The Hedgehog Review

From the Editor

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 2)

Whenever it pops up these days, and it does very often, the phrase smart city conjures up visions of a bright, bold urban future—a future that, to some extent, has already arrived. “Officials are tapping all kinds of data to make their cities safer, healthier and more efficient, with what may be the start of a sweeping change in how cities are run,” reads the subhead of “The Rise of the Smart City,” the lead piece in a Wall Street Journal special report on the urban frontier. We are assured that through the mobilization of Big Data, the Internet of Things, robotics, and a host of other technological wonders, this “sweeping change” is not only inevitable but all to the good.

But are we reassured?

The answer depends on what we think is good not just for cities but about them—about what we expect of them as sites and incubators of commerce, creativity, and community, and, even more crucially, as places that form the minds and souls of their inhabitants. For the ancient Greeks, the city was inseparable from paideia, the education and formation of citizens according to the ideals of the beautiful and the good. As distant, culturally specific, and aristocratic as that notion of the city may seem, the embrace of the broad principle of the educative purpose of civic life has been indispensable to the making of all great cities throughout history.

It is curious, then, that in this epoch of “the city”—when more than half of the world’s population inhabits cities, when so much thought and study have been devoted to the challenges of city life, and when so many expectations have been placed upon the city as the solution to a range of economic, social, environmental, and political problems—surprisingly little attention is paid to the crucial purpose of cities. Yet the neglect of the meaning of cities, the theme of this issue, affects everything touching upon the present and future life of cities, whether large or small.

In “Saving the Soul of the Smart City,” Joshua J. Yates illuminates the dangers implicit in submitting to a highly technocratic urbanism devoted primarily to optimization (whether for convenience, comfort, profit, or pleasure). “Narrowing the horizon of living to one overriding register of value,” he writes, “a regime of optimization stamps out the broad, diverse array of conditions that make human life vital. It turns out that some of the things most necessary for human thriving cannot be optimized, and are greatly harmed to the extent that we try. Conviviality, family, friendship, serendipity, play, dependency, trust, calling, and yes, even happiness: These are just a few of the things that make life meaningful and which wither in the soil of optimization.”

Expectations for cities have never run higher, Noah J. Toly explains in “The New Urban Agenda and the Limits of Cities.” Habitat III, the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, held last year in Quito, Ecuador, produced a daunting list of goals that cities should take on in order to assume what Toly calls “a central role in social, political, and economic life and perform many of the functions that have recently been monopolized by the nation-state.” This set of objectives, catalogued in a document titled the New Urban Agenda, charges cities with being the “vanguard and crucial lever in advancing sustainable and inclusive development” and assuming leadership in areas ranging from education to energy.

But can such an all-embracing faith in cities be dangerous, pushing our already globalized world even further down the road to inadequate governance? As Toly notes, “To the extent that a future configuration of institutions, placing cities at the center of global affairs, is structured ‘indirectly and unrecognizably in research laboratories and executive suites, not in parliament or political parties,’ that future will teach technical capabilities over political virtues. It will produce not game-changing cities, but cities that, like the New Urban Agenda itself, find more efficient means to supposedly uncontroversial ends.”

US cities are benefiting from an ongoing urban renaissance, as many Americans, including many of the most talented and educated, opt for life in metropolitan hubs rather than in the suburbs or exurbs to which their parents and grandparents were drawn. In part, these new city-dwellers seek a richer communal life, one defined less by solitary automotive dependency and more by the sociable rub of pedestrian contact with one’s fellow citizens. Or at least that is the hope. The reality is that the old social thickness of American neighborhoods and neighborliness is not necessarily something that can be regained by proximity alone. In his essay “Next-Door Strangers: The Crisis of Urban Anonymity,” Marc J. Dunkelman takes note of some of the challenges to true neighborliness, including gentrification, ethnic diversity, and even our immersion in digital devices and virtual reality: “As cities grow and, in many cases, become more diverse—as the children and grandchildren of people who fled to the suburbs settle closer to downtown—will urban communities retain all the magic of close-knit diversity absent the benefit of neighborly familiarity? We can certainly hope they will. But we should consider the possibility that some of what we would want from a new age of cities won’t materialize.”

The draw of metropolitan life consists not just in the elusive promise of neighborhood and community. Cities are creative engines, cosmopolitan crucibles of knowledge production, and hence vital components of the buzzing global economy. But their very wealth, creativity, and transnational orientation increasingly distance our metropolitan areas from outlying rural and small-town regions, deepening some of the cultural and political divides that are making this nation (like many other modern Western nations) seem like a country at war with itself. The populist uprisings so evident in Western polities today are at least in part the working out of old, but recently exacerbated, tensions between town and country, provincial and cosmopolitan orientations and interests. Those tensions, when exaggerated and exploited by opportunistic politicians, can turn nasty; worse, they can inflict real harm on a nation, its economy, and its people. In their essay “Cosmopolitanism vs. Provincialism: How the Politics of Place Hurts America,” historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein look at this rancorous divide, relate some its history, and suggest how, through a renewed regional spirit, we might begin to “escape the trap of labeling and acknowledge that the old categories of smug and heartless cosmopolites and bigoted and benighted provincials only obscure the struggle over power and resources.”

As the pace of urbanization accelerates worldwide—with some projections putting 70 percent of humanity in cities by 2050—there is good cause to see our fate inextricably bound up with the forms our cities take. All the more reason, Yates believes, to focus on more than just the intelligence of our cities: “If the smart city is to contribute to a thriving human ecology oriented toward truth, justice, and goodness as well as prosperity, beauty, and sustainability, we stand in urgent need of a deep ethical and political turn that will help us cultivate the unoptimizable things for the purposes of making the city not just smart, but wise.”

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.2 (Summer 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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