When local voters across British Columbia recently ushered in a new slate of mayors and councillors – the City of Vancouver’s wholesale turnover being the best example – citizens sent a message: We like our cities and we love our neighbourhoods, so stop making them less desirable with ill-advised policies that exacerbate homelessness and crime.
There’s a valid reason voters react that way: cities are incubators for what is best about humanity. From Manhattan to Marrakesh, cities are potential incubators of civilization, a term rarely used now but which should be renewed, especially for our urban life.
Cities matter because they are large “Petri dishes” for experiments in human flourishing in multiple ways.
For example, entrepreneurs can test-market a new product in a city in a way that could never happen in a village, which lacks the population needed.
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The arts also benefit from urban environments. Renaissance-era Florence – not large by today’s standards – became a flowering centre of learning, art, and culture because it was big enough for talent and money to be in close proximity and for artistic creations to be created, bought, and then displayed in churches, museums, and homes. That’s a 500-year-old development from which we still benefit today.
Scientific discoveries also occur from what is best described as the cross-fertilization of people and ideas. This was true before the internet but is still relevant now, given the routine need to check, discuss, and refine one’s theories with others. That process is always made easier by being able to walk down the hallway or drive across town to another lab to discuss one’s hypotheses and results. That’s one of the reasons why the top five locations for science worldwide are Beijing, Boston, New York, San Francisco/San Jose, and Shanghai.
But beyond the commercial, artistic, and scientific potential of cities, they are also where experiments in how we govern ourselves were conducted. For example, ancient Athens, the best example of civic development in thee Western world, debated concepts such as justice and the “good life.” It was also the birthplace of a nascent form of democracy.
Social movements also arose in cities. Early feminists, who campaigned for the vote and other rights, would have faced even higher hurdles if isolated from each other in villages rather than in cities such as London and Manchester, where suffragist societies were founded in 1867.
In Canada, women won the right to vote federally and in most provinces by the 1920s. However, they still could not be appointed to the Senate. In 1927, Emily Murphy invited Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby – the “Famous Five” – to her home in Edmonton. It was there they strategized on how to correct that inequity. The result was the now-famous “Persons Case” initiated by the feminists. Although they lost at the Supreme Court of Canada in 1927, they drove that case forward to what was then the final court of appeal, the Privy Council of England, which overturned the Canadian decision. Being in close contact matters to outcomes, including necessary reforms.
The internet now allows ideas and interactions (good or bad) to go viral daily, regardless of location. But certain aspects of human flourishing are still only possible in a city because specialization requires a mass of people nearby.
Think of architects and engineers who design and build skyscrapers. The art deco masterpiece, the Chrysler Building, could never have been constructed in a Prairie town. Its builders needed a metropolis, New York City.
Similarly, consider great urban parks such as Manhattan’s Central Park, Mount Royal in Montreal, and Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
Or consider the urban beauty of Kyoto, Japan, where the combination of temple architecture, parks, and nature offer up red, yellow, and gold sacrifices in autumn. It’s beautiful.
Another example of such urban exquisiteness exists in Singapore, where office buildings are required to include parks within their design. A “biophilic” skyscraper in the city state just opened with four stories of tropical fauna and 80,000 plants.
In theory, such expensive, design-intensive projects could be built anywhere. In practice, great parks require metropolises and their money.
Commerce and beauty also exist in smaller centres, as do the possibilities for other forms of human accomplishment. But the massive populations of cities plus money allows for specialization and human flourishing on a unique scale.
Cities are akin to living organisms where everyone can potentially thrive. It’s why cities matter. It is also why politicians and others should be careful not to wreck urban environments, be it with counter-productive crime, housing, suffocating tax policies or any other policies that can harm cities.
Mark Milke is executive director of The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. His newest book is The Victim Cult: How the grievance culture hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.
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