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The City as Political Center

Whither The City Center?

Many predictions for the future of urban democracy are dire. As Elizabeth Wilson plainly states, "The result is that today in many cities we have the worst of all worlds: danger without pleasure, safety without stimulation, consumerism without choice, monumentality without diversity. At the same time, larger and larger numbers of people inhabit zones that are no longer really either town or countryside" (p. 9).

These indeterminate zones that are not "town or countryside" indicate a final challenge for the city as political center: a new kind of urbanism typified by exurbs or edge cities that are no longer economically dependent on an urban center and defy the "core-periphery" model of the twentieth-century city. In fact, some would argue, casting the "city as political center" at the new millennium is entirely misguided. Rather, as Robert Fishman contends, "the true centre of this new city is not in some downtown business district but in each residential unit. From that central starting point, the members of the household create their own city from the multitude of destinations that are within suitable driving distance" (p. 185).

The "city" as it exists for most people, then, no longer matches the traditional picture of centrally concentrated economic and cultural life but rather comprises travel routes and endpoints, transportation and communications networks that together form weblike metropolitan regions that often include more than one urban center and frequently span several states. Edge cities and exurbs, some commentators assert, are almost entirely disconnected from their nearest urban centers, containing within themselves all the necessities of life: opportunities not only to live (as in traditional suburbs) but also for commerce and leisure, functions previously delegated to cities. Faced with the dilution of urban public life, the "city on a hill" is replaced by the "dream home" as the site of utopian possibilities.

The diminishment of the city as political center raises the question of whether or not the city has declined in importance as an economic center. Some theorists of the global city argue that industrial restructuring and the development of sophisticated communications networks have rendered city space less crucial than what Manuel Castells calls "the space of flows," or the continual movement of people, goods, technology, and information over large distances, and the material infrastructure that makes this movement possible. For Castells, what is important is no longer centers but networks, which allows real-time interaction between dispersed actors. Others, most notably Saskia Sassen, contend that the past few decades have seen the emergence of truly global cities, which provide an immense telecommunications, design, and service infrastructure for transnational corporations. This has created an unprecedented concentration of wealth and labor power in these cities while at the same time forging even greater disparities of wealth.

Throughout history people have staked claims to better lives in better cities, knowing that this particular spatial form of organization carries with it the potential both for hegemony and equality, disenfranchisement and deliberation. The question for advocates of urban democracy is how to correct some of the egregious inequalities rendered by twenty-first-century urban planning practices and globalization and how to best modify governance systems to take into account the changing shape of metropolitan democracy. The shapes presently given to cities and towns, the lines drawn with concrete and steel or building codes and zoning ordinances—or the connections forged with digital communications networks—enable citizens to make material their ideas about assimilation, stratification, and segregation. Uncritically adopting the city as a normative ideal, however, ignores the ways in which the built environment can legitimate and perpetuate exclusion, inequality, and even disenfranchisement from the ranks of proper citizenship.


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Margaret E. Farrar

Additional topics

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