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Why you should love your city more than your country

Patriotism applies to countries, while 'civicism' applies to cities – where more than half the world's population lives. As the world urbanizes, a new class of global cities is competing for the affection of residents and tourists. There are several reasons to welcome this development.

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“I love New York” is perhaps the most successful slogan in modern history. Cities around the world are copying this slogan. “I love Beijing” – in English – is commonly seen on T-shirts in the Chinese capital. It’s easy to be cynical, to say that the whole thing is driven by money. The “I love Toronto” website is advertised as a “guide to living well in Toronto,” which turns out to mean buying and selling real estate.

But it’s not just a slogan: Many people really do love their cities. Countries, on the other hand, do not use such slogans. You don’t often see people walking around with “I love Canada” T-shirts. And if history is any guide, one can have good reason to worry about governments that expect their citizens to express such naked, unqualified patriotism in public. Countries are too big, complex, and diverse – and potentially dangerous – to merit unqualified love.

Yet there is no single word to express the sentiment of loving a city. Patriotism applies to countries or states, not cities. Hence we need to coin a new word – let’s call it “civicism” – to express this sentiment. As the world urbanizes, civicism is spreading to distant corners of the world where people were once attached to villages or towns, and a new class of global cities is emerging and competing for the affection of their residents as well as for new migrants and tourists.

Today, more than half the world’s population lives in cities, compared with less than 3 percent in 1800. By 2025, China alone is expected to have 15 supercities with a population of 25 million each.

There are reasons to welcome such developments. Globalized cities that allow for free movement of capital, humans, and goods tend to have a more open-minded attitude toward foreigners and historically marginalized peoples. True, cities cannot provide the rich sense of community life characteristic of villages and small towns. But residents of cities often take pride in, and struggle to nourish, the particular ways of life of their own cities.

Montrealers struggle to promote the French character of their city, Jerusalemites struggle to promote its religious identity, and so on. In fact, cities that seem to express a particular identity, or ethos, typically generate the most intense forms of urban pride.

Cities that combine the openness of the global with an emphasis on local particularity also tend to have an international reputation that attracts visitors. People go to Oxford to experience its ethos of learning, and they visit Paris to partake of its romantic spirit. Of course, locals may disparage the stereotypes that attract tourists and visitors. But few reject the ethos itself.

People in the “marginalized” neighborhoods of Oxford criticize the elitist approach to education, forcing social actors to rethink the issue of fair access to education. The Hollywood idea of love is rejected by Parisians themselves: Their own idea of romance is meant to contrast with bourgeois life. Social critics in Jerusalem argue for an interpretation of religion that holds people, rather than things and rocks, sacred. And Beijing attracts the nation’s leading political critics. In short, an ethos also provides the main source of political argument for residents of a city.

The idea that cities have a distinctive ethos – a shared way of life that informs the thinking and judgments of its inhabitants – has a long history. In the ancient world, Athens was synonymous with democracy and Sparta represented military discipline. Jerusalem expressed religious values, and the twin cities that made up the Zhou dynasty’s capital at Luoyang flourished as a commercial metropolis.

Does it make sense to think of cities as representing different social values in the modern world? Today’s urban areas are huge, diverse, and pluralistic, and it may seem peculiar to say that one city represents this or that. But just think of Beijing and Jerusalem: Can cities get any more different? Both cities are designed with core concentric circles, but one core expresses spiritual, religious values and the other represents political power.

Clearly, some cities do express and prioritize different social and political values. Even cities within countries – say, Montreal and Toronto, Beijing and Shanghai, or Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – seem to express strikingly different values. Chicago’s official website explicitly distinguishes the city’s character from that of New York. Cities, as much as countries, are often sites of collective self-determination.

But is that a good thing? If people fight too hard to affirm the uniqueness of their nation, it can easily spill into hatred or warfare. But cities are different. In fact, civicism can curb the excesses of nationalism. Except for city-states like Singapore, cities do not have armies, so civic pride is less likely to take dangerous forms. Most people do have a need to affirm social particularity, and it is usually better for that need to be attached to cities.

People with a strong sense of civicism do not need a strong sense of nationalism to feel good about themselves. It’s true that the residents of capital cities are often quite nationalistic. It’s also true that people tend to rally around the flag in times of crisis, such as a major foreign-sponsored terrorist attack. But interviews we conducted in nine cities around the world show that most “city-zens” have their own sense of identity that need not stretch in full form to the nation.


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