of the cosmos in a transfigured form, making manifest the inner glow of their divine beauty.

Chora Church/Museum, Istanbul,fresco,Anastasis, by Gunnar Back Pedersen, Wikimedia Commons

Anastasis, or Resurrection of Christ, icon from the funerary chapel at Choral Church, an outstanding example of Byzantine architecture and iconography in Istanbul; Wikimedia Commons

When the citizens of Constantinople came together in worship, they entered a space intended to bring together heaven and earth, and they  prayed “on behalf of all [living things] and for all.” Their liturgies were not only for the spiritual edification of individuals in the congregation but also for the renewal of a vision of the natural order, indeed of the entire cosmos, as something sacred, a gift from God given to mankind to treasure and protect. It was a bringing together of both present time and the future Kingdom of God in which humans and all of nature would reach their fullest potential in the image of the divine. Byzantine worship, through its mystical music and elaborate symbolism, also depicted the city as Heavenly Jerusalem, one that the earthly city of Constantinople was to emulate and that Byzantine rulers and citizens alike should strive to achieve. The belief was that a strong, vibrant, and (to the extent possible in this fallen world) “holy” Constantinople, a truly “natural” city, could link humans and nature, the divided races of man, and Heaven and Earth.

The practical ramifications of this ideal play out in a number of ways. For example, historians Stephen Barthel and Christian Isendahl have demonstrated that Constantinople’s urban gardens, agriculture, and water management systems were more efficient than those of many modern cities, in large part because of “the close connection between urban people and their life-support systems,” a concept which they argue must be reignited among urban dwellers today.

There were multiple reasons why this grand urban experiment eventually came to an end, as Steven Runciman and Donald Nicol have chronicled so well in their now-classic works on the subject. The Constantinopolitan model for a city may also be a hard sell in today’s world, particularly in the secularized West where the Byzantine concept of symphonia—a system in which  political and religious leaders work in unity to provide the material and spiritual needs of the people—is rejected outright. Still, to the extent that it can serve as a model of a natural city, Constantinople remains a useful paradigm for us today. Foltz may be right when he concludes that:

Byzantium may nevertheless remain for us in the West, heirs to both Athens and Jerusalem, the exemplary bridge between the secular and the sacred, the temporal and the eternal, between the visible and invisible: the once and future natural city.

The true lesson of the Byzantines, so crucial to us today, is their understanding of the connection between mankind and nature. We can learn from Constantinople that the world around us is composed of living things, not just dead matter for us to take and exploit to make products that we then set before ourselves in an elusive search for meaning and happiness.

Andrew Sharp is Research Scholar at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, where he serves as the Thriving Cities Project Manager, and Affiliate Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. His publications are in the areas Eastern Christianity, Islam, and Muslim-Christian relations and his book is Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age (Brill, 2012).

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Cities, Water, and the Fabric of Sustainability

Much of what we enjoy about modern living, especially modern urban living, is the transformation of once-laborious tasks, such as collecting drinking water or discarding trash, into simpler—largely thoughtless—routines. Having replaced the communal well with individual faucets, it is that much easier to distance ourselves from the larger natural ecosystem. Yet, environmentalists have sought to dispel that temptation by constantly pointing to the inseparable intricacies of water, air, and soil and how these elements bind together cities and their environs. As William Cronon in his book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, points out:

Each new improvement [for the city means] a shift in the regional geography—a dredged harbor here, a canal or road there— so the advantages sustaining the city [come] to have an ever larger human component. A kind of “second nature,” designed by and “improved” toward human ends, gradually [emerges] atop the original landscape—“first nature.”

Last week, the New York Times featured a video short on New York City’s water supply. “A Billions Gallons a Day” wonderfully highlighted not only why it is important to maintain a sound urban infrastructure, but also how the needs of cities are interwoven into the fabric of their surroundings. And with the world’s population rapidly moving to cities, sustainability issues such as energy, water, and food, will increasingly be urban concerns.

Recognizing that our urban projects and amenities are always implicated in the larger natural world should drive us to build and use with care—something that “A Billion Gallons a Day” reveals can certainly be done.

