City Power

Where does power and authority come from? I think this is an interesting question to ask ourselves. What is it that makes a nation, a state, a city, or an institution powerful and authoritative? Thousands to hundreds of years ago we solved this question by outsourcing – we decided that a divine being had vested power and authority in a single individual. Today, what creates authority for our mayor, the supreme court, and our nation is not divine, but public trust, cooperation, and economic prospects. Building society with these blocks isn’t always perfect, but it has managed to work for humans for a few hundred years now.

 

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at the implications of the authority and power philosophy I described above in their book The New Localism. They write, “The power of cities and counties is not like the power of nations or states. It is grounded in markets and civics more than in constitutions or charters.” The authors make a split between the local and national in terms of how power and authority play out to create a social structure of trust. Nations and states tend to be based on written charters agreed to by relatively diverse populations. Cities and local counties tend to be based on shared values, experiences, and backgrounds with shared economic prospects and motives being the ultimate binding glue.

 

I think there are two things that we can understand about national versus local systems from the description provided by Katz and Nowak. Nations and states, with authority grounded in written constitutions and charters, have a more permanent and stable feel to them. changing something in a drastic manner requires a change to the written founding documents. This gives national and state governments more structure and a form that is more likely to endure longer into the future, but at the cost of making them rigid and hard to adapt to changes in the economy, in social preferences, and other trends.

 

As a contrast, city and local governments, which are based more on shared interests, engaged civic actors, and local economic contexts are more flexible and adaptable to trends, changing social preferences, and new economic developments. This gives local and state governments the flexibility that is needed to take advantage of new innovations and technologies. It allows the governments to solve problems through the power of collective action, but it also leave them vulnerable to wild swings in economic fortunes and broader sociopolitical forces.

 

While nations are able to define their populaces and establish binding rules for citizens across decades or centuries, cities often find it hard to create structures and institutions that are guaranteed to last as long. City populations are more prone to leave when things go south, and the strength of institutions can be greatly diminished when the population falls and a few actors exert undue influence in local decision making. Nevertheless, humans seem to be drawn toward cities and seem to be willing to reinvent cities on a continual basis. This creates the dynamic power that cities are exerting today to solve problems and address global challenges that seem to be paralyzing nations.

Institutional Reinvention

I have written a good amount about the importance and value of institutions. The systems and structures, both formal and informal, that create appropriate venues for discussion and help shape our norms and rules are crucial to our culture and to the development of society and knowledge. In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss ways in which rediscovering institutions within American cities is leading to a rebirth of metropolitan areas. Large cities are important because they pull people together, unite them around local problem solving, and produce benefits for the entire society to enjoy.  As people have begun moving back to cities and re-creating them to be more livable and social, they are discovering new institutions and new value in places that had been forgotten and previously experienced periods of disinvestment.

 

The authors write, “Placemaking uncovers the inherent value of a community and redefines its potential by integrating its historical identity with contemporary uses. As American cities lost population and dynamism, many of the grand institutions and buildings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fell into decline or disrepair. Late twentieth-century place-making rediscovered what still existed and repurposed it for a new era.”

 

This quote provides encouraging notes about reinventing and returning to valuable institutions, and also a cautionary tale about deserting institutions. When we have physical structures in place and enough people to remember institutions from that past which had served us well, we can always return to those institutions and even find new ways to use them and incorporate them into our lives. However, if we chose not to support our institutions and allow them to decay, they can languish and sit in disregard, becoming more of a headache than a valuable tool.

 

I think this is true for any type of institution, be it a physical institution such as a library, or a non-tangible institution such as a value of equality. For various complex reasons (some sensible like finding clean playgrounds for children and some not so wholesome such as new forms of racial segregation) American cities experienced a period of declining populations as (primarily white middle and upper class) citizens abandoned city centers for outlying suburbs. Katz and Nowak argue that this weakened the institutions that had made cities thriving places and had originally helped them grow and develop. Negative stereotypes of city centers persisted and while they may have been economic engines, they were not the cultural and in many ways not the institutional centers they had once been. New Localism is in some ways a return to the institutions of cities that had been abandoned in the past. As cities gentrify (a challenge in itself that is still tinged by racial disparity) they are becoming more attractive places to live, and the institutions which had once served city populations are being reinvented and reinvigorated.

 

We should recognize the positive in this story and celebrate and strengthen those institutions which fuel progress, improve our lives, and help promote equality and democracy. We should look at the squalor that cities and their institutions were put through and avoid throwing many of our modern institutions through those same tortures. We should remember that our suburbs are valuable as well, and support the populations and institutions of suburbs as people begin to move from suburbs and rural areas back into dense cities. This creates a two (or maybe three) front situation in terms of protecting and strengthening institutions, and the lessons we learned from abandoning and rediscovering and reinventing city institutions can help us navigate this new challenge brought about by New Localism.