NEW YORK – Two months ago, I was introduced to a start-up called CityMart, a for-profit marketplace dedicated to helping vendors and city managers to find one another – and to spreading municipal innovations outside of their home turf. This month, in Thailand, I met Jonathan Hursh, who runs Compassion for Migrant Children (soon to be renamed), which focuses on migrant populations – adults and children with few resources and few rights – in the slums that surround almost every large city in the world. In mid-May, I'll be attending the New Cities Summit in Paris, a three-day forum focused on the future of cities.
Cities matter, as they always have, but now more of the world is starting to take notice of their problems and possibilities. At their worst, cities are slums, places where the social constraints of the village are loosened, people can misbehave in anonymity, and poor and unemployed people live in squalor. At their best, they are places where the best and the brightest congregate, new wealth is created, and scholars and artists sharpen their wits and hone their creativity.
Most cities have grown through evolution, from unpremeditated beginnings. Moreover, they rarely die. Cities (and their imperfections) persist in a way that large political entities, even those of which they are a part, do not. Compare, say, Athens, Jerusalem, Vienna, Beijing, Moscow, or Istanbul, to the Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Imperial Russia, the Third Reich, or the Soviet Union.
And, as we are seeing worldwide nowadays, national governments are difficult to overturn and also difficult to (re)build. Democracy does not always lead to liberty or good outcomes.