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What Makes a Thriving City?

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Do you live in a great city?

5 billion people (60% of the world’s population) live in cities. I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about what makes a city great. The people? The landmarks and cultural institutions? The politics? The ability to get around easily?

You may wonder why we’ve decided on the name Polis for our organization.

When I think about what makes a thriving city (or “the Polis”) some books and historical examples come to mind.

The sociologist and journalist Jane Jacobs wrote in her The Death of American Cities (1961) about what she called the “street ballet” of robust cities: the vibrancy and “choreography” of city streets that are alive with interaction.

If you haven’t read Pericles’ Funeral Oration in a while (or ever!) check it out with the question, “What makes a city?” in mind. I think of this speech as a timeless shout-out to the concept of the city.

In a recent post about what makes a city great (in his case, NYC), author Seth Godin came up with this list:

  • It’s different here (as in not the same)
  • You can find someone to have an argument with, about just about anything
  • There are fringes–cultural, educational, architectural, societal
  • More than 42 languages are spoken at the Queens public library
  • You can get something that’s not the regular kind
  • There are profit-seekers who will happily sell you something, anything
  • There are many who do things for no profit at all and will eagerly entertain, entrance and change you for the better
  • You will find a diversity of religious belief like no other
  • It’s changing
  • The food hasn’t been entirely homogenized
  • People are active
  • A stranger will go out of his way for you, perhaps, and more often than you expect
  • There is more information per minute, per meter and per interaction
  • Neighborhoods are more important than homogeneity, and co-existing is most important

In ancient Greece the idea of the polis was, in large part, meant to provide a space where ideas could be exchanged between people (though, of course not all people at that time) with differing perspectives. The thinking was that if people had a public space where they could appear, speak, and listen then the frailty that exists in human relationships would become that much stronger. Conversation would bleed into other parts of city life and make the city stronger overall. The sociologist Robert Putnam proposed a similar theory about modern American city life in his book Bowling Alone.

The Greeks used a phrase, “Wherever you go, you will be a polis”meaning, in essence, you are the city. 

Many philosophers and writers have grappled with the question, “What makes a city”?  The philosopher Hannah Arendt (mid- 20th century) saw the polis as an absolutely necessary part of what it means to be human. Arendt’s ideas about the polis have fundamentally inspired and shaped the founding of this organization (and we plan to offer a class on Arendt in the future!).

“The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 198)

Arendt believed that the polis is the space and time where people come together, in public, and participate in what she referred to as “acts of disclosure” through a sharing of ideas. The city, according to Arendt, requires the spontaneity and unpredictability that is found in authentic (and sometimes messy) conversation.

At Polis we aim to be just that: A space where the unpredictable in conversation is encouraged. A chance for people with different perspectives to meet and talk about texts and ideas in spontaneous ways. A community that will strengthen the city.

Let’s take a look at the cities where we live. Here are a few questions that I’ve been thinking about and that have been floating around in the media recently. I don’t have answers to these but want to give readers some Friday food for thought and articles to read about the essential question, “What Makes A City?” (by the way, another feature of a Polis class is that we begin each session with an open-ended question as a means of starting the discussion).

What do you think makes a city great?

Join as for a Polis class. Courses start next week and there is still time to register.

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