Cities: The Missing Presidential Campaign Issue*

Lorenzetti. “Allegory of Good Government: Effects of Good Government in the City.” 1338-40. Fresco. Palazzo Publico, Siena, Italy.

I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Cities. That’s what I’ll tell the presidential candidates when they call for career advice, any day now I expect. Cities.

Because the downtowns and suburbs of cities, where the supermajority of Americans toil, relax, and puzzle out their lives — our downtowns, suburbs and urban spaces between — are invisible in the 2008 campaign.

This is not right; the policy vacuum for all things urban in today’s national debates is both disquieting and disingenuous. In many ways, cities define us better than other identity politics. Our greatest opportunities and challenges are often best understood and tackled, first and foremost, as urban questions.

Freud famously claimed that modern neuroses result from trying to reconcile the benefits of civilization with our instinctual distrust of unrelated others in close quarters: He was describing the everyday tensions of urbanity. Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill didn’t say, “All politics is local,” to win an election. He was explaining how the world works.

Need specific examples? Gasoline — and its tax — is almost all devoted to short trips from and to home. The most worrisome crime is near at hand, as are traffic, pollution, housing and work, and on and on. Though rural poverty endures, the clearest divides between rich and poor are among neighbors, and substantially explained by how cities perform and the diversity they use and make.

Yet the campaigns do not talk about how cities disproportionately fail to graduate young men from high school, how traffic congestion chokes growth in many urban corridors, the challenges of suburbanites aging in place, how some cities grow at the expense of others, the mobility struggles of the average maturing metropolis, how all these issues are linked by the places they exist in, or even merely that we chiefly live in diverse, productive, spatial communities best characterized by shared interests. Did I mention traffic?

In other words, our quality of life is substantially place-based; the gamut of what does and should matter in modern life is represented, in the main, by the metropolitan character of our world.

And today, it’s the whole world. By the end of 2008, fully half the world will live in cities. International conflicts are gradually less about nationalism or borders and more about the internal strains and benefits of metropolitanism. China and India’s rising demand for energy, cars, and stuff in general, is the effect of their cities succeeding, and often failing too, at rates the world has never seen. A vast proportion of religious, resource, cultural and political creativity and conflict is urban, stimulated by nearness, density, and the other circumstances of contact. Local and global pressures to reform governance and democratize arise from the contests of multiple urban constituencies. Global warming is what cities do with their trucks, fuels, and factories, and our best efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change will be urban strategies.

In short, our cities are the global agents of change, prosperity, and conflict in a flattening world. They are our families, our fortunes and our failures. More than any other idea or institution, these places made us as we make them and we rise or fall with their fortunes.

So why aren’t they debated as either what ails us or as the basis for sensible remedies? Why aren’t cities, even occasionally, a lens candidates use to frame and address the key domestic and international tradeoffs of our time? The major contestants certainly have white papers on infrastructure, housing finance, education, and poverty, or will soon enough. Many have statements on rural policy. Only one has an urban policy section of their website, and until last Saturday, none have given a major address on the topic. They talk about cities, they parade through our cities, but they do not engage in presidential-level debates over what to do with cities or how that would matter.

Why not? One convenient explanation is that campaigns, not least this one, tend more toward swing voters than functional constituencies. Big cities especially might poll clearly toward one prospective nominee or another, and strategic attention thus shifts to demographic divisions rather than spatial or civic ones. This may be a country of cities, but the decisive electoral margins are seen as based on sex, color, age, or bowling skills. The conventional consultant wisdom is that cities are too complicated, bulky and crude a constituency to work as identity politics. Yet we remain unequivocally, literally defined by our common ground.

Two additional excuses are that localities are not a formal federal responsibility in a federal system, and that the U.S. is both increasingly suburban and spatially characterized by potentially divisive demographic shifts. But these formalities do not in any useful sense preclude leadership on, and discussion of, the core problems and opportunities of the day. Would-be presidents can and should see and talk to us for who we are, a nation dominated by the particular qualities and consequences of urbanism and place. If these represent continuing or emerging legal, cultural and economic challenges, my point is all the more pressing.

I’m not calling for a new umbrella urban policy, only a frank and deliberate admission that cities matter and that federal policies have pivotal, differential urban impacts — which should be transparent and purposeful rather than accidental. Neither should we blindly endorse the naked self-interest of local politicians, simply because their pork is place-based. Instead, I merely want our political leadership to acknowledge that we are an urban nation, living in places. When they debate education, crime, taxes, housing, climate change, and transportation, they should address their metropolitan, regional, downtown and suburban implications as a matter of course. To do otherwise is to lead by coyness.

And when the new president calls in December, asking for advice about things foreign and domestic, I’ll start with just one word.
*This was first drafted in April. Many thanks for very helpful comments on that version from Lisa Bates, Ed Bergman, John Friedmann, Peter Gordon, Greg Ingram, Dowell Myers, Lisa Schweitzer, Fritz Steiner, and Jim Throgmorton.

Monday, June 23rd, 2008
randall Crane