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Cities: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Giftwrapped building in AmsterdamJesus and Muhammad traveled to the wilderness to develop their teachings. Even Gautama Buddha is said to have sat quietly beneath the rural Bohdi tree while he waited for enlightenment. But once they knew what needed to be said, all three men travelled to the closest city to convey the message.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a city to change the world. Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and influential mortals like Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Eva Peron, Marie Antoinette, Chairman Mao; they all gave their impassioned speeches, teachings, and at-times arm-twisting arguments, in cities. Cities are where the spokespeople for civilization come to urge the rest of us to follow a new path.

Sure, we now have texts and twitter, the Internet, and 24-hour cable, and when Oscar Morales, a Colombian engineer, wanted a stop to the rebel group FARC, he went to Facebook to mobilize 12 million people. But those 12 million people had to take to the streets in a 190 cities to actively protest and begin the end of FARC. Cities are the theatres of civilization.

You want to save the Bluefin tuna, or maybe stop sharks being finned and rhinos being killed for their horns? There’s an app for that – it’s the city, and generally the bigger the city, the bigger your chances of success to change the world. Also, the better your city is at taking care of the basics like garbage collection, services to the poor, and traffic, the better it will be able to deal with the broader issues.

Advertisers know well that if you want to get a new idea or habit adopted globally you will need to have it enter the world’s thinking through at least one of the 75-or-so ‘global cities’. Countries may be our homes but our cities are the doors that all economy and culture must travel through.

Cities are the gift that humanity has given itself. Sustainable cities are the only way to provide any modicum of a quality of life for the world’s soon-to-be 9 billion residents. Cities are the most efficient form to distribute resources and ideas and grow economies and cultures. Cities are where we create our music, our literature, and our agreements to work together to achieve common futures.

Every mayor of every city should be given a ‘Handle With Care’ sticker for his or her city this holiday season. Helping cities to deliver the basics while encouraging them to develop our collective aspirations requires careful balance, along with integrity and a bit of passion. Keep the streets safe for working, dancing, protesting, and walking arm-in-arm with your neighbor and your city will keep giving.


Photo: Giftwrapped building in Amsterdam, by The World According to Marty