On the origins and future of urbanity in our moment of populist and nationalist resurgence

If a truly global society will emerge from the present confusion, will the great cities become the middle ground between the abstractions and the elitism of globalization, and increasingly irrelevant nation states? Will city government, determined by a manageable size, be the new paradigm?

The urban geometry of Cadiz, Europe's oldest continuously inhabited city
Photo: Andrea Leopardi via Unsplash

I have spent most of my life as a diplomat, working for my native Belgium and later for the European Union. While most retired members of my profession can look back at a diverse patchwork of postings, I was lucky enough to steer my destinations to explore what had fascinated me since adolescence: a triangle between Europe, Africa and the Americas.

So my career, played out between Ethiopia, Jamaica, Cuba and New York principally, was an in-depth experience of a chosen terrain. Recalling my work in North America, it is worth more than incidental mention that it was in the early months of the Barack Obama Administration that I led a delegation of European transit executives to Austin amid the hopes at the time for the promise of high speed rail. That the obstacles then in Texas had to do more with public attitudes than any technical barriers in a region so well suited for rail is cause for reflection at this moment on a new administration and new attitudes about the environment and transportation.

But back more broadly to my global journey, this Europe-Africa-Americas triangle contains the historic tragedies of conquest, colonization and slavery. It also comprises vast mixtures of culture and ethnicity, leading to the perhaps distant and difficult but eventually hopeful realization that we are one human race.

Nowhere did I feel the crossing of so many currents more than in Havana, where I lived and worked for almost ten years: the racial mix, the survival of deep African traditions in a predominantly Caucasian society. 

Deep nostalgia for Havana made me look for its European counterpart. That is the Atlantic port city of Cádiz in Andalucía, Spain. Which for many reasons in a very good lens through which to look toward the historical and contemporary lives of cities everywhere.

The historical gateway for new world wealth arriving in the old

Cádiz became the sister city of Havana in the colonial era, when all the Spanish treasure fleets regrouped in Cuba before crossing the ocean. All the wealth from the Americas, however ill-gotten, entered Europe via this port, over various centuries.

Approach to the harbor of Cadiz, once Europe’s gateway for the wealth of the Americas
Photo: Joaquin Portocarero

But when Cádiz began to play this part, the city was infinitely older already. It was, and is, in fact the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe.

Founded by the Phoenicians around 1000 BCE, it´s several centuries older than Rome. The city went from being Phoenician to successive identities as Greek, Roman, Vandal, Arab and finally, Spanish in the more or less present-day sense.

To me, it forms the European point of the transatlantic triangle. It played that part in quite a literal sense in the 19th century, when it was the last hub of the slave trade (1815- ca. 1870), maintained as such because the last Spanish colonies, and Cuba in particular, rejected the abolition of the trade by Britain. Transatlantic slavery was based on the triangular commerce, European industrial goods used for barter trade on the coast of West Africa, human trafficking on a vast scale between the slave coast and the America´s, and sugar making its way back to Europe at the end of the cycle.

With such a mixture of history, how did the oldest surviving urban center develop and evolve?

First, it´s a port. It looks out to the vast horizons of one of the world´s great oceans. I know this to be historically incorrect, but to me the ideal city has to have access to great expanses of water. Practically, to engage it in trade over large distances; but also emotionally, as relating it to fluidity, to cycles of tides, to the interconnectedness of all water on our planet.

With the port comes the variety of human beings. No port city can avoid migrations and arrivals of others, different in looks and language, culture and religion.

Sheltering streets evoking those of Pompei or a North African kasbah
Photo: Joaquin Portocarero

Second, while open to winds and tides on its waterfront, the city proper is very sheltering. In its physical outlay, this is mostly due to its centuries as a Roman and later an Arab town. The streets of the historic center are narrow like those of Pompei or the alleys of a North African kasbah.  

