The Color of Change

In his most recent column, Neil Pierce reports on the results of a study done by McKinsey, the global consulting firm. The study predicts a continuation and acceleration of the move from rural areas to cities. It is not an exaggeration to say McKinsey sees ongoing  urbanization of the planet.

The upshot?

“Globally, cities are economic dynamos. They typically attract skilled workers and productive activity that triples per capita income over rural areas. With the opportunities that cities bring them, 1 billion people are likely to enter the global “consuming class,” virtually all in developing world metropolises, by 2025. Their activity and buying demands will have a cumulative upward impact of roughly $20 trillion a year on the world’s economy.

On top of that, the cities where the new urbanites live will likely be obliged to double their annual investments in buildings, roadways, water systems, ports and public buildings from today’s $10 trillion a year to $20 trillion a year by 2025. Businesses will have immense new opportunities; it’s reasonable to expect “a powerful and welcome boost to global economic growth.”

So far, so good. But as Pierce notes, all is not paradise. There are substantial challenges lurking beneath the surface good news: where will government agencies get the capital necessary to build the roads and sewers and other infrastructure that will be required? What about the impact on an already stressed environment?

Pierce does not address the social effects of urbanization, but those effects may be the most consequential. There is substantial scholarship suggesting that people who live in more densely populated cities tend to hold different political and social beliefs than their country cousins. Almost by necessity, city dwellers are more tolerant of difference, more supportive of funding for government services (it’s a lot harder to do without such “amenities” as garbage collection and police protection once you’ve left the farm.) There’s a reason that cities show up as islands of blue even in the reddest of states on those ubiquitous political maps.

Not long after the 2004 Presidential election, the Seattle alternative paper The Stranger ran an article titled “The Urban Archipelago,” and subtitled “It’s the Cities, Stupid.”   It’s still worth reading in its entirety–a passionate manifesto about citizenship and cities and the politics of urban America. The essay began by analyzing the 2004 election results and making a convincing case that–as the authors put it–the Democratic party is the party of urban America.

The essay is long and angry, and very partisan, but much of it rings true. I particularly like this section, which outlines “urban values.”

 But if liberals and progressives want to reach out past our urban bases, it might be helpful to identify some essential convictions, thereby allowing us to perhaps compete on “values.”…

So how do we live and what are we for? Look around you, urbanite, at the multiplicity of cultures, ethnicities, and tribes that are smashed together in every urban center (yes, even Seattle): We’re for that. We’re for pluralism of thought, race, and identity. We’re for a freedom of religion that includes the freedom from religion–not as some crazy aberration, but as an equally valid approach to life. We are for the right to choose one’s own sexual and recreational behavior, to control one’s own body and what one puts inside it. We are for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The people who just elected George W. Bush to a second term are frankly against every single idea outlined above.

Unlike the people who flee from cities in search of a life free from disagreement and dark skin, we are for contentiousness, discourse, and the heightened understanding of life that grows from having to accommodate opposing viewpoints. We’re for opposition. And just to be clear: The non-urban argument, the red state position, isn’t oppositional, it’s negational–they are in active denial of the existence of other places, other people, other ideas. It’s reactionary utopianism, and it is a clear and present danger; urbanists should be upfront and unapologetic about our contempt for their politics and their negational values. Republicans have succeeded in making the word “liberal”–which literally means “free from bigotry… favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded”–into an epithet. Urbanists should proclaim their liberalism from the highest rooftop (we have higher rooftops than they do); it’s the only way we survive.

  Let’s see, what else are we for? How about education? Cities are beehives of intellectual energy; students and teachers are everywhere you look, studying, teaching, thinking. In Seattle, you can barely throw a rock without hitting a college. It’s time to start celebrating that…. In the city, people ask you what you’re reading. Outside the city, they ask you why you’re reading. You do the math–and you’ll have to, because non-urbanists can hardly even count their own children at this point. For too long now, we’ve caved to the non-urban wisdom that decries universities as bastions of elitism and snobbery. Guess what: That’s why we should embrace them. Outside of the city, elitism and snobbery are code words for literacy and complexity. And when the oil dries up, we’re not going to be turning to priests for answers–we’ll be calling the scientists. And speaking of science: SCIENCE! That’s another thing we’re for. And reason. And history. All those things that non-urbanists have replaced with their idiotic faith. We’re for those.

As part of our pro-reason platform, we’re for paying taxes–taxes, after all, support the urban infrastructure on which we all rely, and as such, are a necessary part of the social contract we sign every day. We are for density, and because we’re for density, we’re for programs that support it, like mass transit.”

Un-PC as the whole thing is–it would not be unfair to call it a “rant”–there is enormous truth in the essay’s descriptions of urban and rural values. Cities are certainly not Edens–density and diversity bring significant challenges, and plenty of city folks are bigots and worse.

That said, cities do more than drive economic growth. They incubate civilization.

1 Comment

  1. the existence of the District of Columbia is predicated on the experiences of the vibrant & leading political life in London and Paris — the new American elites wished to isolate and insulate the governmental affairs of the new nation from the possibly obstreperous and radical inhabitants of a large city.

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