Metropolis Rising: Welcome To The Century Of The City

In Politics, Aristotle declared man to be “a social animal.” As such, man’s natural instinct is to congregate in large communities for welfare, economic benefit, and the enjoyment of each other’s company. This has created cities, a human concept older than agriculture. And while the human population has always been increasingly drawn to living in urban areas, it has always been limited by technology and urban planning.

In 2008, the United Nations Population Fund declared that for the first time in history more than half of the human population was living in urban areas. And although determining what areas are considered to be urban is a fairly subjective process, the 2010 United States Census indicated that 80 percent of the American population was urbanized.

Modern nation-states no longer wield the power they used to; many countries have devolved some of their powers, such as the United Kingdom, while others have been left with weakened national governments, such as Russia. This is not to say that nation-states do not still rule the world, or that it is cities which will be raising armies and waging war, but slowly there is a transfer of power and influence. A century ago, nation-states were at the height of their power, and brought civilization the First World War. The nation-state marshalled the resources of its land and compelled its citizens to fight for a nationality. At this time, urban areas were centers of filth and crime that led to an exodus of the wealthy and the creation of the “suburb.”

This is no longer so. As America’s crime rate has dropped consistently since the mid-1990’s, FBI crime data continues to show that many of the largest cities in the U.S. are becoming increasingly safer. Cities like Boston, Los Angeles, and especially New York are experiencing crime rates lower than they have experienced in decades. Some attribute this to more-advanced policing techniques, others to demographics – regardless, most large urban areas are becoming safer.

Also, cities are becoming healthier, for humans and the environment. Many human health issues, especially access to clean drinking water, were taken care of decades ago, spurring some of the greatest infrastructure investments ever seen in New York and Los Angeles. And while some western cities like Los Angeles still have a long way to go in addressing their air pollution problems, urban centers are now able to turn towards being healthier for the environment, through the use of more effective urban planning. Cities are by nature more environmentally-friendly than rural or suburban areas. The density of the human population allows for more efficient use of resources – putting salt on a road helps more people, less electrical wire needs to be laid down to reach a location, etc. Even just the abundance of public transportation and the ability to walk everywhere makes urban citizens more “green: in terms of carbon than those in rural or suburban locales. But many cities are taking it further, pushing for “green” architecture and design, promoting buildings that are more energy efficient, building materials that produce less emissions (cement is a primary produce of carbon dioxide emissions), and integrating more green spaces into urban centers.

The only way that such improvements are possible though, is because of the primary weapon of the major city – its economic power. Eternally the purpose and primary advantage of cities, from Babylon to Venice to London and New York, cities exponentially increase the economic contribution of an individual. America’s hotbeds of technological and entrepreneurial innovation are in the streets of San Francisco and the studios of Brooklyn. While nation-states had armies, cities have corporations and entrepreneurs, and especially in a world of devolved powers and decreased restrictions on trade and business activity, these cities will compete to host the biggest bank accounts and the most advanced companies. If New York City were an independent country, it would be the 13th largest economy in the world at $1.35 trillion GDP, right behind Australia. The 2013 U.S. Metro Economies report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors shows that the economy of metro New York is only surpassed by the states of California and Texas; that of Los Angeles by those and in addition New York and Florida.

As the economy, and in turn, our livelihoods, are increasingly drawn to the metropolitan areas, the power of cities and their mayors will grow. There is no question that many mayors are more influential than most governors in America. And around the world, other countries are beginning to adopt American ways in order to embrace the new urban dominance. In 2000, the position of Mayor of London was created in a referendum, a position that is highly unusual in the UK but quite natural in the U.S. There is also a growing movement in Dublin to do the same, supported by the appointed Lord Mayor, advocating creating an elected position with far greater powers.

If this is truly the Century of the City, then there will be risks along with the benefits. Offices such as Mayor of New York City must be held to a higher standard, and poor mayors may have the potential to be more devastating than ever before. For all of its benefits, there may soon come a time when Americans decide it is better to flee the congested metropolitan areas and return to the farms and ranches of the countryside.