Russell Arben Fox, who lives in Wichita, Kansas, and has been thinking about this series I’m writing:
The literature on cities as the vanguards or birthplaces of basic liberal and cosmopolitan insights and practices — pluralism, tolerance, individual rights, civil society, economic specialization, political freedom, trade — is vast. But so is the literature on the qualities and virtues of rural and small town life — participatory democracy, communitarian solidarity, self-governance, authenticity, agrarianism, long-term sustainability. It really isn’t at all difficult to express cities and country life, with their various marginal cases, by way of a couple of broad types: city life is liberal and individualistic and fast-paced and consumption-based and filled with opportunity and risk; country life is conservative and socially restrictive and leisurely-paced and land-based and filled with attachment and “satisficing.” Neither type is fully accurate, of course, but they have their theoretical uses. Do mid-sized cities have a similar use? If only to help us think about environmental and economic and civic and moral problems, so as to give us as human beings — social creatures that we are — a handle on the difficult problem of tipping points: when is a city too small, or too large, to be able to legitimately associate itself with this or that particular end? I don’t know. I don’t know if it might be that, throughout history, the mid-sized city (which, in my mind, is some combination of: 1) geographic isolation (which itself is a technology-dependent judgment), and 2) a population from 100,000 to 500,000 people — but what do I really know about it?) has actually filled some important, unstated, conceptual hole in our social imagination. Then again, maybe there isn’t anything at all unique or worth particular respect when it comes to the mid-sized city — maybe, in terms of their public amenities and urban problems and environmental costs and economic opportunities, they’re just communities stuck midway between either growing/bloating to some sufficient/too-big size, or shrinking/reducing to a more-reasonable/less-productive scale. And, of course, constitutional matters — local empowerment, federal arrangements, and all the rest, come into play here as well. Perhaps a mid-sized city, unlike huge metropolises, can be managed in a way so as to cultivate the sort of practices associated with small town environments, or perhaps they can be developed so as to attract, unlike rural areas, the sort of investments and opportunities that normally require a significant critical mass of people. Or perhaps both such possibilities are pointless goals, utterly inappropriate to the average city which is neither large nor small enough.
In response to this post I wrote, “As I get older I think more and more frequently of the late Bernard Williams’s claim that ‘We suffer from a poverty of concepts.’ In focusing so much of our critical attention on the ideal types of The Urban and The Rural — the country-and-city dichotomy that goes back at least to the Epic of Gilgamesh, that is, as far back as anything cultural goes — we accept an impoverished analytical vocabulary. This can be seen in the vacuity of the notion of “suburbia”: we attribute that vacuity to people who live in suburbs when the real emptiness is in our own concepts. All those gradations of cultural experience and practice left unacknowledged! We can and should do better.”
I really, really hope Russell — who knows a great deal about the polis and its forms I don’t know — will work on these ideas during his sabbatical.