Durable Growth, Government

Getting seconded with authority

Financial District in Manhattan

Financial District in Manhattan

A few posts back, while poking fun at my habit of tallying the states I’ve visited, I suggested that counting cities was a more appropriate measure of travel because cities have been more important to civilization.

The heart of my argument was “The history of civilization begins with Babylon, Athens, Sparta, Rome, and Carthage before continuing onward to Venice, Vienna, London, Paris, Philadelphia, and Boston.  Cities are where learning, government, and culture all took root.”

Thus, it was with delight that I came across an article by another writer starting with this phrase, “Although history is not usually taught this way, one could argue that cities have played a more important role in shaping the world than empires. From Athens and Rome to Paris and Venice to Baghdad and Beijing, urban ideas and innovators have left indelible marks on human life.”

We must have been working from the same syllabus.

The other writer was Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine.  Wow, my motion was seconded with authority.  (Yeah, that may have a bit too much hubris.)

The Foreign Affairs article can perhaps be found here.  However, the link, no matter how many times I copy it, doesn’t seem to work for me, for reasons I can’t discern.  Foreign Affairs must use some kind of cloaking device.   But a Google search on “foreign affairs city century” seems to work just fine.  Free registration is required to access the article.  Going through the multi-step registration is worthwhile.  The article is that good.

Building on his great start, Bloomberg goes on to make assertion after assertion with which I bobbed my head in enthusiastic concurrence, so many solid assertions that I had to restrain myself from copying the entire article and smashing the “Fair Use” standard.  So I’ll limit myself to just a few points.

Bloomberg argues that some authority will move back toward cities in the future.  In his words, “Influence will shift gradually away from national governments and toward cities.”

And that’s a good thing because cities like to experiment, “Mayors are turning their city halls into policy labs, conducting experiments on a grand scale and implementing large-scale ideas to address problems, such as climate change, that often divide and paralyze national governments.”

And cities are also better at experimentation than nations, “cities tend to be more nimble than national governments, which are more likely to be captured or neutralized by special interest groups and which tend to view problems through an ideological, rather than a pragmatic, lens.”

Bloomberg goes on to offer a list of ways in which cities can tackle climate change, from bike sharing to better solar policies, that are beyond most national governments.

Seriously, it’s a great article.  Go through the hassle of the free registration and read with enthusiasm.  You’ll be rewarded.

Before closing, I should make a couple of observations about what the Bloomberg/Alden hypothesis about the coming power of cities (once again, too much hubris) means to the cities of the North Bay.

I foresee a future where San Francisco sets the tone for the Bay Area.  Sacramento would still have power; civilizations can’t function without nations and their subdivisions.  But here in the North Bay, we would be satellites of San Francisco, not Sacramento.  (Sorry, Oakland and San Jose.  Yes, you may have more people and land than San Francisco, but you lack the geographical authority of the city that guards the Golden Gate.)

But even though North Bay cities may look to San Francisco for guidance, we would also have our own urban power.  Much as Bloomberg write about the accumulation of intellectual power in large cities, North Bay cities would have their own local accumulations, committed to building vibrant local economies, to addressing local problems, and to formulating solutions that can be promulgated elsewhere.

And urbanism would be a key element of that power, both as a solution to local issues and as a way of creating intellectual ferment through daily interactions on the sidewalks that are the marketplace of ideas.

To illustrate the sea change, I predict that the mayor elected by Petaluma in 2052 will come not from a single-family neighborhood, but from a downtown mixed-use community, such as Haystack Landing.  And that will be a good thing.  (For the record, I’ll be 99 in 2052, so am not planning on running for mayor.  But I am planning on voting for the Haystack Landing candidate.)

Thanks again to Mayor Bloomberg for having my back.

A few posts back, in recounting some final moments of insight from the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I noted the creative tension between the structure required for the coherence of an urban plan and the anarchy in which creative fringe of urban concepts can be explored.  It’s a topic which I’ve long pondered.  I don’t have any grand conclusions to offer but, in my next post, I’ll expand on the question and on my evolving thoughts.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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