WE TOOK SOME DOWNTIME LAST WEEK TO CELEBRATE OUR ANNIVERSARY, but since our return I have been struck by all the conversations that have been going on about our city and its future. I shouldn’t be surprised. Since the very beginning of recorded history, the places where we live, cooperate, and occasionally contend, together have dominated human thoughts.
It is proof again of American philosopher, John Dewey’s, observation: “The local is the only universal, and as near an absolute as exists.”
But somehow, along the winding and sometimes frantic pace of our civilization, power moved away from where we live to other places – parliaments, world organizations, financial bodies – that at the moment seem farther away from us than ever. The challenges that we presently face are real, but the decisions as to how to deal with them are concluded nowhere near us.
However it happened, things got away on us. Everything began local and for millennia it was all we knew. Then came empires, technological advances, massive movements of populations, remarkable developments in transportation, and before we knew it, decisions about finance, government, legislation, even how we farm, were no longer formulated in our midst, but likely in our absence.
But following three centuries of such a dizzying pace, things are coming home to roost – climate change, conflicts, rising economic inequality and unemployment, and political and financial dysfunction. And now an intriguing movement is getting underway – the important decisions and vital aspects of life are returning to our cities and the places where we bring up our families and learn to cooperate together. As global, state, and regional governments seem increasingly incapable of cooperating to solve our great dilemmas, citizens are making their own moves to build a better world. The “city” movement is picking up steam like few other organizational innovations. Some of our most intriguing politicians are some of our mayors and reeves – with a few difficult and embarrassing exceptions.
Yet with all this new attention on the “local,” we have to repeatedly ask ourselves if we are up to the challenge that community self-government will require? For all those centuries where others handled things for us, from monarchies to empires to representative democracies, we were provided little opportunity to learn the skills of self-governance. Yet that door is now opening to us, or, as Jane Jacobs put it:
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
The focus of humanity has come back full circle – local has become universal again, and with that change we take on a new importance as citizens. Maybe that’s what folks are sensing, even in the lazy days of summer. Important days are ahead – elections, the setting of priorities, new exercises in civic engagement. History has come back to where we live. Now our task is to shape it.