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There are other reasons to affirm the ethos of one’s city. Globalization has a dark side, and nowhere is this more true than in China, where 30 years of market reform has destroyed many traditional neighborhoods and ways of life. Hence cities in China and elsewhere are investing thought, time, and money in protecting their unique ethos which helps them to resist the homogenizing tendencies of globalization.
In Changsha, city-zens are consulted to determine what makes the “spirit” of their city unique, and such findings influence urban planning and protection of cultural heritage. Such efforts at city-branding are common elsewhere. Tel Aviv’s official website mentions the city’s aim to be the gay capital of Israel and one of the world centers of the gay community.
Cities with an ethos can also accomplish desirable political goals that are harder to achieve at the level of the state. We will wait a long time for politicians in the United States or China to implement serious plans to deal with climate change. But cities like Portland and Hangzhou take pride in their environmental ethos and go far beyond what the state can do in terms of environmental protection.
New York City, the self-styled “capital of the world,” can draw on its ethos of ambition to effectively carry out its own foreign policy. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has undertaken his own climate diplomacy, circumventing state-based summitry by directly inviting hundreds of mayors from around the world to focus on how urban leaders can share policy initiatives and technologies to reduce emissions.
There are good economic reasons to promote the ethos of a city. Cities that develop a clear identity can help to revive moribund economies. One beautiful museum transformed Bilbao, Spain, from a declining industrial city into a mecca of the art world. In China, cultural tourists are attracted to Qufu because they want to learn about the home base of Confucianism, and in turn help to develop the local economy. Most people tend not to worry about a city that promotes Confucianism, but such policies are much more controversial at the level of the state, which is expected to be more even-handed.
Last, a city’s particular ethos can also inspire social and political theorizing of global importance. The competing models of Athens and Sparta provided the intellectual fodder for both Plato and Aristotle’s political theories, and the most creative period in Chinese social and political thinking emerged out of the ferment of ideas in different Warring States cities.
John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration” was directly inspired by his stay in Amsterdam, the most open-minded and tolerant city of 17th-century Europe. And surely it is no coincidence that Charles Taylor’s theories of multiculturalism and language rights emerged from Montreal, where residents inevitably must navigate the tricky linguistic politics of the city.
So there it is. Please love your city, and if you must choose, love it more than your country.
Daniel A. Bell is the Zhiyuan Chair Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Jiaotong University in Shanghai and professor of political theory at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Avner de-Shalit is the Max Kampelman Chair for Democracy and Human Rights and dean of social sciences at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. They are co-authors of “The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age” (Princeton University Press, 2011).