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Schools and Local Government: The Best and Worst of Us


Last month, Jonathan Chait wrote an article for New York Magazine titled “Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments.” Chait argued that, contrary to certain received political ideas, local governments are often more intrusive, arbitrary, and ineffective than their state and federal versions. Worries people typically have about big, centralized governments, might be better directed at relatively small organizations, covering a tiny geographic area, and serving few people—the cities, counties, and school districts that make up local government in America. He has a point. From economic protectionism to police brutality to plain old corruption, small governments get into a lot of big brotherish kind of trouble. Bad government is not always big government.

There are, however, a few points to be made in favor of these smaller governing bodies.

First, if local government is sometimes bad, the alternative is not always better. One advantage of a city government or a school board is that their responsibilities are relatively clear when you elect them and when you want to complain. When authority is shifted away from these bodies, it rarely goes directly to a state or federal agency, but to a regional hybrid of appointed commissions and boards with a mix of local elected officials from the region. This system of regional boards dilutes and confuses responsibility, distancing voters from decisions through bureaucratic complexity as much as physical space. You might not know your senator or your city councillor, but you may know both better than your regional transportation board representative.

Second, local governance is more effective than the stories of failure would suggest. Take school districts, for example, and their widely ranging sizes. In one sense, school districts are all “local,” in that they have specific boundaries and elected representatives who live in the district. However, local also tends to imply small or at least at the scale of community identity (not Los Angeles). Districts are a great testing ground for questions of scale. For one thing, they vary so much in size, from a district of a single school with a few dozen students to, for example, Los Angeles Unified, a massive operation with a student population larger than the total populations of some small states. For another, the appropriate scale of school governance has been a topic of practical and academic interest for decades. Finally, the data on the performance of schools, while not perfect, is far better than in any other area of local government.

In theory, the advantages of size in school districts are obvious. A school system that buys and manages more of everything—buses, cafeterias, curricula—can specialize and make improvements in each area. A big system can accommodate students and teachers with niche interests in languages, trades, or musical instruments. Large school districts promise efficiency, opportunities, and insulation from small-town politics.

In fact, however, bigger is not better. Studies consistently find that districts become less effective beyond a relatively modest size of 5,000–10,000 students. Size is not the only factor, of course, but all else being equal, students in large districts perform worse on standardized tests and have lower attendance, and the parents of these students are less satisfied. In short, large districts tend to experience diseconomies of scale—they are actually less efficient in the delivering the same services.

Size has its own challenges. Coordinating the work of so many employees is difficult and costly.  It also becomes more difficult to cultivate empathy, loyalty, and commitment from parents and other community members. As economist William Fischel argues in Making the Grade, school systems breed political engagement and social capital. School districts provide civic education to parents, and smaller districts seem to do this better.

A third point is less in favor of local government and more about the inevitably of our attachment to it. As Chait acknowledges the “myth of localism is rooted deep in our political psyche.” Our attachment to localism is not ultimately about effectiveness, and it is probably not something we can shake easily, rooted as it is in our tradition of local self-governance. When conditions allow, we regard having authority over our own affairs as right and good. Sometimes, we prove incapable of doing that.

The failures of local governments are neither universal nor random. They stem from deeper economic and social problems. Financial crises, political drama, and a general lack of accountability to an informed public are symptoms of deeper issues. In isolated cases, we can bring in outside agencies to help stave off the worst results of that failure. But we should hope that the need for this does not become the rule. We need small government to govern well because there is no structural solution to a democratic people that cannot govern themselves.

David Franz, Director of the Shafter Education Partnership for the city of Shafter, California,  is a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

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Snapshots of City Life: Music, Commuter Cycling, and Other Stories

Gathered from around the web, these articles should interest every Common Place reader. Though each story touches on different facets of city life—music, urban farm stands, and biking— they highlight different questions and challenges related to urban thriving.

