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Self and the City

BEIJING – What is the big story of our age? It depends on the day, but if we count by centuries, then surely humanity’s urbanization is a strong contender. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, compared to less than 3% in 1800. By 2025, China alone is expected to have 15 “mega-cities,” each with a population of at least 25 million. Are social critics right to worry about the atomized loneliness of big-city life?

True, cities cannot provide the rich sense of community that often characterizes villages and small towns. But a different form of community evolves in cities. People often take pride in their cities, and seek to nourish their distinctive civic cultures.

Pride in one’s city has a long history. In the ancient world, Athenians identified with their city’s democratic ethos, while Spartans prided themselves on their city’s reputation for military discipline and strength. Of course, today’s urban areas are huge, diverse, and pluralistic, so it may seem strange to say that a modern city has an ethos that informs its residents’ collective life.

Yet the differences between, say, Beijing and Jerusalem, suggest that cities do have such an ethos. Both are designed with a core surrounded by concentric circles, but Jerusalem’s core expresses spiritual values, while Beijing’s represents political power. And a city’s ethos shapes more than its leaders. Beijing attracts China’s leading political critics, while Jerusalem’s social critics argue for an interpretation of religion that holds people, rather than inanimate objects, sacred. In both cases, despite objections to the ruling ideology’s specific tenets, few reject the ethos itself.

Or consider Montreal, whose residents must navigate the city’s tricky linguistic politics. Montreal is a relatively successful example of a city in which Anglophones and Francophones both feel at home, but language debates nonetheless dominate the political scene – and structure an ethos for the city’s residents.

Hong Kong is a special case, where the capitalist way of life is so central that it is enshrined in the constitution (the Basic Law). Yet Hong Kong-style capitalism is not founded simply on the pursuit of material gain. It is underpinned by a Confucian ethic that prioritizes caring for others over self-interest, which helps to explain why Hong Kong has the highest rate of charitable giving in East Asia.

Paris, on the other hand, has a romantic ethos. But Parisians reject Hollywood’s banal concept of love as a story that ends happily ever after. Their idea of romance centers on its opposition to staid values and predictability of bourgeois life.

In fact, many cities have distinctive identities of which their residents are proud. Urban pride – what we call “civicism” – is a key feature of our identities today. This matters in part because cities with a clear ethos can better resist globalization’s homogenizing tendencies. It is worrying when countries proclaim their timeless and organic ideals, but affirming a city’s particularity can be a sign of health.

Chinese cities seek to counter uniformity via campaigns to recover their unique “spirit.” Harbin, for example, prides itself on its history of tolerance and openness to foreigners. Elsewhere, Tel Aviv’s official Web site celebrates, among other attractions, the city’s progressive role as a world center for the gay community.

Urban pride can also prevent extreme nationalism. Most people need a communal identity, but it may well be better to find it in one’s attachment to a city than in attachment to a country that is armed and willing to engage in conflict with enemies. Individuals who have a strong sense of civicism can make decisions based on more than mere patriotism when it comes to national commitments.

Cities with a strong ethos can also accomplish political goals that are difficult to achieve at the national level. China, the United States, and even Canada may take years to implement serious plans to address climate change. Yet cities like Hangzhou, Portland, and Vancouver take pride in their “green” ethos, and go far beyond national requirements in terms of environmental protection.

Urbanization is blamed for a wide variety of modern social ills, ranging from crime and incivility to alienation and anomie. But, by infusing us with their unique spirit and identity, our cities may, in fact, help to empower humanity to face the most difficult challenges of the twenty-first century.