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What if the world was ruled by mayors?

In a world increacingly defined by its major cities the struggle against urbanity is a struggle against freedom

The countryside? Wide-open skies, endless prairies, great national parks − surely this is the essence of public space.

The city? Densely packed high-rises of corporate headquarters and private residences, global brand outlets and big banks: this must be quintessential private space.

Well, no. For it is in urban societies − especially in the UK, the US and the developed world − that we find our genuinely public spaces. And it is in the suburbs and the countryside, that privatisation and enclosure reign supreme. That cities embody public space more palpably than the countryside arises out of three intersecting factors. First, public space is a product of the architects, urban theorists and planners whosevision of the urban is a vision of what is public and can be shared. Second, public space is intrinsic to the meaning of urbanity − a feature of what cities are and why they have become the principal human habitat. And third, public space is a consequence of democratic theory and practice, of the notion that public life and the public commons are necessary conditions for liberty and equality as well as a central rationale forurban living − a notion that is, however, increasingly contested by market fundamentalist critics.

It is in the mingling of these inherently public aspects of the city that the achievements and the most controversial claims of urbanity are found. Mere design cannot assure a commons or spaces that are public.The malls that define the suburban landscape offer proof that big-box shared spaces in which a ‘public’ goes about what others claim is private business are anything but public by law or usage.

The fact is that at least since agriculture and the enclosure movement put an end to the pastoral economy’s preference for open and public land (for grazing), and suburban space became indistinguishable fromprivate space, the countryside has been private property (parks and wilderness preserves aside). It is in our towns and cities we seek our modern commons.

It is easy to grasp how design and planning produce urban public space. Imagine New York City without the Olmsted vision of a central park in the midst of what would otherwise have become an endless grid of avenues and streets (his vision preceded the actual grid). Imagine Paris without the boulevards that in Haussmann’s ideal opened up the medieval city to trade, traffic and concourse (and crowd control in the wide-open ‘shooting gallery’ avenues) and that today define the city’s monumental citywide commons. Imagine Berlin without the Höfe, which centre but also open up residential and commercial clusters − clusters that would feel private without the inner courtyards that placed a mini-commons at the very heart of every private dwelling and business place. Imagine Vienna without the Arcades that turn antique malls into the public walkways celebrated by Walter Benjamin.

All of these remarkable public spaces represent oases of open interaction and exchange in cities otherwise dense and cloistered that play a vital role in the history of democracy, free expression and community life. All are the products of human imagination: of planners aspiring to the essential communality that defines city life. Yet planners and designers do not so much read a common essence into the city as draw it out. The quintessentially public character of urbanity comes first; designers riff on it.

Some have insisted that public space is a studied counterpoint to the city: a longing for nature in the denatured metropolis, morsels of a vanished country placidity and solitude for urban folk to snack on. Yet myclaim is that the city is open, common and public by its very nature. People come not to be alone but to be together; to interact, exchange, trade, innovate and collaborate.

It is useful to recall that nearly 90 per cent of cities are built on water − rivers, lakes and seas. Cities are not territorial and bordered in the manner of states, but interdependent. That is why the rivalry andterritoriality of states is often a zero sum game in which as one nation grows larger, another is diminished; where as Germany flourishes, Poland vanishes. But fluid, interactive cities on watery crossroads can grow and flourish together: Berlin can prosper even as Warsaw flourishes. Reciprocity infuses competition with cooperation. Rival cities engage in a race to the top not the bottom. Who has the better operacompany, the more sustainable economy?

Not who has the biggest army or the cheapest labour force? In constructing public space, designers and planners bring to bear the defining density, creativity, diversity, openness and communality that are thecity’s character. They are exploiting the city’s core civic feature: its liberty. To speak of ‘free cities’ is in some sense redundant.

As de Tocqueville wrote in identifying the root of American democracy, freedom in America is municipal. Born of the city, the liberty of citizens is a function of their residence. The etymology is not incidental. Which brings us to the third and most contested argument about the city and public space: we understand cities as naturally conducive to public space because we understand them to be ur-democratic spaces. Their diversity mandates tolerance; their openness invites immigration from without and mobility from within; their interdependence makes their borders porous and their behaviour interactional and transactional; their friction-inducing density ignites imagination and creativity; their anonymity and liberty inspire innovation and entrepreneurship. In sum, their defining features constitute a recipe for democratic civility − whether or not it is formalised in a democratic governing system.

If the city is intrinsically democratic, then the assault today on government and democracy is also an assault on public space and hence on the city qua city. It is no accident that those right-wing populists, from the ardent backers of la France profonde to Tea-Party advocates of rural virtues, clammer against the city and its putative corruptions, its welfare programmes and minority populations, the otherness of its ‘foreign’ immigrant denizens and its cosmopolitan culture. When Margaret Thatcher denied there was such a thing as society, when Ronald Reagan called democratic government the problem rather than the solution, they were not only making the case for private property, commerce and the market, but also the case against the commons, the idea of the public, and the spirit of the city.

The struggle continues today. Even as the world’s population tips towards the city (more than 50 per cent of the planet is now urban, 78 per cent in the developed world), the struggle against urbanity and itspromise of creative commonality continues. It passes as a struggle against bureaucracy, bigness and the tyranny of government. But it is in truth a struggle against public goods, common space and the vital life of the metropolis.

Yet bleak as things sometimes seem, if, as Ed Glaeser has written, we are indeed ‘an urban species’ (another version of Aristotle’s claim that we are social animals or Marx’s belief in ‘species being’), then I have little doubt that as ever before, the city will prevail. And if it can fashion from its local commons a global commons, and through intercity cooperation construct a form of intercity global governance − a global parliament of mayors − it can in this ever more interdependent world also assure the global survival of freedom and of the democracy on which freedom depends.

 

 

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