Why a City’s Not a Country


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Flags in front of UN headquarters, New York City

We all have the currency of a country or two in our wallets; maybe a passport too. We can be brought to tears when we see ‘our’ flag unfurled at the Olympics or a World Cup. Sure there are great sporting rivalries between cities like Milan and Barcelona, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and (in that other football) Dallas vs. Washington. But it’s countries that need flags and currencies, languages and laws, to inspire passion and fidelity. Running a country is about protecting an idea, an ideal, and a dream. Psychologically and physically countries have borders – barriers to entry and exit; people, ideas, money – it all needs to be controlled by a national authority.

Cities are different. Cities are anchored to a specific place. A sheltered port, the mouth of a river, a fertile valley, or a strategic vantage point: cities emerge where geography and opportunity combine. Much has been written on the creative class – that fickle, mobile group of professionals wandering the planet looking for their next engagement. City officials may actively seek them, but far more important are those people willing to stay and fight for their city. With links and roots like children, mortgages, and history, people who feel they belong are the foundation of every city.

Country officials may argue that cities enjoy the ‘umbrella of security’ a nation provides. Maybe, but it’s also fair to say a country’s minister of finance is most beholding to the treasure and trust of the cities in her country, or the buying habits of cities in other countries. Historically countries exist because a few cities got together and said, ‘Let’s create a country over this geography,’ maybe with the middle step of a state or province. Soon, more and more cities will get together and say, ‘Let’s figure out how to cooperate so as to keep the planet hospitable for our cities.’

Cities are where most of us live. Our querencias are in our cities – home plus more. The places where we are anchored, from where we face the winds of fortune, and increasingly from where we shape those same winds and events. True, you can have several cities that you call home, a bit like the dual passport holder, but sooner or later, if you want to make a difference, you will need to pick a city in which to take a stand.

Being the mayor of a city is fundamentally different than being a national president or prime minister. For a mayor the big picture is made up of a multitude of ‘little things.’ The mayor cannot move her city, she (or he) cannot balance things across her geography, she has only one geography, one place, and arguably one chance.

As many mistakes are made in cities as anywhere else, probably more. But the mistakes are usually far more visible; an ‘expressway’ in the wrong place or a sixth ring road, condos obscuring the waterfront, isolated buildings, sprawl. In a city you build atop your ruins. You can’t move away. During the next 30 years new cities for another 2.5 billion people will be built. Very few new countries are likely to be built during this time, and if they are, they will likely be from failures of today’s nations. This may be unfortunate but not critical to the planet’s future. In the next three decades, cities on the other hand need to be built and re-built with very few mistakes. A city is not a country because increasingly a city’s mistakes matter more.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo on Flickr.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

Join the Conversation

Prof. Charles Hostovsky
November 28, 2012

Good point about another 2.5 billion people being added to cities over the next 3 decades Dan. But, unfortunately, a large percentage of those people will be added to the shantytowns, favelas, and slums of our planet's megacities. These people will have little potable water, no solid waste management, no sewage system, lousy roads and dangerous housing susceptible to collapsing with even a small tremor. So are these really cities in any organized urban planning sense?

Dan Hoornweg
November 28, 2012

Thanks. Good point. And this is added to an already 1 Billion-plus people living in slums today. And these people will be even more in harms way as the climate changes and crowding increases. They certainly are not planned and serviced cities as we would all hope. Cities are facing quickly growing challenges; far more effort is needed to help the poor in most cities. The next couple decades will be an enormous test to individual cities and all humanity.