Cities? What Cities?
So the three presidential debates have gone by and nary a mention of cities. Actually, this isn’t quite true - during the final throwdown, Mitt Romney mentioned that there were a lot of Chinese moving into cities. Chinese cities, that is. So I suppose American cities still came out 0-3 here.
Is this a big deal? It’s obviously ironic, considering where the debates occurred: Denver, Long Island and Boca Raton. Perhaps not our finest urban foot forward, but at the same time the debates didn’t occur in assorted cornfields, either. There has been plenty of hand-wringing in urbanist circles about this omission, though. Writing in New American City, Matt Bevilacqua is generally upset at the cold shoulder, while Kevin Baker of the New York Times took the opportunity to write a more partisan shakedown, accusing the Republican Party of not only lacking an urban policy, but of abdicating outreach to these voters for, well, generations now (Clyde Haberman having tested the waters for him a few days earlier). Finally, Curtis Johnson opined in citiwire.net:
How can anyone not see that the United States today is largely a mash-up of metro economies? How does any serious candidate for our highest office run around, or against, this reality? But listen carefully to the debates, read the press reports, analyze the spin of campaign artists. You’ll discover almost no mention of urban areas. It’s as if this reality is invisible, or if seen at all, irrelevant.
This brings to mind one of the great Oscar Wilde quotes, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Sure, one could argue that the candidates really wanted to talk about cities, but because our blessed Electoral College skews political influence towards the rural states, any candidate mentions urban areas to his or her peril. On the face of it, who can blame urbanists around the country for being miffed?
Well, I for one am relieved. Simply put, what good would have come of it? The debates are a dog-and-pony show, and while it might sound tempting to hear your work and/or passion brought up in such an exalted forum, would anyone have said anything substantive? It’s likely that any talk of US cities would have been folded into the larger rhetorical currents of jobs, economy and “freedom,” whatever that last item is. Certainly, in a forum whose most significant soundbites have emerged, respectively or together, as “Big Bird,” “binders full of women” and “horses and bayonets,” to expect nuance or engagement of the kind that urbanists value is a bit naive.
Perhaps then it’s more important, relatively speaking, to see whether cities make it into the platforms of the respective parties. Kevin Baker fillets the GOP here as well:
The party platform ratified [in Tampa] is over 31,000 words long. It includes subsections on myriad pressing topics, like “Restructuring the U.S. Postal Service for the Twenty-First Century” and “American Sovereignty in U.S. Courts,” which features a full-throated denunciation of the “unreasonable extension” of the Lacey Act of 1900 (please don’t ask). There are also passages specifying what our national policy should be all over the world — but not in one American city.
The Democratic party comes off a bit better, with several paragraphs recognizing the importance of cities, and a bit of lip service around the party’s efforts to make them more inclusive places. However, conventions have long since ceased to be the crucibles in which platforms are forged (Baudrillard had this nailed by the 1980s), and the content of the platforms is now largely dictated by the party’s nominee. So I think we can discount the importance of these documents with a certain degree of confidence.
So what is the rightful place of cities in the national political conversation? I would argue, given the current polarization and paralysis, none at all, or perhaps more diplomatically, as little as possible. Benjamin Barber, speaking at the Long Now Foundation in anticipation of his forthcoming book, If Mayors Ruled The World, makes the case:
Nation-states have made little progress towards this kind of global governance…they are quintessentially indisposed to cooperation and incapable of establishing public goods. If mayors ruled the world, [citizens] could participate locally and cooperate globally at the same time… a miracle of civic “glocality” that promises pragmatism before politics, innovation instead of ideology, practical solutions in place of sovereignty’s posturing.
Barber goes on to discuss how his original intention in writing the book was to propose the benefits cities could reap from collaborating directly with one another, but in the course of his research he found that cities were, in fact, already doing precisely this, and to great effect. Organizations such as C40, the Conference of Mayors and literally hundreds of others have been able to initiate far-ranging and effective actions without federal or even state-level permission or incentives. They have been able to share best practices for stormwater infrastructure management, inspire each other to implement bike sharing schemes, and even, in a somewhat intimidating display of transterritoriality, commit one another to climate action where nation-states have unconscionably failed. And yes, if one needs further proof of contrast, climate change went unmentioned during the debates as well.
After every encounter with mayors, Barber marveled at their pragmatism and non-partisan approach to matters both significant and quotidian; it didn’t mattermuch that picking up the garbage does not lend itself to giddy oratory, it had to be done, and the cost of not doing it manifests itself swiftly. It is also with a certain approval that he notes that the mayoralty is usually a “terminal elected position,” meaning that very few mayors use the position as a springboard for furthering their political careers. (Interestingly, Barber does not mention Tim Campbell’s work - perhaps because Campbell has already published?) Is it any wonder, then, that R.T. Rybak, Mayor of Minneapolis, has asserted that “city governments are the last standing functional form of government in the United States and possibly the world”?
Of course, cities are dependent on the surrounding state for plenty: defense, agriculture, infrastructure, etc. Barber is quite aware of this - as a case in point, he cites Norman Mailer’s secession plank when the latter rann for NYC mayor in 1969. And to push the example, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg may have stirred headlines with his ban on plus-size sodas, but “precious little of consequence is fully in the hands of the mayor and City Council. Pick an issue: new stadiums, garbage transfer stations, congestion pricing, development of the World Trade Center site — with all of them, and more, ultimate power rests in Albany. Sometimes a New Yorker has to wonder if the real mayor is named Sheldon Silver.” So there is still plenty of interdependence to go around; no one, it seems fair to say, is about to kick off a modern-day Hanseatic League.
Another way of asking what attention our political parties pay to cities is to wonder, what policies do not affect cities? The answer is, pretty much all of them. Indeed, Harry Moroz, in responding to Kevin Baker, makes precisely this point:
But Republicans already do articulate ideas about education reform, mass transit and innumerable other urban issues. While these may or may not be based on “fantastical theories,” they already compose an urban agenda that advocates less direct federal involvement in cities, that mostly opposes aid for state and local governments, that favors highways over mass transit and that leans heavily on charter schools as educational innovators.
The surprising bit here is that if you haven’t found my argument deficient thus far, then the GOP’s attitude towards cities actually isn’t all that objectionable - although we still need to define what a city’s duties towards its citizens are. But one thing is clear: whether or not we are prepared to admit it, we are, in the words of the post-Structuralists, “always-already” talking about cities. And as the demographic continues to skew towards greater urbanization, this will only ever become more true. So, urbanists, we’re probably better off doing a little less hand-wringing and a bit more sleeve-rolling.