Cities in Politics – Revue de Presse, 5 March 2023
Let’s talk about cities.
This week was a pivotal one for the narrative of the American city with the unexpected fall of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The story, which was covered in most major outlets, hit most of the same points: her defeat was a result of rising crime and falling living conditions, as well as ongoing struggles with unions. David Graham of The Atlantic highlights in a recent newsletter that many of these things are not directly under Lightfoot’s control, responding instead to a bureaucratic miasma of commissioners, planners, and national-scale forces.
A second piece in The Atlantic ties Lightfoot’s woes to a broader emerging conversation on the state of the American mayor and, by extension, the American city. In two words? Not good. A mix of NIMBYism and other forms of institutional gridlock have paralyzed many of America’s major cities; from affordability, to transportation, housing, sanitation, crime, Americans are very profoundly unsatisfied with the material conditions of their existence. This is beginning to percolate as an issue at the national level, with the Biden administration planning to combat the widespread rash of single-home zoning that makes up so much of the American city. In Vox, Rachel Cohen discusses the issues tied to NIMBYism, long a bugaboo of local politics, and the subject of a popular New York TImes video by Johnny Harris.
These interlocking issues aren’t exclusive to the United States; YouTubers such as Adam Something have made a career discussing design and urban planning issues that span multiple continents. Both Paris and London have seen massive affordability and housing crises paired with crime waves; for London in particular, these issues have seen a once-proud metropolis lose a substantial amount of cachet.
Despite the seemingly inevitable mediocrity of the city as a unit of human organization, some continue to garner praise. In Asia, cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong highlight viable public transport and housing alternatives, while others such as Kuala Lumpur underscore the importance of capital in urban development. With new (and sometimes bizarre and fantastical) megaprojects on the way in places such as Egypt, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, some Americans believe that new solutions to the urban environment should be fully engineered from scratch.
Between the American despair over the city and the blind optimism surrounding projects such as the line, it is unclear what one can ultimately take away regarding the viability of cities themselves. Perhaps, instead, the obstructionism that defines the current battles in Western cities might be a byproduct of a broader crisis of democracy; in that case, the relative successes of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore do make a degree of sense. The ousting of Lori Lightfoot and the broader politicization of the city as a public space certainly suggest that urban development is a field that will be returning to the forefront of politics in the West.