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The idea that we love our cities should not be surprising

03-21 17:22 Caijing

 

Urban theorists reassure us of the benefits of city living, such as lower per capita carbon emissions compared to rural life. The title of an influential book by Edward Glaeser says it all: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. But urban living comes at a psychological cost. Small towns and villages provide a sense of community grounded in historical continuity and culture. Big cities, in contrast, smother difference; when urbanisation is combined with the seemingly inexorable force of capitalism, it has the effect of transforming a variety of local cultures into a single culture of consumerism.

The drab, uniform look of Chinese cities seems to have erased the diversity that makes human social life so valuable. Chinese cities were subject to 30 years of Soviet-style modernisation, followed by 30 years of American-style modernisation. From an architectural point of view, it may be the worst of two worlds.

But the similar look of Chinese cities masks a quest for particularity and community deeply rooted in human nature. I teach in two megacities – Beijing and Shanghai – and the two express a different set of social and political values, as reflected in street layouts, economic activity, openness to outsiders, and even the conversations of taxi drivers. If cities could be personalised, Beijing would be a public-spirited scholar/warrior, Shanghai a beautiful woman committed to fashion, food and entertainment . China's other cities are also less uniform than they seem at first. Some, such as Hangzhou, take pride in their environmental ethos, and megacities such as Chengdu and Chongqing compete for commitment to social justice. One of the new fields of social scientific research in China is survey work on the different "spirit" of cities such as Changsha and Harbin.

The idea that we love our cities should not be surprising. One of the most well-known slogans in modern history is "I love New York". "I love Beijing" – in English – is commonly seen on T-shirts in the Chinese capital. It's easy to be cynical, to say the whole thing is driven by money, but the slogan does tap into a real emotion. People do love their cities. The New York ethos is famously individualistic, but its underlying sense of community and urban pride emerges with full force in times of crisis, such as 9/11. And part of that urban pride – what can be termed "civicism" – comes from the sense that New York is different to the rest of the country; New Yorkers often say they feel more attached to their city than their nation.

The challenge is to combine the advantages of urban life with the sense of community found in small towns and villages. It's hard to feel proud of a city that only expresses the homogeneity of globalisation, just as it's hard to feel proud of a neighbourhood McDonald's. But cities that express a distinctive ethos can generate a sense of attachment that fulfils the need for community. Yes, civicism of this sort is often defined against another city that expresses contrasting values. But cities, unlike countries, won't go to war with each other, so we don't have to worry too much.

Daniel A Bell is co-author with Avner de-Shalit of The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age (Princeton University Press)

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