What Cities Say About Our Values

The School of Athens, Raphael

can i get cytotec without rx Cities, once the centrepiece of political discourse, have fallen by the wayside. This neglect has resulted in poor policies that restrict cities to their economic detriment. Recent developments, however, show the potential for cities to creatively tackle problems that have eluded state or national solutions. This article builds on these developments to argue that cities are uniquely poised to restore a certain richness to our political discourse.

Cities have a famous place in the history of political thought. An early major work in western political theory, Plato’s http://sareedresses.com/product/fanideaz-mens-cotton-red-half-sleeve-striped-polo-t-shirt-with-collar/ Republic, centred on the question of how to construct the kallipolis, or ideal city. Recently, however, the trend has been towards the diminishing influence of cities. State and especially national politics have surmounted the city; political analysis today often begins with the nation-state. But what happens when we neglect cities in our focus on national politics? What importance might cities, small as they are, carry?

From even a strictly economic perspective, the importance of cities cannot be understated. Today, 300 of the world’s cities account for nearly half of the world’s economic output. They contain only 19% of the world’s population. For some countries, the economic importance of cities looms even larger. Brussels produces 59% of Belgium’s GDP; Tel Aviv produces 54% of Israel’s. If only for economic reasons, cities matter much more than suggested by the paltry attention their policies have received. This neglect produces real consequences.

A recent report from the George Washington Institute of Public Policy outlined several problems and solutions for current relationships between states and cities. The report notes that in two US states, Pennsylvania and Michigan, state law requires arbitration between cities and their employee unions. These policies can fail to account for the “fiscal stress of cities” and as a consequence, cities frequently suffer costly settlements that “add an anti-business environment and fiscal challenges.” Another difficulty in current state-city relationships comes with transportation. Traditionally, state highway departments dispense highway funds; they are thus used primarily for highways, rather than public transit, bikeways, or walkways. State transportation funding ought to be less restrictive and more responsive to the actual needs of various cities across the state.

Cities aren’t, however, merely chafing under the restrictions placed by other, larger, forms of government. Many cities have developed their own innovative solutions for specific challenges. New York City and Mumbai, following terrorist attacks, moved to “strengthen their own security services and intelligence capabilities beyond what Washington and Delhi could provide and mandate.” In 2006, frustrated by stagnant climate diplomacy, London’s mayor Ken Livingstone began the C40 initiative – a group of 60 cities and mayors committed to exchanging ideas and practices to reduce urban carbon footprint. The standards set by the C40 members “substantially” exceeded any extant standards set by international negotiations.

Despite these and other efforts, cities continue to be overshadowed by larger political entities, such as the state, department, or country. As McGill Law Professor Daniel Weinstock argues, “the distinctive political problems of cities tend to be perceived by national governments through the lens of their nation-building enterprise.” Nation-building exercises impose larger conflicts onto cities, directing attention away from the actual problems that cities face. Furthermore, in at least the U.S., cities have largely lost power over the past years. An article produced by the Brookings Institution found that “big cities in the United States have lost power in State politics.” The article worryingly concluded that these shifts “have made it harder to build policy coalitions that address urban problems.”

All this means that when we consider cities of the future, we are beginning with a very productive first step: we’re thinking about cities. But what do we think our future cities should look like?

Two authors, Daniel Bell and Avner de-Shalit offer a somewhat provocative answer: cities should provide the “political and economic will” to counter the homogenising consequences of globalisation. In their 2011 book, The Spirit of Cities, they argue that while globalisation may force states to homogenise, cities can preserve their own particular cultures and celebrate a distinct ethos. While some allege the book oversimplifies urban cultures, it nonetheless offers an intriguing positive conception for cities: arenas for dispute and commitment to various particular political and social values – places for our communal notions of value to play out in practice.

In political debates today, we have long excluded moral and value-laden disagreement. Standards of morality have often been excluded from the public sphere because, as academics correctly noted, we often do not agree on such fundamental issues and, more importantly, we disagree reasonably. One person is not unreasonable to believe in Christianity, just as another is not unreasonable in rejecting such a faith. One Christian may find her religion compatible with same-sex marriage while another may not. The debates on values and morals cannot be settled in any agreeable manner.

This view has tended to limit the permissible sphere of state intervention into simply  issues on society has an “overlapping consensus,” a term here borrowed from the work of John Rawls. In large states and countries, the space for this consensus may be small, thereby reducing the permissible sphere for state action.

But if Bell and de-Shalit are correct in their thesis that different cities truly do embrace somewhat different principles and values, then perhaps cities offer a sphere for a richer public debate. If citizens of a city agree that values like economic fairness or tolerance or community ought to be among the ends that government promotes, perhaps cities can offer a richer kind of policy-making, producing the kinds of policies which respond to needs beyond the bare minimum of democracy and rule of law.