zaterdag 6 november 2010

Towards a State of Cities

by Frank van Empel

The World as a whole is a motley collection of nation states. Their wealth is expressed in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A measure that doesn’t take into account environmental damage, nor the use of materials and fossil fuels, freedom, health, happiness et cetera. We are used to this and never question its value. The same goes for next assumption: Like almost all famous economists we take the nation as a standard for comparison. We simply don’t realise that nations basically are political and military entities. With almost no exception, our current nations came into being in the first place through bloody military force, not through free market mechanisms. As a matter of fact wealth was created in the cities by entrepreneurs, but was not at their disposal. Rulers tapped it off to finance their wars and other adventures. In essence, nothing changed during all those centuries in between now and then. Citizens and corporations still pay taxes to the government that still claims to know best how to spend the money for more growth and national income.

Militarists and politicians love hierarchy. Their favourite way of organising is topdown. The economy on the other hand is blowing bubbles: bottom up, in a chaotic way at first sight. The management of that kind of processes takes place close to where it’s all happening: in the cities, towns and hamlets. According to the legendary urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs and a growing group of followers like Richard Florida, that is the way to understand the growth and decline of economies.
A relatively small country like the Netherlands can be split up in about thirty city regions. Four of them are situated in the Province of Noord-Brabant, surrounding the cities of Breda, Tilburg, ’s-Hertogenbosch and Eindhoven. Each region has three layers: the city itself, the surrounding suburbs and what is called the ‘exurbs’: rural communities that, due to proximity, are destined to become (part of the) suburbs too, as a consequence of further growth. The more economic activity a city generates, the more people it attracts. And the more cash flow or added value that extra activity brings in, the faster the city region expands. The more energy, creative and innovative power a city has, the faster the boundaries of the city and the suburbs move outward to swallow the exurbs. As economic growth comes to a halt however, the city and suburbs grow backwards, they impoverish and in the worst case fall apart.

How do you build up a dynamic, cash flow generating, value adding city region that attracts creative, value adding people from all over the world? How does a city turn itself into an economic powerhouse, an economic sun for the whole region and the surrounding area? What are the ingredients of a successful city pie? How does a city communicate to the rest of the World that it’s there, ready to give other people, organisations and city regions a boost too? How do you keep the motor running? How do you turn the development of a city region into a sustainable development? A lot of questions have to be answered. A lot of research has to be done.

Every city has its own culture and atmosphere. All kinds of professionals - often young (the so-called young urban professional or yup) - skilled migrants, homosexuals, artists and other unconventional people, are attracted by the dense and dynamic city, that functions as an economic, social and cultural sun. Every city has its own personality. A reflection of the residents. No two cities are the same. Certain personalities and economic activities flock to certain cities and make new connections. By doing that, they make up a special clustering of people and firms, that can be marketed as a unique selling point (usp) of the City in relation to other cities. If a City accentuates its strong points and invests in citybranding, that will pay off. Most cities have the power to shape their own identities and destinies, but lack the means. Their capacity to introduce new taxes or levies and/or raise the old ones, is limited. For the same reason a city administration of justice, a city defence and city foreign affairs are not done. It undermines the status and authority of the national government. In the meantime the national government gives up more and more parts of the higher ground to another player: the European Union. This union of states determines more and more the playing field for municipalities, big cities and regions (provinces).

There is another basic notion that needs correction. Most democracies old style (one man, one vote and the majority decides) are in the middle of a legitimacy crisis. People don’t accept every decision from the rulers any longer. As a consequence the outcomes of the political (democratic) process do not guarantee a balanced development of the welfare state and social harmony anymore. As the Tea party in the US and the rightwing, populist radicals in Europe show there is a big gap between the world of Politics (with capital P) and that of Ordinary People. A gap filled by movements from the right side of the political spectrum. If we dig deeper, we find out that the traditional left/right division of the political landscape doesn’t hold anymore. Self-secured, skilled, eloquent citizens take part in horizontal (social) networks and make crossovers, while political institutions stick to old fashioned, vertical, hierarchical, command & control structures.

In the sixties and seventies one was a leftwinger if one favoured redistribution of income, knowledge and power. One was a rightwinger if one supported the free market, which was equivalent for ‘the richest getting richer, the poor getting poorer’. Today the main topics are sustainable development and immigration. On these topics people are not easy to categorize into left, right or the middle. Besides that the focus is now more on practical questions, like: are you in favour of or against a certain highway or building project? The answers to this kind of questions can be found within a city or on a regional level between cities.

Four levels of government and administration – EU, nation state, region/province and city – is too much. Something has to give. The cities have strong cards. In the Netherlands they will grow out to some 30 regions or City States new style, or to much bigger entities as Brainport (South-East of the line Tilburg-Den Bosch) or the South (Noord-Brabant, Limburg, Zeeland). All cities and city regions have their usp’s. Nashville in the US is an extreme example. With its cluster of musicians, composers, studios, publishers and record companies it’s the most concentrated centre of commercial music-making in the world.

Jane Jacobs already in 1984 foresaw a division of the single national sovereignty into a family of smaller regional sovereignties (City States). One step further is the privatisation of city-regions. The concept of privatisation is simple. It’s the transfer of property from public or cooperative ownership to private ownership. Then the dream of the regular urbanist, the transition from a Nation State to a City State and finally a State of Cities, is a fact.

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Op 11 april 2015 kwam 'Parkinson Hotel' uit. Een uitgave waarin Franky de dialoog aan gaat met Parkie. Zie: Deze blog is een aanvulling hierop. Doel is o.a. de bekendheid met de ziekte te vergroten, ook voor hen die net als ik een ongenode gemene gast herbergen en hun partners. Ik hoop mensen met de ziekte van Parkinson te inspireren om niet bij de pakken neer te zitten. Sinds de diagnose Parkinson’s Disease, voorjaar 2004, strijd ik tegen de ziekte, tegen toenemende medicatie en de bijwerkingen van pillen. Ooit zei een collega dat ik 'sneller typte dan God kon lezen'. Ik was politiek en economisch redacteur van o.a. NRC, Elsevier en Haagse Post (in omgekeerde volgorde). De ziekte van Parkinson staat bekend om haar progressiviteit, de symptomen worden met de tijd erger. Mijn verzet bestond en bestaat uit het trainen van hersenen en lichaam. Ik promoveerde in 2012, voetbal iedere zondag, doe aan Nordic Walking en andere sporten. Ik speel gitaar. En bovenal, ik blijf schrijven. Allemaal dingen die ik graag doe. Op 24 april 2015 onderga ik een 'deep brain stimulation' en schakel ik naar hogere frequenties van levensgenot.