Why Cities Matter

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Tim Redmond is editor of 48 Hills, the official publication of the San Francisco Progressive Media Center and a faculty member of the Urban and Public Affairs MA program

Rebecca Solint, the author of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Nonstop Metropolis: A New York Atlas, notes that if you take a map of the most walkable areas in the US and superimpose a map of the presidential election results, you see a pattern that many of us have been talking about for a long time:

We don’t really have blue states and red states. We have cities, and we have areas outside of cities. And in cities all over the US, even in the most conservative states, you tend to get more liberal voters.

This is not a trend that fits with the coasts, or the “elite” areas like San Francisco and New York. Jackson, Mississippi has one of the most progressive mayors in the country.

No: It has something to do with urban life, with what happens when you walk out the door in a city.

Cities are places where people who don’t look like each other, don’t sound like each other, don’t worship like each other, don’t think like each other interact on a daily basis. In great cities, residents are more likely to learn to live with diversity, to celebrate it instead of fear it.

Cities are also becoming the most important political players in the world today. Great cities are eternal — Rome, London, Paris, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing … they have outlasted a long list of empires and national governments. And they will outlast many more.

And as the United States government becomes more and dysfunctional, cities are emerging as the policy leaders, the laboratories of democracy. Local government is — by necessity and choice — taking on more and more of what the federal and state governments used to do.

And as that happens, there are massive challenges. In San Francisco, the wealth that has emerged in recent decades has gone almost entirely to the very top. Poverty and homelessness are epidemic. The middle class is squeezed out.

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We see the same patterns in other big cities, in the US and elsewhere. As we are becoming increasingly a world where people live in cities, the policy problems that once beset the White House and Congress are playing out on our streets, in our backyards.

That’s part of what we talk about in the Masters of Urban and Public Affairs program, and what I will be covering in my classes on Issues in Urban Public Policy this fall. Our students are brilliant — and every time I teach this class, I think: the next generation of urban leaders are coming from here. And it gives me constant hope.

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