In prosperous centuries, legitimate if highly unscrupulous merchants widened some streets to build their mansions, but the city never lost the vibe of quickly absorbing many other forms of commerce and their protagonists; indeed, it was one of the great centers for smugglers, stowaways and runaways in the colonial era. We cannot glorify this, but the fact remains: there is always an undercurrent of shadiness in real city life. The same always held true for Havana at the other side, known in the eighteenth century as the Babylon of ruffians. Conan Doyle put it less elegantly when he described late 19th Century London as the great cesspool of the Empire.

On the intersection of legitimate activity and shadiness, real city government has to understand and take into account certain traits of human nature. City dwellers are more individualistic and entrepreneurial than other folk, and this unavoidably creates gray areas. I lived in New York when Mr. Rudy Giuliani was its mayor. Not yet the protagonist of serial embarrassments he has turned into lately, his approach to the city as a refugee camp to be sanitized may have been accepted as a necessary evil by some New Yorkers, but to me it always betrayed the true nature of city life.

The third necessary asset of urbanity as I see it, is to be welcoming to the newcomer. The history of migrations, both the spontaneous and the enforced ones, is the very essence of the transatlantic triangle. It is filled with a mixture of tragedy and triumph, but one cannot imagine the great cities without the vast influxes of migrants from elsewhere. Long before Ellis Island, 19th Century Cádiz was described as a universal melting pot by the French traveler and writer Théophile Gautier. For centuries, Cádiz saw and defined itself in clear opposition to the rest of Spain and especially to landlocked Madrid where a backward monarchy greedily took and spent the gold of the colonies without regard to its origins and its trajectories.

One cannot imagine the great cities of the past and the present- Rome, Istanbul, New York- without this diversity and this capacity to integrate new arrivals.

Cities as the counter to populist nationalism

At a moment when populism and nationalism are making a frightening global comeback, diverse and open cities may yet again be on the frontline of a better future. They should be. Large urban populations by their size are representative of humanity without the unavoidable heavy weight of the administration of national territories. City governments can be more flexible and innovative. It´s not a coincidence that a city-state like Singapore is so much ahead in many aspects of sustainability, nor, at the opposite end, that the people in a place like Hong Kong are standing up for civic freedoms.

A city of Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Vandal, Arab and finally, Spanish identity
Photo: Joaquin Portocarero

The twentieth century´s upheavals have wiped out centuries-old urban centers of diversity and conviviality such as Salonika, Odessa, Trieste. How many are left? How will present-day Istanbul fare under a regime of growing intolerance? How will New York bounce back after the pandemic? Will the coronavirus have killed the rich environment of small businesses to hand even more control of our lives to the great conglomerates and the seductive but also dangerous digital monopolies? If I have to sum up a really great city, I’d call it one great living organism, with the qualities of surprise and serendipity that define organic life. But will that stand against growing forces of standardizing and equalizing?

If a truly global society will emerge from the present confusion, will the great cities become the middle ground between the abstractions and the elitism of globalization, and increasingly irrelevant nation states? Will city government, determined by a manageable size, be the new paradigm?

The author, in a reflective moment
Photo: Joaquin Portocarero

We don’t know. We can only hope that cities will play their part well, that they will be the vanguard of a better planet.  Essential questions for the planet can be addressed on a laboratory-like scale by the great cities: how to keep the lights on without killing the environment, how to move millions of people around daily in the most efficient and dignified way… Maybe most important of all questions, how to practice democracy not as a winner-takes-all game, but as the consensus-building necessary to maintain the peace in the crowded, completely humanized environment that defines a megalopolis. Here the individual may be treated as an atom or an electron of a vast organism, but she, he, everyone, should also feel city life as an extension of one´s person with the infinite possibilities of that living and kicking organism. 

I don’t know if any of the great cities I’ve lived and worked in and have come to love, will survive as long as Cádiz. Three thousand years? Havana just passed the 500-year mark, New York is much younger still. In the end, it’s all a slow race against decay, implosion and the dangers of self-destruction by greed and oversized ambition. That, too, is city life. What are we in for in the very long run? Mysterious ruins like the abandoned Maya cities in Mexico and Guatemala? Or shining domes in the night, organic cities having overcome the darkness of the universe — and in each of us?

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