Monday, July 18, 2011

Are Cities Bipolar?

What is the city but the people? ~ William Shakespeare

In Rome you long for the country; in the country - oh inconstant! - you praise the distant city to the stars. ~ Horace, Satires
Map of Haarlem, the Netherlands, of around 1550. The city is completely surrounded by a city wall and defensive canal. The square shape was inspired by Jerusalem.
Wikipedia's definition of 'City' provides interesting details about why & how cities were first formed and what distinguishes them from rural areas.

A few excerpts:
...'In 1995, Kanter argued that successful cities can be identified by three elements: good thinkers (concepts), good makers (competence) or good traders (connections). The interplay of these three elements, Kanter argued, means that good cities are not planned but managed.' ....

....'Modern anti-urban attitudes are to be found in the United States in the form of a planning profession that continues to develop land on a low-density suburban basis, where access to amenities, work and shopping is provided almost exclusively by car rather than by foot or transit..' ...

.... 'However, there is a growing movement in North America called "New Urbanism" that calls for a return to traditional city planning methods where mixed-use zoning allows people to walk from one type of land-use to another. The idea is that housing, shopping, office space, and leisure facilities are all provided within walking distance of each other, thus reducing the demand for road-space and also improving the efficiency and effectiveness of mass transit.' ...

... 'Cities generally have complex systems for sanitation, utilities, land usage, housing, and transportation. The concentration of development greatly facilitates interaction between people and businesses, benefiting both parties in the process. A big city or metropolis usually has associated suburbs and exurbs. Such cities are usually associated with metropolitan areas and urban areas, creating numerous business commuters traveling to urban centers of employment.'

"Cities could persist—as they have for thousands of years—only if their advantages offset the disadvantages" .... two similar attracting advantages known as increasing returns to scale and economies of scale, which are concepts normally associated with firms. Their applications are seen in more basic economic systems as well. ....."one of the oldest reasons why cities were built: military protection". ....'The Neolithic revolution brought agriculture, which made denser human populations possible, thereby supporting city development'.
Panorama of New York City
Wikipedia's definition of 'bi-polar' largely has come to mean an illness of the psyche in which mood swings between melancholy and mania occur. But that is a relatively modern term with origins around the 1850"s.

Earlier, the definition of bi-polar was also an adjective with several related meanings, as –having two poles, as the earth; or of, pertaining to, or found at both polar regions; or characterized by opposite extremes, as two conflicting political philosophies.

But, all these definitions seem somehow related, don't you think?

It seems to me that people -including me- often think of cities with two minds; one good and one not so good.
That is normal about many things, but cities do engender such strong feelings that they may have become almost a metaphor for political schizophrenia.
As veritable scapegoats for the ills of society, cities must somehow defend themselves in a more balanced way, by also emphasizing all the good they should and do provide.
That's what this blog is about, at least in my intent, but judge it for yourself.

I believe it was the 1920 US Census that first showed more people lived in urban areas than rural. At the time, this caused concern among politicians who were afraid city issues & politics might begin to dominate national priorities and policy.
Why, the idea of the ignorant masses imposing their will upon our entire country was downright repugnant to some then in influence. That was the time when the number of House Representatives was limited at a maximum of 435, which was to be reapportioned after each subsequent Census to reflect some sort of delayed and diluted geographical balance.

The persuasive arguments at the time included concerns over the actual size of Congress, which were supposed to limit its ability to effectively legislate, although similar bodies in other counties seem to function every bit as well as ours.
You tell me if this particular 'concern' was legitimate. or simply a ploy to limit or delay the trend toward the spread of a truer democracy.

I believe that argument was largely disingenuously cosmetic, but it cleverly played upon the uninformed trust of some and the concealed desperation of others to become the reality we still are dealing with today. So it is a our system of government that has become something of a parody of its former high-sounding ideals.

The same forces -and reasons- that defined and fixed the individual States representation at two each in the Senate were essentially applied to the House as well, making the historic bi-cameral compromise reached to enable our Constitution to be adopted a shadow of its former intent.
So it is with history; stuff gets changed, whether we notice or not.

But, why should this matter to us now?
Because the anti-urban bias still exists and is hurting our society and economy.
Just look at all the subjects of political rhetoric that pass for 'debate' these days, like 'the city' did this, or neglected to do that, etc.
Of course, not all of this rhetoric pertain to ONLY cities or urban areas, but some of them do.
Yet, the ones that don't apply are often blamed on cities & urban areas anyway.
It's almost like the rural and thinly populated areas are trying to act like the innocent victims of all life's ills!

But, how can this be true? After all, it is primarily the cities that provide most jobs AND markets for the goods & services we need and want.
So, without the cities & population centers, how can we -as a country or as individuals- truly prosper?

As a recovering politician, having served a serious stint in city government as an elected legislator, I feel somewhat qualified to defend cities and the roles they uniquely provide.
A couple of recent articles in Crosscut came to my attention since they both converge on what are basically city problems.

The first captures an argument made by the former mayor of two Washington cities, that job creation needs to strongly involve cities. That should go without saying, and largely had, before this particular former mayor said it.

The second article chronicles the 6-year tenure of Tacoma's former City Manager, who transitioned from being hailed as a super hero saviour to someone deserving to be fired -a trajectory that seems almost inevitable these days.

To me, these articles are also notable for the issues and political dynamics they tell.
But, I do realize that for those without some experience in office, or those disinterested in observing trends and commonalities among municipalities, they may not hold much more than passing interest.
That is part of the problem our political system suffers -disconnection between citizens and the mechanisms that allow them to gain corrections for the public good.
Making a democracy work well is not an easy task; and it requires an engaged populace.

Fortunately, there are resources that help us understand common problems and those solutions likely o be effective.
One excellent website is maintained by the Association of Washington Cities [AWC] of which the City of Bellingham is a member and benefits from its staff and elected officials taking its training.
The National League of Cities [NLC} is another valuable resource with a broader charter and perspective.

These sources of information are available for public use, and can serve as valuable learning aids for anyone- candidates included.
As a short example, here is the agenda and session materials for the latest AWC conference, showing a range of current topics involving cities.

Think that could be valuable?

So, there is good news and bad news from this; the good is we don't have to always rediscover the wheel; the bad is we have to actually study and use the information available.

I must conclude that cities probably are, or can become, bipolar, because they reflect the problems, triumphs, hopes, fears of people, and the inevitable clashes of opinions, aspirations, facts and law.
In fact, maybe the term multi-polar may be more descriptive, because it is rare when only two clear choices are the only ones available.
No, Cities are not simple or easily managed, because they are made up of people -many different people- who are not simple or easily managed either.
To expect otherwise is misguided, or maybe even just stupid.
Panorama of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
A great city is not to be confounded with a populous one. - Aristotle

Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm. - John F. Kennedy