Based on his experiences as mayor of Missoula, Montana, and his visits to communities elsewhere, Daniel Kemmis documents what he sees as the small but encouraging steps by which citizens are revitalizing democracy and building more sustainable communities. He describes it as an effort "to paint a useful picture of the politically transformative power of the good city."
It's a far-sighted and evocative book, one that not only engenders hope for the future of America's cities but also makes one appreciate the power of true democratic leadership. For Kemmis himself exemplifies the sort of vision and commitment that is so often lacking among politicians today. He recognizes that democracy is not a system of laws or political institutions so much as a set of common aspirations. For those aspirations to come alive, people need opportunities to band together as a community — to talk, to debate, to share, to argue, to make choices, and to create together. As he says in the opening chapter, cities and citizens create each other: citizens sustain and nurture cities through small acts of kindness, hope, and cooperation, and cities provide the backdrop against which citizens can achieve what Aristotle called the "good life."
Kemmis expands on this idea in a series of essays which argue, in turn, that good cities educate their young how to become good citizens, that modest but well-placed projects can help cities come to terms with their own flawed pasts, that citizens can maintain their health by attending to the political health of their city, that cities should be thought of as existing in organic relationship with their surrounding regions, and that cities will play a greater and greater role in the borderless economy of the future.
In the final two chapters, Kemmis reflects on the roles of the politician and the citizen in building and sustaining vibrant cities. He says that "our efforts to contain and sanitize the exercise of political power have all too often had the effect of disencumbering individuals, both citizens and politicians, from exercising the personal responsibility of working out solutions together, which alone can make democracy work." Politicians tend to limit themselves to acting as brokers of uneasy compromises among divergent interest groups. But in fact, good politicians have more in common with entrepreneurs than with mediators: they risk political capital in pursuit of their city's self-realization. This, obviously, is an altogether different approach to leadership than most of us are used to, one that has more in common with stewardship than command and control.
But Kemmis goes on to say that good politicians are useless unless their constituents take on the challenge of being good enough citizens, of acting and speaking as if they care more about their city than they do about the pursuit of their own narrow interests. After relating an experience of being called two-faced and shifty during a public meeting, Kemmis says: "Perhaps no skill is more important to the office of citizen than the ability to teach or encourage one another to speak [as to] actually be heard by others who do not already share your views."
Throughout the book, Kemmis comes back again and again to the observation that politics, by definition, is tied to the life of the city. Since the last great age of the city-state, however, we have "severed our understanding of politics so radically from its roots in the city that we can no longer think very clearly about either politics or cities." Any hope of revitalizing our political life must therefore rest on a fuller understanding of what makes cities sustainable and fulfilling.
Copyright 1997 by Scott London. All rights reserved.