How a Tiny Record Label Jump-Started One Midwestern City’s Arts Economy

A city’s music scene oftentimes refers to its smoky dive bars,  screaming concert halls, or even the local bands eager to breakout. Yet, the indie record label, Asthmatic Kitten, has been quietly transforming the way Indianapolis engages its musicians. In addition to creating creating local venues for artists, Asthmatic Kitten’s manager, Michael Kaufmann, helped establish a city music council. “Made up of a diverse cross-section of music professionals,” journalist Michael Seman explains that “the council includes representatives from local blogs, indie labels, the chamber of commerce, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and educational institutions. Its goal is to influence city policies that might foster growth for the music scene while also developing the city’s creative economy.” Music not only brings together crowds for concerts, but also, as this article details, brings together urban leaders for the good of the city.

To Cool Cities, Build Them Tall and Shiny

As the world continues to warm, the city with its jungle of concrete and steel is particularly susceptible. This article details how one scholar, Lei Zhou, is seeking to understand the complex factors that contribute to what is known as the “urban heat island effect.” That is, urban areas that are hotter than the surrounding countryside. Although Zhou’s findings indicate that a city’s humidity is the largest factor, urban design certainly is important. Urban design then requires not just accounting for social variables but also, increasingly, environmental factors.

Farm stands turn your backyard kale into cold, hard cash

Although a common feature on America’s back roads, farm stands, according to this article, are now beginning to pop up all across our cities. Yet, the produce sold is grown in city backyards and community food plots, rather than the open acres of rural farmland. Despite some resistance from city governments, this nascent trend is indicative of a larger urban-food movement that only continues to grow.  It also shows that people can grow healthy food in and for cities while also making a little bit of money.

Restaurants Really Can Determine the Fate of Cities and Neighborhoods

In other urban-food related news, this article reports on a new survey that argues that restaurants play a role in urban renewal. According to journalist Anthony Flint, “Restaurants are the leading force behind reclaimed waterfronts and regenerating neighborhoods, and are a key component of mixed-use development and urban retail. When a part of the city puts itself on the map, it’s often because of wave of trendy eateries have opened there.” Although elements of gentrification are at play, organizations and governments intent on urban thriving would do well to recognize the cultural power of food—a topic that we have explored here.

How Low-Income Commuters View Cycling

Although cycling is often touted for its environmental and health benefits, it has yet to make a dent in urban transportation. One reason that is often cited is the disparity of use between affluent and poor residents. Survey data by researchers in Washington, D.C., found that commute times are oftentimes longer for low-income workers thus making the option to bike seem impractical. In turn, researchers suggest that along with building more biking infrastructure, cities should continue to improve upon preexisting public transportation. We are reminded again that even good urban policies such as encouraging bike use still need to account for everyone’s needs.

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The Magic of Mayors?

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Comment Magazine, a publication of CARDUS. Available by subscription at


If Mayors Ruled the WorldWhen identifying potential leadership for global challenges, we often neglect history. Specifically, we tend to forget that the nation-state is a relatively new kid on the block, a political entity much younger than the city and yet one we take to be the basic unit of society. We assume that power resides in presidents and prime ministers, not mayors and municipal managers.

For a “cosmopolitan urbanist,” someone who believes that cities and their mayors are poised to provide much-needed leadership on global challenges, the relationship between the ancient city and the upstart nation-state is more fraught. From this perspective, the nation-state is like the sorcerer’s apprentice, having set into motion a number of global dynamics that it cannot control or stop. In Goethe’s masterpiece, the apprentice conjures a broom to assist with his chores, but the broom actually makes the mess worse. Unable to undo the spell, the apprentice breaks the broom instead.

The broom then multiplies, which only exacerbates the problem. When the apprentice is beyond hope, the sorcerer returns, breaks the spell, and restores order. Mayors, cosmopolitan urbanists might say, are like the sorcerer himself: they have an ancient and untapped magic to address global challenges that defy the capabilities of the nation-state. Indeed, this is the daring thesis of Benjamin Barber’s recent book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. In his manifesto for urban leadership in an increasingly interconnected world, Barber proposes to leverage the potential of cities and urban leadership through a worldwide “Parliament of Mayors.” “Can cities save the world?” Barber asks. His answer is clear: “I believe they can . . . they should . . . and they already do.” But is this hope justified? Can cosmopolitan urbanism deliver what it promises?

