Perhaps the most famous claim to citizenship was President Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner in 1963. As with many memorable speeches, Kennedy veered off script. He cast aside platitudes aimed at the Soviets and spoke directly to the fears of West Germans about the Berlin Wall. What Kennedy meant was that the barrier was mere artifice: the soul of a city is indivisible and citizenship of it implies liberty. To belong to Berlin was to be free; to be free was to belong to Berlin.

JFK warmed up to his punchline with a reference to ancient Rome, but might just as easily have riffed off Plato or Aristotle, or indeed St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who gave the ancients a Christian twist. Alternatively, he could have leant on the Epic of Gilgamesh and its tales of the world’s oldest city Uruk, which historian Ben Wilson, our cover story correspondent, Urban jungles, has described as the world’s greatest urban centre for more than a thousand years. The philosophy of cities: their why, their what, their how, is as old as city-dwelling itself. And their relationship with communal autonomy, encapsulated in the original meaning of the medieval term “freedom of the city”, has always been an intrinsic element of such thinking. There was a comical whiff of this in the wake of 2016’s Brexit vote, in the muttering that rippled through London’s private members’ clubs and cyber cafes about the capital becoming an independent city-state within the EU. Alas, unlike Parisians – who take to the streets even over a rise in the pension age – Londoners weren’t up to a Storming-of-Westminster Palace moment, and for all the intoxicating cross-party fraternisation, the idea proved just a Chablis-and-soy-latte-fuelled fantasy.

In rewilding cities, we shouldn’t forget to rewild ourselves

Whether laughable, laudable or both, the whimsy of revolutionary Remainers rushing to the barricades after being bloodied at the ballot box arose from the same paradox Aristotle grappled with: that a city’s “good life” is a product of both its diversity and its unity. But their battle cry – the same as in Glasgow and Derry: “Why should we give up our European privileges when we voted to remain?” – fell flat because it assumed a civic common purpose that no longer exists. London’s overall vote was as schizophrenic as it was definitive. Majorities in five of its 33 boroughs, and both neighbouring Essex and Kent, opted for Brexit. While Lambeth residents voted almost 80 per cent to remain, those in Havering topped the Leave tables, garnering almost 70 per cent of the vote.

Brexit’s toxic aftermath demonstrated that not only did Londoners (like the rest of us) not agree on what it means to be free, they couldn’t even agree on the parameters of such a conversation. Despite more diversity than ever, the erosion of common ground has made diverse urban interactions increasingly superficial and transitory. The effect can be measured in terms of mental and physical health: today’s city dwellers are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression and schizophrenia as their pastoral counterparts, and face an earlier death.

By 2050 it’s expected that more than two-thirds of humans will live in cities. Unlike the ancients, modern city-dwellers live under increasingly centralised, impersonal and intrusive states. This doesn’t just apply to citizens of Russia or China. As Susie Alegre writes Don’t look now, London has become one of the most surveilled cities in the world.

Lewis Mumford, perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest metropolitan philosopher, wrote in The City in History: “the entire planet is becoming a village; and as a result, the smallest neighborhood or precinct must be planned as a working model for the larger world.” Mumford was writing in the 1960s, but his call for a new philosophy of city living seems more imperative than ever. Much of the current discussion quite rightly focuses on environmental considerations where, as Ben Wilson writes, we should eschew manicured in favour of messy. But he also reminds us that in rewilding cities, we shouldn’t forget to rewild ourselves. Cities are where – increasingly – we work, live and love, so in reclaiming them, we should take our cue from the organic and unsymmetric processes of nature. As mayors like Andy Burnham and Andy Street know (see Gavin Esler’s interview with them on) the spirit of community is still to be found at street level, from nurseries, schools and local businesses to churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. Decentralising decision-making will help us overcome not only superficial divides of class, education and race but also hackneyed debates between town vs country and nature vs technology. As Kennedy inferred, the freedom of one citizen is the freedom of all. By rewilding our communities, we will regain the freedom of our cities.

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April 2023, Columns, Soapbox

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