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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.