It may seem like nowadays, our national politics is defined by divisiveness and gridlock. There are so many in the United States that feel like the pursuit of justice is becoming less and less possible. However, there is actually one area of politics that does not suffer from the same issues as federal politics does. In this, there is often genuine opportunity for positive change, and citizens may feel like they can make an actual difference in the decisions that affect their communities. This is the area of local politics. This may sound surprising based on the decline in local news and the rise of groups like Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which own many local cable channels and require them to spread specific segments that are politically biased. However, in local city halls across the country, a new type of political focus has developed within local politics.
I first began interacting with local politics in Cincinnati in 2016 where I helped lobby city hall for a bike trail with fellow students from Xavier University. This led me to working with a City Council member and witnessing the development of various initiatives such as Smart Cities, a type of package of policies to use data to make life better (this could range from real-time tracking of public transit to technology that can alert police where and when a gunshot was fired). The issues of the city were mostly different from the national level, though national issues would come up from time to time. This meant that the politics was not separated as much between Republicans and Democrats, but rather (in the case of Cincinnati) whether you were pro-streetcar or anti-streetcar.
These political projects are issues of great debate across the country and thousands of people spend time advocating for them. This subculture within politics might be best represented by a Facebook group called “New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens”, or as they are more commonly known, NUMTOTs. The page is filled with fiery debates over public transit, smart cities, and urban architecture. Just about anything that affects local urban politics can be found there. The initiatives that are talked about with great passion are not heard as often in other places in the American political landscape and often don’t carry the same divisiveness or closed-mindedness as say gun control or immigration. Yet, these issues directly affect the lives of 83% of Americans who live in cities and have the potential of solving many of our biggest political obstacles, all without dealing with the same level of gridlock as the federal level.
I believe that these conversations in local politics are a hope-filled place to enter into politics (as things change rather frequently), but also that they are incredibly Catholic and Ignatian. Jesuits have historically been men of the cities because that’s where the people of God are. It’s where migrants come to begin new lives. It’s where those experiencing homelessness go to receive the care they need. Yet at the same time, there are so many reasons now to reinvest in cities. First, cities are places of great diversity. One of the goals that we Jesuits currently hold is to create cultures of encounter. It’s very easy to say that the poor are lazy if you don’t know someone who is poor. Yet, in cities, you are introduced simultaneously to great wealth and great poverty. You are introduced to people of very different races, ethnicities, politics, sexual orientations, gender identities, and religions. When we have encounters with people who are experiencing life in ways that seem radically different, we realize that we are not that different, but that in most cases, with a different type of luck we may have been placed in a different position. It is in cities that we move to the margins and stay there until it’s not the margin anymore.
Cities also are in a unique position to help our environmental crisis. Through urban density, we can allow habitats that have been destroyed for the sake of the suburbs to regrow and be reclaimed by nature. With cities, we can continue to improve upon public transit which has the unique potential to save us from fossil fuels by both eliminating waste from individual cars, and by changing the sourcing of electricity for trains to be coming from renewable sources. Not only is this better for the environment, but it’s also better for our mental and physical health. We also can reinvigorate our cities with the creation of public parks where people can simply enjoy nature and be with their fellow human beings of all backgrounds, once again helping our mental health. Public transit also increases the culture of encounter that cities can foster on their own.
There are negatives that people see about cities but let’s take a good look at what those are exactly. First, the claim is that cities are unsafe. This isn’t untrue, but suburbs also are unsafe, just in a different way. Driving is the leading cause of death for young people and city dwellers don’t need to do it as much. Crime might be higher, but as Bloomberg’s CityLab reports, “your risk of death is actually about 22 percent higher in the most rural counties in America than in the most urban ones”.
To be clear, there will always need to be (and should be) rural communities in the world. In fact, the sparsely populated areas of the country have so much to offer us in terms of agriculture, tight-knit communities, and genuine family values and countless other beneficial elements that come from living in the countryside. The ultimate issue rests in suburbs, which claim to offer the best of both urban and rural environments (a place with good social structure and natural beauty) while often in reality getting the worst of both (isolation and individualism with a destruction of natural environments). So let’s look into New Urbanism. Let’s work towards that creation of a culture of encounter. Let’s be with God’s people as they are and let’s share the gifts God has given us and let’s see if we can engage in the true politics of the possible. In this way, in a society without much hope for justice, we can actually focus on what we can actually do to bring about greater social justice.