Your city\’s a sucker?

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It\’s been a busy week for citittude.  Bruce Katz has been in town, showcasing his latest data on how US cities are leading the economy out of recession.  And Benjamin Barber joined him for a Centre for London debate, arguing that, as nation states flounder, mayors are the most dynamic and pragmatic leaders, and that international alliances of cities are the powerful organisational structure.
Work has irritatingly stopped me attending several of the events but what I\’ve seen from Twitter feeds and blogs suggest an almost evangelical level of excitement; that as the world turns increasingly urban, cities are asserting themselves, seizing power and initiative from the drab and clumsy nation states that hold them back.  We have come a long way from the sixties or even the eighties, when cities were viewed a crime-ridden and corrupt rat holes, best avoided by upright citizens or treated as a problem, a target for initiatives, by well-meaning politicians.
Now, if this is a new religion, I\’m a worshipper.  The vitality and variety of London continues to astonish me, and the two mayors I have worked for are far more impressive than the national politicians I have come across.  Similarly, I broadly sign up to the \’Mayoral Manifesto\’, the programme of policies that pretty well every mayor pushes, whether nominally from the left of the right.  This manifesto (which I will write more about another time) promotes open borders and global capitalism, but is also concerned about housing, about social equity and about climate change.  It embraces minority groups and marginal lifestyles, invests in public transport and public space, but also endorses a tough law and order regime, with low tolerance for anything that could be seen as civic unrest or even dissent.
So, to borrow from Edward Glaeser, cities have triumphed. But there\’s another side to this story too; one that would caution against too much triumphalism, would whisper warnings against hubris like a Roman senator’s attendant whispering a memento mori.  As cities become more like each other – with the same Mayoral Manifesto, the same coffee franchises and the same bus rapid transit systems – they drift further and further away from their rural hinterlands.  Some would argue, and in the case of London have done so – that this process should be followed through, that cities should be granted proper autonomy, controlling their own tax, welfare and regulatory systems. 
Absent that solution – and modern city states are a pretty motley collection, including Singapore, Hong Kong, the Vatican and Monte Carlo – and cities will continue to have to live with their sprawling green neighbours. Cracks are showing: in England, the tension between London and the rest (including regional cities) is becoming a leitmotif of debate: on house prices, on High Speed 2, on funding for the arts . But in the west (where the vast majority of the population already lives in urban communities), the urban elite has tended to stay in control, though the Tea Party movement in the US and UKIP in the UK can be seen as rural/provincial reactions to metropolitan values. 
In the developing world, where urbanization rates remain below 50 per cent, and urban values are perhaps less widespread, rural champions have been elected and tensions have been more clearly manifested. In Istanbul, the Taksim Square demonstrations brutally repressed by the police were the actions of a beleaguered urban liberal class fighting against destruction of a public space (one of the gravest sins in the urban catechism) by a President elected by a more religious, more conservative hinterland that is even more remote from Istanbul than rural Arkansas is from New York.
Similarly, India\’s urban, secular Congress Party is perpetually locked in battle with the more sectarian rural politics of the BJP. In Sri Lanka, a recent profile of President Rajapaska argued that the urban elites of Colombo regard their president, elected on a rural buddhist ticket, with embarrassment.
I\’m not sure where all this leads us.  Personally, I am clear where my loyalties lie, and I don\’t think cities should be in the business of kow-towing to rural conservatives.  But even in their moment of greatest triumph, cities should tread softly in proclaiming inherent superiority and denouncing their rural opponents as bigots and hicks.  Those singing hosannas to the greater glory of the urban inside the church should be aware of those outside, many of whom are indifferent or actively hostile to their creed.

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