Do cities have a distinctive ethos?

What are they laughing at? Some Xmas cheer - the Berlin Laughter Project

City managers love a catchy idea. Ten years ago it was “creative cities”; next it could be the idea that cities should discover their own “ethos” to protect them from the homogenisation of globalisation.

Avner De-Shallit and Daniel A Bell have just published a new book, The spirit of cities: why the identity of a city matters in a global age, which they say revives the classical idea that a city expresses its own distinctive ethos separate from its national affiliation. They take their definition of ethos from the Oxford dictionary: “Ethos is defined as the characteristic spirit, the prevalent tone of sentiment, of a people or community”.

The authors look at nine cities which, they argue, each have a dominant ethos. The cities are Jerusalem (religion), Montreal (language), Singapore (nation building), Hong Kong (materialism), Beijing (political power), Oxford (learning), Berlin (tolerance and intolerance), Paris (romance), and New York (ambition). According to the publisher’s blurb:

Bell and De-Shalit draw upon the richly varied histories of each city, as well as novels, poems, biographies, tourist guides, architectural landmarks, and the authors’ own personal reflections and insights. They show how the ethos of each city is expressed in political, cultural, and economic life, and also how pride in a city’s ethos can oppose the homogenizing tendencies of globalization and curb the excesses of nationalism.

You can get a sense of what the whole idea is about from this transcript of a public seminar on The Spirit of Cities the Grattan Institute conducted with Professor Bell on 4 October 2011. You can also read the first chapter of the book, titled Civicism, and some of the chapter on Jerusalem, at Amazon (use the ‘look inside’ option). Chapter one is instructive because it sets out the rationale, theory and methodology, with subsequent chapters discussing each city in turn.

It’s an interesting idea, but I remain to be convinced. For starters, separating national from city-level characteristics is a minefield. As if to reinforce this difficulty, De-Shallit and Bell mess it up from the outset. They select Singapore as one of their examples even though it’s a city-state. Arguably, Hong Kong was too up until relatively recently.

And what, in practical terms, do we settle on as a city’s intrinsic ethos? I don’t find the discovery that Jerusalem is a city of religion, or that diminutive Oxford (population 165,000) is a city of education, provides any greater insight into these places than the discovery Karratha is a mining town. All that tells me is these are their dominant industries – that’s not telling me about the spirit of the place.

And if Bejing’s ethos is political power, that’s also true of most of the many other places that specialise in government, like Washington DC and Canberra (and there are many of them – for example, 33 capital cities in the US are not the most populous city in their State. Olympia, the capital of Washington State, has a population of just 50,000). Perhaps the hand of politics feels heavier to the outside observer in Beijing, but if so, that could be because of a national-level characteristic – it’s a communist state – rather than a city-level one.

It’s also very hard to separate out what’s city branding/marketing and what is the characteristic spirit of a place, or the collective aspirations and beliefs of its residents. New York is certainly a world power in finance and media and has marketed itself accordingly. But does “ambition” permeate the lives of all those New Yorkers – the great bulk of the city’s population – who aren’t “Masters of the Universe” e.g. the teachers, doctors, suburbanites, shop assistants, retirees, truck drivers, stay-at-home parents, people living in “the projects”? I don’t think so.

Similarly, does “romance” permeate all walks of life of Parisians or is it something projected onto the place by visitors (and maybe helped along with some savvy Gallic marketing)?

Of course there are differences between individual cities, most obviously in their architecture, history, industry composition, demography, geography, and so on. And some cities which are highly specialised – like Jerusalem, Oxford and Canberra – have an identifiable “character” compared to more diversified, and usually larger, cities like Sydney and Melbourne.

But the idea that there’s something widely shared and all-pervading – a special, even unique ethos – that’s up for grabs by large numbers of cities if they’d only seize the day, is stretching it in my opinion. Sure, a city can be branded or marketed on the basis of some intrinsic quality, but a genuine ethos is something that I think is uncommon. Nor is it something that can be easily manufactured at will.

I think De-Shallit and Bell’s book is more of a travelogue than a serious analysis – a summary of nine hand-picked cities. Despite Jane-Frances Kelly’s best efforts, I must say I found Professor Bell’s performance at the Grattan Institute pretty underwhelming. I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest of the book. Still, maybe someone will yet convince me that the spirit of Melbourne – the  ethos of the place – is sport (or café culture, or good food and wine, or literature, or one of many other things that are important to the city’s many and varied sub cultures).

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12 Comments on “Do cities have a distinctive ethos?”

  1. I haven’t read the book, and perhaps it is overly simplistic. Any attempt to define or describe the “ethos” of a city will inevitably involve simplifications and generalisations. But I find it a bit depressing to think people could argue with the idea that cities have distinct, unique cultural characters.

    Is your problem with that idea, or with boiling it down to labels as simple as “ambition,” “religion” or “learning”?

