Two years ago, I participated in the learning roundtable for the first cycle of the WRI Ross Center Prize for Cities. I confess that my expectations were rather moderate, but that, to my surprise, I found it truly refreshing and exhilarating. Why?
First, because this discussion brought together people who dedicated their days and nights to making the world a better place in some way or another, no matter the odds, shying away from the inaction and despair that accompany the all-too-familiar doom and gloom scenarios.
Second, because it focused on building blocks for urban transformation – on generating useful and practical knowledge about a specific urban problem, acting in a conscious way on the problem, and reflecting and measuring the effects of that action.
This approach is an essential ingredient of the budding “science of cities,” following in the footsteps of medical science in discovering the anatomy of cities, identifying their specific ailments, and discovering and testing effective cures. The competitive element of the Prize for Cities helps to unearth, record and disseminate the vast number of experiments in urban transformation that are now taking place, often in remote corners of our urban world. The universe of cities is a vast global laboratory, where the most creative people are constantly engaged in innovative experiments, seeking to find out what works, how it works and why.
Most importantly, a key feature of cities is that they bring people together so they can work together, trade with each other and – crucially – learn from each other. It is this feature of cities that has always made them crucibles of innovation. Cities thrive on connectivity, both internal and external, and the emerging global network of cities turns us all into a community of innovators, gathering the accumulated knowledge and experience to bear on every single place on earth.
The Intersection of Crises Facing Cities
The Prize for Cities has taken the initial steps necessary to organize that knowledge and experience, to begin to see the great potential of individual experiments providing a more intelligent approach to the grave threats now confronting us. This year’s applicants focused on the intersection of two such threats that have now come to the fore: climate change and widening urban inequality. There are growing calls for cities to rise to these twin challenges and formulate more effective responses.
This comes at a time when the greatest asset of cities, their connectivity, has proven to be a double-edged sword. While making us more productive and more innovative, the proximity advantages of cities also make us more vulnerable to pandemics like COVID-19 and those that may follow. The more connected we are, the faster we spread disease and death. Cities are our best chance at a sustainable, more equitable future, but we must always remember how vulnerable they are.
The multiple crises facing our cities today – and the complex interactions between them – force us to question our current mode of living, working and political action in a way that only a few years ago seemed too radical, too ambitious, too risky. The “business as usual” way of doing things is crumbling. The tools at our disposal – the free market we trusted to allocate resources rationally, the regulatory regime we put in place, the institutions we built – are all letting us down.
It now seems that these are all passé, armies built to fight the last war, institutions built to confront the challenges of yesterday, functionaries hanging on to jobs that have lost their meaning, and political parties preserving a status quo that is no longer there.
It is this bankruptcy, this loss of confidence in the ability of our long-standing institutions to deal effectively with the multiple crises besetting us, that makes these times truly revolutionary. For the first time in the history of humankind, we are facing risks of a planetary scale, risks of our own making that, surprisingly enough, can also be mitigated and managed by us. It is in our hands. It is within our power to manage and reduce these risks.
But to do that, to do it effectively and to do it while there is still time, we need to come together. We need to come together and act together in the public sphere, empowering each other and empowering us all to overcome the threats now hanging over us.
In my life, I have experienced many moments of happiness of many kinds and of many colors. But one kind of happiness stands out for me: the elation I experience when I see people coming together to see the common good that binds them and to move together to act in its service.
Not surprisingly, this happiness is accompanied by a sense of empowerment, by a sudden realization that when we come together and move together as one in a just and noble cause, nothing can stop us. This is what solidarity is. That is how it feels.
For me, the Prize for Cities is, first and foremost, an exhibition of solidarity and its limitless power to move us together toward a brighter future, no matter the impossible odds, no matter the inevitable resistance.
Looking at the work of all five contenders for the Prize, we see people working together to make something larger than themselves. We see people giving of themselves, of their best energies, to receive something that they can never attain alone.
It is this spirit that we now urgently need to cultivate, for it is this spirit that will save us from ourselves. Our crises are of our own creation. They are existential, but they are by no means irreversible. We are not doomed.
But they are here, and they have now changed our lives forever. They are staring us in the face, and they will not leave unless we attend to them, unless we invite them into our lives and become comfortable with them. Some of us, like the champions so vividly exhibited from Ahmedabad, London, Monterrey, Nairobi and Rosario, have already accepted the challenge. They are already there, showing us the way. Continuing to sit on our hands waiting for a better day is, alas, no longer an option.
This an opportunity to explore a bottom-up theory of action that can lay the groundwork for intervention to combat both climate change and inequality together, at an ever-increasing scale.
As I contemplate the valiant efforts to combat climate change and inequality showcased by the Prize finalists – efforts that often went hand-in-hand with other burning issues, like making housing or food affordable, or creating jobs – I ask myself, what is it that needs to be scaled up?
I cannot but conclude that it is the spirit of solidarity, of the elation that accompanies coming together to work for a just cause greater than ourselves, that needs to be scaled up. It is this spirit and only this spirit than can save us from ourselves.
Shlomo (Solly) Angel is a Professor of City Planning at the New York University Marron Institute and leads the NYU Urban Expansion Program.