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The City as Political Center

City As Democratic Ideal

In its most utopian incarnations, the city is common ground, a space where the democratic values of equality, heterogeneity, public life, and creative expression might be freely lived. In the United States the roots of its democratic heritage are routinely traced to ancient Greece, where in Athens in the fifth century B.C.E. the vision of the "good life" was concomitant with city life. As Pericles famously argued:

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law.… [J]ust as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get in a state with our next door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way.… We are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in public affairs we keep to the law.… Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics—this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all. (Pericles' Funeral Oration, in Thucydides, pp. 145–147)

Equality before the law, tolerance of difference, and civic participation—these are the qualities of city life that are found desirable and worthy of imitation.

In the modern context, the ideal of metropolitan democracy is grounded in the potential found in these three aspects of city life originally articulated in Pericles' speech. First, as Max Weber argued, modern city life—as characterized by economic and bureaucratic rationalization and autonomous law and administration—disrupted feudal and paternalistic forms of governance. Traditional and often immutable hierarchies (such as tribe, religion, or kinship) thus were replaced by more egalitarian political associations.

Second, democratic urbanists exalt the city's inherent heterogeneity as democracy's greatest good. The city is a place where citizens are required to negotiate many different axes of identity and difference (for example, race, class, gender, and sexual orientation), so city life cultivates an appreciation of diverse groups without necessarily assuming either assimilation or exclusion. While in ancient Athens the boundaries for demarcating "citizen" and "other" were considerably narrower than they are in the early twenty-first century, the principles of toleration and noninterference are cornerstones of democratic urbanism. The city functions as a place where persons unknown to each other and often without shared familial, religious, ethnic, or cultural ties have the opportunity to act in concert to achieve mutual good; a certain kind of cosmopolitanism (or an ability to "move comfortably in diversity") is intrinsic to discussions of democratic urbanism (Sennett, p. 17).

Third, because political life is not based on private relationships but on the whole body of citizens deliberating among themselves (the public's business is everyone's business), the presence of truly public spaces—boulevards, parks, and plazas—is a requirement for collective action. In fact such places serve as stages for political activity, facilitating interaction among diverse groups with different interests and creating the necessary conditions for collective decision-making. This very material public sphere both presupposes and cultivates political imagination by encouraging citizens to think and act in ways that transcend their particular experiences.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterThe City as Political Center - City As Democratic Ideal, The City As Democratic Menace, Contemporary Challenges To The City's Democratic Potential