You can’t help but feel for London. With the spate of terrorist attacks and now the dreadful fire there must be a palpable sense of disbelief, grief and anguish hanging over what is one of the world’s great cities. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, seems to be everywhere whereas British Prime Minister Theresa May not so much. Her expression of grief and upset, while no doubt genuine, seems to feel a little more forced than Khan who, after all, connects directly with his own city.
This appears to be an emerging trend where large cities because of their size, strategic importance and cluster of financial power seem to be wielding a lot more influence. Influence beyond our comprehension a decade ago. Cities, for many of us, are where we live, work and die. The Population Reference Bureau (PRB) calculates that by 2050 70% of the world’s population will reside in cities. Cities are in many ways easier to make a connection to. It’s hard not to fall in love with Madrid or Barcelona, New York or Amsterdam. It is a lot harder to fall for the USA or Netherlands to the same extent. Where passion for an entire country comes into play it can be hard to distil patriotism from nationalism. At the city level I don’t think you can be nationalistic. I’ve not heard of a concept called ‘cityalism’. I’ve heard of city pride though.
In some ways countries are letting us down. The UK just recently seems a good example. For those of us who wanted to remain in Europe the country votes for Brexit. The USA, once leader of the free world, now seems to want to focus internally and gives its mantle to China. China which has worked hard through soft diplomacy to re-enter the world post Mao, now builds faux islands in the South China Sea for aggressive strategic advantage. Japan, in recent years a beacon of what you can do if you don’t devote your intellectual elite to the pursuit of armaments design and manufacture, is now militarising. We waited with baited breath recently for what Trump would do on the Paris Climate Agreement and he didn’t disappoint. They’re out!
With all the flux in the world politics and the rise of populism it feels like democracy itself is under threat. Trump isn’t doing much to help by muddying the waters around the Fifth Estate with his constant labelling of any negative press as ‘fake news’. Putin seems ensconced as the leader of Russia (duly elected) and the maturing democracy of Turkey has taken a huge leap backwards as President Erdogan curtails opposition, the press and free speech in an endeavour to cement his long-term plutocratic ambitions. Voters everywhere (except maybe France and Germany) are fed up. Politics and politicians are turning us off and away from a real interest in politics. It used to be a topic of conversation at the pub, or in the coffeehouses. Nowadays our views are so polarised you would think twice about revealing your political allegiance for fear of being disowned by your friends of the opposite political colour. Tolerance for another’s political perspective is genuinely lacking in today’s society.
It’s easy to feel gloomy with this pot pouri of negativity permeating our world. But there is a shining light on our horizons. As it becomes too difficult, or problematic, to contemplate issues at an international or national level, people are starting to think and act locally. Community is the salve for the schisms in society. Cities are on the rise. Cities are making the pledges to reduce greenhouse gases a reality when their nations refuse to play ball. Cities are engaging their citizens in a way that is forging a new and dynamic form of democracy that might leave our traditional democratic structures behind. It just might be that cities save the very essence of democracy. So it’s Sadiq Khan who seems to cut through for me lately. Cities are vibrant and they engage. Spain has grappled with the vexed and complex issue of bull-fighting for years. Barcelona just banned it outright. When it felt like New Yorkers were losing their city to the developers and wealthy, they morphed the Highline out of an ugly industrial relic.
It’s easy to be pessimistic with the world today and this constant barrage of negativity. But some things endure. The human spirit is one and the other is the inexorable rise of the city and its ability to heal communities and create engaging places to live, play and do business. Where governments can’t or won’t step in cities now will. That is why Sadiq Khan looked so …err.. Presidential this last couple of weeks and why May and Trump looked forlorn.