RSA - The Spirit of Cities

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

One of the advantages of often using the RSA House as my London office is that there are some really excellent lunchtime events in my workplace. Today, Avner de-Shalit, professor of democracy and human rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was talking about the The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age, a book he co-authored with Daniel Bell on the identity of cities in a global age.

[![]( 21 Feb 2012 13:34.jpg)]( 21 Feb 2012 13:34.jpg)
We live in an global era – it is flat in the sense that it is easy to move from one place to another, he suggested. But it’s also flat in he sense that it’s not profound. There’s less debate about ideology than there used to be. However different states try to be from one another, the demands of the global market, the IMF, international law, etc, actually drive them into a stae of relative similarity. What does it mean to be French, German or Italian? It matters less and less, he suggested, but people want to feel particularity. Cities shape our lives because they promote radically different lives.

The book argues empirically that the urban identity is supplanting the national one, and that it’s a positive thing. The authors studied nine cities, and compared them with other cities in the same countries.

He floated some nice ideas:

  • The stroller as the botanist of the street.
  • Why no children in the public specs of New York? You cannot walk in the streets if you are a child. At child height all you can see is legs moving.
  • Civicism – a sense of pride, love and desire to contribute to a city. Use this local patriotism to start to restrict the power of the state. Cities cannot fight each other – just complain.

And he had some definitions of the spirits of cities for us. Paris is the non-pasteurised city, leaving pasteurised to the bourgeois. Berlin is intolerance and acceptance – but mixed with intolerance. He explained this one in some detail. All modern buildings in the city are built with glass and are transparent; a stark contradiction of the Nazi era. However, there have been peaks and troughs of tolerance in Berlin. Tolerance has meant indifference rather than inclusion. On a different path now? We believe so. Berliners are no longer trying to be perfect.

The city as metaphor for corruption and crime is an outdated idea, he suggested. The idea of a city needs to be meaningful to local communities.

Some more ideas from the Q&A, moderated by Dr Fran Tonkiss, Reader in Sociology, and Director of the Cities Programme, LSE:

  • If the idea of a city is engineered top down as a marketing exercise, it needs to be done in a way which allows people to be involved in the process.
  • Cities have the right size – but not the right budget, so there are some problems with which they can’t cope.
  • When we go to a city for the first time, we walk and walk and walk until we collapse – because we want to get a sense of the city.
  • London has different, competing stories. London was more like a federation until the arrival of the mayor. After the war, London decided to be a global city – the sane alternative to New York. A cosmopolitan city. Other cities like London: Tokyo. Maybe there’s room for a book about neighbourhoods.
  • Transport – some cities are good to walk, some are lousy to walk. Lots of books about the workable city.
  • Climate effect on cities? Detroit was doomed by the cold. Cities that flourish in America are often determined by climate. The warmer the better.

I suppose, as a journalist and writer, the idea of cities having, in effect, a narrative of self appeals to me deeply. But the underlying principle, that of the city replacing the nation state as a point of identification, is compelling. I suppose I’d better read the book now…

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.