Taller Borders, Eroding Democracy

Barber argues that nation-states, having initiated and fuelled contemporary global dynamics, are now constitutionally incompetent to channel those dynamics for the common good. At stake is not only material wellbeing, but also the credibility and practice of democracy.

For Barber, the problem is rooted in the distinctive notion of sovereignty that reserves for the nation-state absolute, independent, and exclusive authority over a given territory. Since the seventeenth century, sovereign nation-states, more than other institutions, have used their authority to cultivate space for democratic practice. While democracy may have been conceived in the ancient polis, modern nation-states have been responsible for maturing democratic practice.

However, according to Barber, global challenges expose limitations and contradictions built into the strengths of the nation-state system. As he writes, “The dysfunction of nation-states as global cooperators arises at least in part out of their virtues.” Sovereignty does not preclude collaboration, but it does hinder effective governance of  transnational matters. Simply put, accountability beyond the borders of the state is an affront to sovereignty. Therefore, faced with actors, issues, and contexts that are not territorially bound and may demand transnational accountability—greenhouse gases, for example, need no visas, and the atmosphere is a commons shared by everyone—the sovereignty of the nation-state betrays the common good.

As if pandemics and ecological catastrophes that defy the capabilities of the nation state are not bad enough, Barber’s greatest fear is the erosion of democratic governance. Hanging over his analysis is the specter of authoritarianism. For all his discussion of environmental and social challenges, Barber is most concerned with the ways in which those challenges indirectly threaten democracy by exposing the incompetence of the nation-state.

Barber worries that the formal, but ineffective, authority of the sovereign nation-state, to date the most fertile ground for democracy, may be superseded by the emergence of more competent, but undemocratic, forms of governance—either a global government or, more likely, multinational corporations. Like greenhouse gases, such actors span borders and thus trump sovereignty, but their empowerment also undermines meaningful democratic practice.

So it is that we stand at something of a crossroads. Climate change and other global challenges combine with the emergence of effective but undemocratic institutions simultaneously to undermine material  wellbeing and threaten hard-won practices of self-governance. Barber sees the city as a way out of this mire.

The Return of the Polis

Barber’s proposal for a worldwide Parliament of Mayors is audacious. Three times per year, the leaders of 300 cities would meet to consider challenges facing our increasingly urban world. To ensure consideration of challenges faced by megacities and modest towns alike, each meeting would include 50 cities of more than 10 million inhabitants, 125 cities with populations between 500,000 and 10 million, and another 125 with populations under 500,000. In matters requiring a vote, each city would cast one “city vote” along with one demographic vote for every 500,000 inhabitants. In any given year, each of the three meetings would include a different set of cities, with the exception perhaps of a small cadre of permanent members.

The Parliament of Mayors would primarily be what Barber calls “an Audiament—a chamber of listeners” in which urban leadership from around the world would gather to be updated on the challenges faced and solutions developed by their peers. Only occasionally would the parliament vote on a measure, the passage of which would require a majority in three consecutive parliamentary sessions.

Barber thinks that the Parliament of Mayors will work because cities share four characteristics that predispose them to both democratic governance and successful collaboration on global challenges. First, the scale of cities enables participation, opening their “civic logic” to the possibility of bottom-up governance.

Second, cities are now home to more than half of the world’s population, a percentage that demographers predict will only increase over the coming decades. So, quoting Las Vegas urban reformer Tony Hsieh, Barber concludes: “If you fix cities, you kind of fix the world.”

Third, Barber claims that cities are predisposed to cooperation because they have never been self-sufficient, but have always depended upon their hinterlands and other cities to meet their needs. Barber ignores the important fact that this dependence has not consistently resulted in cooperation. At its height, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was the definition of a regional hegemon, demanding tribute from its hinterland. And our largest contemporary cities are not known for cooperation at the metropolitan level, much less at the global level. The fact that cities need resources from beyond their territorial boundaries does not mean that cities will play nice to get them.

