the rise of urban citizenship

(Detroit) James Holston’s “current research examines the worldwide insurgence of democratic urban citizenships.” In this post, I’ll share what I took away from his excellent keynote talk about the recent uprisings in Sao Paolo and Istanbul. (I think he would tie the evidence together in a different way to support a somewhat different argument.)

Various cities are issuing formal identity cards to residents–regardless of national citizenship–that entitle the residents to services. Holston said that New Haven was the first US city to do this, and San Francisco now offers free preventative medical care to all its residents. I would add that Takoma Park, MD allows all residents (age 16+) to vote in municipal elections even if they are not US citizens.

Meanwhile, a whole series of great cities around the world have seen mass uprisings in which hundreds of thousands of people take over the central squares. They raise diverse issues (global, national/political, ethnic, religious), but often they talk specifically about their city. Thus the Istanbul protests started in response to a redevelopment plan for Taksim Square; and in Sao Paolo, the impetus was a bus fare increase.

The repertoire of protest acts (mechanisms and processes) used in these cities has not been particularly original. But one could imagine that a new form of politics and citizenship is arising. After all, the vast cities of the world have these features:

They are big enough that their policies really count. Their populations are larger than those of many nation-states, and they are global economic hot spots. At the same time, they are small enough that everyone can get to a central spot within a day, and you can visualize the city as a whole.

They have not traditionally had border-controls. Residents come and go at will. (I acknowledge exceptions, as in China; but even there, I think the border controls are pretty porous.) San Francisco’s citizenship is defined by the city’s residency card, but the city does not decide who has a right to it; people decide by moving in. That is a different kind of citizenship. And in the case of cities that are magnets for global migration, from Johannesburg to LA, many residents are not legal citizens of the surrounding nation-state.

Because of its density, the city’s population is interdependent. Maybe the top one percent can fly over the city’s crime and congestion in helicopters, but the middle class suffers in (loose) tandem with the poor. That is less true at the level of the nation-state.

The city is simply a locus of power that can change its policies and governing philosophy even if the nation-state is sclerotic or corrupt.

We conspicuously make the city with our labor and our bodies.  The physical evidence of our effort is all around us, taking the concrete form of buildings, cars, signs, crowds. Thus the right to citizenship can be grounded on people’s creation of the city (and workers can have pride of place as citizens). In contrast, we didn’t literally make the United States, so it’s hard to claim that our labor gives us the right to it. God made Brazil; people make Sao Paolo.

Those were the unique features of cities that occurred to me while Holston was speaking. From the floor, I asked him what made big cities special, and he added:

  • The sheer “density of opportunity” for political action.
  • The fact that poverty, isolation, and anonymity sometimes spur urbanites to act politically, whereas the same factors suppress action in rural areas and small towns. (This sounded to me like the reverse of Mao’s doctrine that the revolution would begin in the countryside.)
  • The city is a seat of power. Traditionally, the city houses the cathedral, the parliament building, the castle, the university–all the concrete locations of power over the larger polity.
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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.