London! Culturally vibrant! Economically mighty! Politically impotent! Photo by Jason Hawkes
Cities! Over half of humanity now lives in the damn things. Naturally, the futurists are f'ing beside themselves over the wonders this portends. Why, here's prosperity prophet Richard Florida, writing in The Atlantic about how "giant city-states" will own your future:
Gradually, our great complexes of cities and suburbs are being knit into mega-regions -- giant city-states that are home to millions upon millions of people and generate billions and in some cases trillions of dollars of economic activity. Driving this is not just our individual choices and preferences but the very logic of economic development. Geographic concentration and clustering speeds the transmission of new ideas, increases the underlying productivity of people and firms, and generates powerful economies of scale.
He's got a point, of course, though for additional perspective you should read Nicholas Lemann's (paywalled, sadly) piece on the fight over urban identity. But there's one problem with dubbing this the new age of city-states, namely, the "state" part: most metropoli don't have a huge amount of say in government, often even in their own.
Why, for all their economic and cultural importance, are cities still politically impotent?
It's not as if cities have no clout — sheer population gives some say — but for a structure so important, there are surprising limits.
Take London, for example. One of the most important cities on the planet, but any local authority it has derives from Westminster. Margaret Thatcher's government infamously sacked the city's council in 1986, and London didn't have its own leadership again until 2000.
It's not just in the UK. New York's battles with Albany are legendary. While American cities' powers vary widely from state-to-state, most operate under some version of Dillon's Rule, a 19th-century legal precedent that holds "Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control."
In practice, that means everything from urban farming to revenue to growth is controlled by outside entities. Even the political representation they accrue by dint of population can be diluted by legislative districts carefully drawn for just that purpose.
Look at my own city: Asheville.
Because I love me some cityscapes. Photo by Derek Olson.
While a shit-ton smaller than London, Asheville is the business, population and cultural hub for its area. But, legally, the state legislature's control is absolute.
Currently, the assembly is considering seizing Asheville's airport, and studying the possibility of taking away the water system, its rates already severely restricted by state legislation. While not strictly a municipal matter, the same legislature also unilaterally changed the way the county elects commissioners and moved to split the city between two congressional districts.
If Asheville wants to raise additional revenue by say, a food and beverage or hotel occupancy tax (both money-makers in a tourist town), it has to ask Raleigh, even though it's a local matter.
Small wonder that viewed from one angle, the primary political divide in the United States is urban vs. rural, not "red state vs. blue state."
So, why the gap?
Most of our current political structures were forged in the 19th century, when cities were largely viewed as Mos Eisley-style hives of scum and villainy. Metropoli were riotous things, prone to political upheaval and corrupt local machines. Best, the reasoning went, to keep them as chained as possible. A number of politically powerful constituencies still feel that way.
Emerging from colonial rule, nations such as India modeled much of their own structures accordingly, complete with the relative lack of local control. Local government wasn't recognized by India's constitution until 1992, with municipal elections sometimes absent entirely. Europe still retained much the same attitude: as recently as the 1980s, France's central government still appointed local prefects. Other countries, like China, had their own traditions of central rule, and the result was often the same: politically defanged cities.
But this is a very different era, and the lack of local control is a serious impediment to a more viable political and social structure. A lot is up in the air, and with over half of humanity living in cities, we need better ways to run them, quickly. With a unique level of complexity, cities can provide a field for fruitful experimentation in better ways to govern, if given the ability to do so.
This isn't a theoretical problem: the gap created by years of India's lack of strong local government, for example, has left municipalities sorely unable to meet the needs of a booming populace.
I have a feeling outdated structures will face a serious challenge when cities see increased political unity. With national loyalty fading and most people living in urban borders, that day may come soon, as the polis is a potential alternative (when New Yorkers identify themselves, they're not thinking of their state).
Until then, the problem remains: if the future is in the cities, they need the power to face it.