Fourth, Barber claims that cities are inherently disposed toward pragmatism, rather than ideology, and are therefore more likely to face up to the practical challenges of globalization. There is some truth to this claim, but Barber ignores the history of entanglement between corruption and what he describes as an urbanpreoccupation with practical challenges. Ignoring both ideas and personalities in favor of “getting it done” has played a major role in the history of machine politics, which depends to an extent upon preserving the status quo and thus changes very little about the city, much less the world. So this cuts against the grain of Barber’s proposal more than he admits.

The Future of Cosmopolitan Urbanism

The high hopes shared by Barber and other cosmopolitan urbanists are to a certain extent grounded in existing realities. Cities are already exercising leadership on global matters. Transnational municipal networks are addressing issues such as climate change, food security, and economic development. Cities in these networks are sharing best practices, diffusing policy agendas, and operationalizing norms in innovative ways. They don’t yet constitute Barber’s Parliament of Mayors, but if transnational municipal networks are the future, then the future is already here.

There is, however, the matter of inequality, not only within cities but also within the emerging global urban system. It isn’t entirely clear that the relative prosperity of New York, London, and Tokyo is unrelated to the relative vulnerability of Nairobi, Lagos, and Tacloban. These inequities are reflected in the shape of already existing networks and might be exploited if and when the Parliament of Mayors takes shape. To borrow a line from William Gibson, whose dystopian Sprawl Trilogy Barber confusingly cites as an example of the future he envisions, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Nonetheless, Barber makes an important contribution by navigating the strait between idolatry of the city, on the one hand, and what theologian Edward Farley describes as “social Manicheanism,” on the other. Unlike purely boosterist accounts of cosmopolitan urbanism, Barber is at least aware of urban challenges. He insists that mayors must get their own houses in order even as we “rediscover the polis tucked into the core of cosmopolis.”

Indeed, cosmopolitan urbanists as a whole seem to have high expectations for what Farley describes as “theonomous sociality.” Theonomous sociality “has to do with how a society manages and transcends its . . . natural centrisms . . . not by repudiating ‘location, territory, or specific cultural content,’ but by taking up the aims and goods of particularity into agendas oriented to the well-being of broader environments.”

Unfortunately, cosmopolitan urbanists offer only very thin accounts of why cities would do this and, in particular, why they would do it better than other institutions. Barber’s particular account only goes so far in this direction. He makes a case—drawing briefly upon Edmund Burke, who Barber spins into a sort of “grounded cosmopolitan”— that urban leaders should take into account the global common good. But Barber offers no account of the motivations that might drive such a commitment on the part of cities, their urban leadership, and their citizens.

Still, whatever their motivations, these cities exist. But will they make a difference? Can mayors and other urban leaders save us from social and ecological catastrophe and keep democratic governance viable? One thing’s for sure: mayors won’t be able to go it alone as global leaders. If cities are to experiment not only with social and ecological innovations but with new governance models that can couple effectiveness with self-rule in service to the global common good, then we will all have to reconsider the ways in which we inhabit our communities. If there is any magic to be recovered in the polis, then citizens, and not just city managers, will have to manage and transcend their natural centrisms in favor of the common good.


Noah Toly currently serves as Director of Urban Studies and Associate Professor of Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College. He has taught various courses in environmental politics and policy, urban politics, and ethics. He is also a member of the Thriving Cities Project steering committee.

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What’s the Matter with GDP?

Criticism of GDP—Gross Domestic Product—has grown dramatically over the last few years. By definition, GDP is simply an expression of the value of all goods and services produced within a nation in a given year. Yet many critics argue that it is much more than that, and that our use of the statistic requires serious rethinking just as the statistic itself needs revision. Scholars, activists, and policy experts have charged that it no longer effectively captures how economies function; that it is far too reductive to be of much use; that it has proven far too susceptible to errors of counting; and, most pressingly, that it has led to misguided aspirations and destructive values.

Three books published in the past year—Diane Coyle’s GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, Zachary Karabell’s Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World, and Lorenzo Fioramonti’s, Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World’s Most Powerful Number—have now entered into these debates. They each ask the same set of vital questions: Why did GDP arise? What’s wrong with it? And what should be done? While all the authors present very similar explanations for the concept’s creation and its pitfalls, they offer starkly different suggestions for what we should do about it.

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