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Why a City’s Not a Duck

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Ducks in a row


Up north on the lake, every year near our cabin, we see a pair of nesting ducks. We call her Mrs. Merganser as she leads her 8 to 16 ducklings around the lake. There’s a Mr. Merganser too, but truth be told, he seems a bit of a slacker in the childcare department.

The ducks make an annual migration of a few thousand kilometers, splitting their time between the northern lake, southern retreat, and a couple months on the road. The birds are transient.

While pursuing ‘world class’ status or trying to attract the latest knowledge workers, a city might walk like a duck and quack like a duck. But a city is not a duck. A city is anchored — immobile.

We tend to think of countries as permanent — we have currency and passports after all. But countries come and go; few countries are more than a couple hundred years old and many of the borders are fresh lines on maps, often still in dispute. Some cities however are as old as civilization itself. Cities are marathoners while countries are sprinters.

Quick, name some of the world’s best mayors. How about Iñaki Azkuna – Bilbao; Lisa Scaffidi – Perth; Joko Widodo – Surakarta; Mick Cornett – Oklahoma City; Marcelo Ebrard – Mexico City; or Dianne Watts – Surrey? What one thing do all these mayors have in common? They are rooted to their city. Their ‘querencia’ – the place from which they gain their strength – is their city hall.

The worse thing a mayor can do is pit one part of his city against another. Good mayors build cities. Great mayors share pride of place with the residents of their city.

Organizations like the United Nations and World Bank employ lots of duck-like transient staff. They bring an extremely valuable global perspective, but sometimes they might want to emphasize the local connection. When saying that ‘all politics is local’, we are saying that all politics has to be anchored somewhere. Anchoring much of our global politics to cities seems a strategic approach.

This summer the nesting mergansers likely had another brood of ducklings. We didn’t go up to the cabin to see, we stayed put at home. Hopefully strengthening our roots while enjoying the city, despite our urge to take flight every now and then.

Photo:  Ducks in a row. Source:  Travis Prebble, Flickr.com