    • Alan Davies says:

      My problem is with both. Cities are big melting pots of people. There is an incredible diversity of experiences, opinions, incomes, etc etc, in a city like Melbourne. There isn’t a single Melbourne culture – there’re hundreds perhaps thousands of sub cultures. The idea that Melbourne has a single pervasive ethos is in my opinion silly. So we get trite, useless labels.

      • Hmmm – I still feel like the problem is with over-simplification. Obviously there isn’t a “single Melbourne culture” but there are lots of things that are distinctly “Melbourney” that many of us have in common and that are part of what makes the city the place it is. I feel like you are reacting to glib simplifications by overshooting and trying to deny the importance of local culture to defining place. It’s like denying there’s such a thing as personality because your friend can’t be summed up by the word “cheerful.”

        Perhaps the culture of a place has a fractal quality: recognisable and with distinct overall patterns, despite the fact that we see ever more complex variations the closer we look…

  2. Nathan Alexander says:

    I attended Daniel Bell’s talk hosted by the Grattan Institute. I was hoping for a scholarly exposition on how geography, geology, climate, spatial layout and economic and cultural forces influence and create the character of a city, and how one defines and measures that character, so that city managers would have a better tool in their toolbox to individualise their city. I heard a description of a few cities with highly distinctive characters. I’ve had the glace cherry from the top of the cake; now I’m waiting for the rest of the meal.

  3. I agree with all of this. I attended Daniel Bell’s talk too. When he was discussing the idea that Paris was “a city of romance” someone in the audience rightly raised the point that the people in the outer suburbs of Paris with all their attendant unemployment, poverty and social strife probably didn’t view their city as a city of romance.

    He didn’t really have a counter argument and to me it seemed as though he had visited Paris, toured the tourist sites, watched Amelie and applied the marketing label, as you say in your post above.

  4. Bruce Dickson says:

    Generally speaking, agree with your observations and skepticism about readily identifying an ethos Alan. However there is definitely at least one world exception to this rule and it’s found in Louisiana. But interestingly, was historically considered to be the northernmost part of the Caribbean, rather than a part of the south of America.

    New Orleans! As a city it most definitely has a palpable ethos to it, which any visitor or local senses or acknowledges almost immediately and it persists and persists. Would have really added some weight to their argument if used. Impressed me so much (and it does this to most who travel there) that I felt compelled to write the following ode to this remarkably and yes (for once) genuinely ‘unique’ place –

    ‘Ode to New Orleans’.

    New Orleans … America’s one of a kind, gumbo green zone that ‘allows people to literally be in touch with their insanity and get away with it’.

    A truly, historically unique American/Caribbean city, where people ‘come to talk to one another’ and irresistibly & effortlessly reconnect with their souls (and others) … through its celebrated music, dance, warmth, booze, food, friendships, partying, bands, beads, good juju, spontaneity, civility, reflective moments and seemingly endless chance encounters.

    Where ‘letting loose’, leaving any worries and inhibitions behind and joyfully having a great time is rightfully never confused with sin … or worse still viewed as a crime.

    (And as they say Down Under – ‘work to live, not live to work’!)

    A city with a spirit & energy like no other … where almost everything is deeply (and sometimes painfully) connected in some way to the past … and because of this, redefining for all what it means to experience something authentic and in the process value & celebrate life itself to the maximum.

    A true and spiritually important national treasure … unforgivably abandoned and betrayed in its time of need by the Bush government in 2005, but never by its citizens … and the love, concern and generosity of the American people themselves.

  5. TomD says:

    Interesting video! The woman in the brown coat who ultimately gets up and moves being part of the interest too. Did she have a death in the family recently.

    So when does laughter become too much laughter??

    Amazing how you maintain the variety and interest in your blog so successfully over such a long expanse of time Alan! Great effort.

  6. Daniel A. Bell says:

    Thanks to all for the comments. Regarding Paris, our chapter specifically distinguishes between the “Hollywood” idea of romance as projected onto Paris from outside — an image that is rejected by Parisians themselves — and romance as an anti-bourgeois attitude and way of life that originates from such figures in the romantic movement as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Victor Hugo. The latter view is more characteristic of the ethos held by Parisians. Our views about the “ethos” of the city are not just shaped by personal experience and strolling; they are also shaped by extensive reading as well as interviews with people from different social classes and ethnic groups. The Paris chapter ends with a discussion about plans to integrate the surrounding suburbs and the center so as to nourish a common ethos.

    Please note that we do not claim that every city has a common ethos (I do not know Melbourne well enough to comment on that city; but a resident of Melbourne will write an essay about the city’s ethos of “understatement” for a conference on the “spirit of cities” to be held in Shanghai later this year).

    As to why it’s good for a city to have an ethos, the following comment summarizes our position:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-a-bell/civicism-cities-nationalism_b_1138929.html.
    Of course one can also love cities that are bland and uniform, but it’s harder to do so, just as it’s harder to feel proud of and love a neighborhood McDonald’s restaurant.

    Finally, I hope that critics can comment on the content of the book itself rather than chapter headings.

    Anyway, thanks again for the comments!

    Daniel A. Bell, co-author (with Avner de-Shalit) of The Spirit of Cities.


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