City v country

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France’s Marine Le Pen is hoping to capitalise on the far-right movement this year, though it is stronger in rural areas than in cities

2016. The year in which populist forces across the developed world gained momentum, sowing the seeds of nationalism, protesting against mass immigration and rolling back the tide of globalisation.

Well, perhaps not if you lived in a major city.

In the UK, for example, London and many other cities voted to remain in the EU, while Hillary Clinton won most of urban America on 8 November.

In France, Germany and the Netherlands, far-right movements are weaker in capital cities than they are in many rural areas.

And although the divide between city and country is nothing new, the events of the past few months have put their political schisms into sharp relief – a development that has not gone unnoticed at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

“2016 saw a number of nation states move to the right, and a number of cities move to the left,” says Michael Berkowitz, who heads the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, a $164m initiative that works to bolster urban areas.

In a fight between the two, he adds, “it is unclear who would win.”

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If the image of city and state trading blows seems a little apocalyptic today, in a few months it could be all too real.

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Bill de Blasio has promised to protect immigrant families in New York threatened with deportation

New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has vowed to defy the incoming US administration if it tries to deport the city’s undocumented immigrants – even if the White House retaliates by pulling federal funding. Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Denver have promised similar resistance.

’13 Indias’

This impending policy gap is just one of the factors that led the Adecco Group, which publishes a list of most competitive countries on the eve of the WEF, to introduce a new cities index in 2017.

The new league table, which is topped by Copenhagen, came about after Adecco boss Alain Dehaze was giving a talk in India, describing the country’s relative benefits, when one audience member interjected, arguing that there were “at least 13 distinct Indias”.

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Adecco’s cities index found that Copenhagen had a high standard of infrastructure and high “quality-of-life” indicators

Differences in infrastructure, education and quality of life can vary drastically between city and country. Madrid, sixth on the cities index, contrasts with Spain, which languishes at 35 on the countries list.

“Young people,” says Mr Dehaze, “are choosing cities before the country – they have their own ranking.”

Not that Davos is celebrating the triumph of the progressive, modern city-on-a-hill just yet. This year’s WEF offers 16 sessions on the subject, many of which address the threats to urban habitats.

“If you look at climate change, cities often are the most vulnerable,” says Michael Berkowitz. “They are in river deltas, they are on coastlines, they are in high plains that may be deprived of water.”

Culture clashes

And though it often seems like cities in the developed world are enjoying the better half of the economic bargain, they are not immune to the forces of globalisation and mechanisation, as demonstrated by Detroit, which suffered an existential crisis when the auto industry moved on.

There is also no guarantee that cities would win out in a clash of cultures with the wider country – as Corine Mauch understands well.

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Zurich’s mayor, Corine Mauch, says the city needs immigration

Ms Mauch, Zurich’s first female and openly gay mayor, and a member of the centre-left Social Democrats, is in charge of an international city often at odds with a more conservative rural Switzerland, whose inhabitants often have more in common with Parisians or Berliners than their fellow compatriots.

“It worries me, for sure,” says the mayor, citing the 2014 referendum in which Swiss people narrowly voted in favour of migration quotas.

“The city of Zurich is the economic motor of Switzerland. We need immigration.

“But we couldn’t be Zurich if we didn’t have the surrounding regions. When people come to Zurich they also want to go skiing, they want to see the Alps, they want to see the Jungfrau.

“We are profiting from the other regions, and the other regions are profiting from us. It’s a functional differentiation.”

City lessons

Even if she sees an economic equivalence, when it comes to politics, Ms Mauch would prefer her city to be seen as a progressive model.

I show the mayor an advert currently displayed in a Zurich train station, featuring a woman in a black burka, emblazoned with the words “Unkontrolliert einbürgern? NEIN” (Uncontrolled citizenship? NO), and ask if she see her role as defending her multicultural city against xenophobia.

“I wouldn’t talk of defence. This is a war term,” she says. “We have to live it, show that it works.”

Adecco’s Alain Dehaze agrees. “The value of the study of the city is that the country can also learn from it.”

Already, more that 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, and as the Rockefeller Foundation’s Michael Berkowitz points out, that figure could be as high as 70% by 2050.

And whether or not progressive cities win out in the age of Brexit, Trump and rural disaffection, Davos experts are in no doubt that urban policies will be instrumental in shaping the next few decades.

“Cities both present out biggest risk and our greatest opportunity,” Mr Berkowitz adds.

“Get cities right and you can really change the world.”

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