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Cities must rebuild our sense of community in an age of uncertainty

Andrew Sheng says across the world, the silent majority show they will no longer accept feeling like a stranger in their own home. Cities must grow in a way that gives everyone a sense of identity – not just the elite

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 December, 2016, 12:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2016, 6:40pm

There is a common thread running through Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and this week’s Italian referendum – not a populist revolt, but a question of identity. In a world full of uncertainties, which threaten our jobs, our future and sense of security, we go back to very basic questions: Who am I? What do I really care about? How do I cope with the uncertain future?

This insecurity in an age of prosperity results in localism that many elites who benefited from globalisation do not quite understand. They dump on Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but they forgot that these men became leaders because they listened more to the people than the elites. Rightly or wrongly, the silent majority finally exploded and new leaders emerged to represent its aspirations.

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Most of us identify with our environment. Liberals may not like Duterte, but he won the election because enough Filipinos hated the drugs and violence that were corroding their daily lives. Recent migrants to cities yearn for the peace and sense of community of their home villages.

The condition of a nation therefore is reflected in the condition of its cities

Throughout Asia, politics is dominated by the rural-urban divide, and even in urban Japan, the agricultural vote matters hugely in national policies. But as rural-urban migration reaches a tipping point of 50 per cent in many Asian cities, the identity of cities become crucial. No longer can cities treat rural migrants as outsiders. In the modern age, individuals identify with their city more than their nation – they simply want a better place in which to live.

Cities have always been the centres of culture, civilisation and science. Their architecture, parks and green space reflect different social and cultural values and the competition between cities generates urban pride. If we think carefully, failed states have always been associated with failed cities. Aleppo is an example where differences in ideology have resulted in civil war.

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Paris has always been a city of romance; Hong Kong a city of entrepreneurship; New York a city of energy. Today, Shenzhen exudes the spirit of a city of technology, where the young with creative ideas can become the new icons of innovation and “cool”. Shenzhen competes not just with Shanghai or Hong Kong, but also Silicon Valley/San Francisco, Bangalore and Singapore.

Hong Kong today is deeply divided because those who benefit from high real estate prices forget that the young feel increasingly marginalised

The condition of a nation is therefore reflected in the condition of its cities. Increasingly, people are waking up to the idea that community is often built in cities. Unesco heritage cities like Kyoto enjoy a revival when its citizens realise their history is a source of pride for preservation.

Communities are not easily built, but they are easily riven. Hong Kong today is deeply divided because those who benefit from high real estate prices forget that the young feel increasingly marginalised. Why is it that a city with huge fiscal surpluses and reserves does not use them to deal with the challenges and aspirations of the young?

The capitalist dream is that communities are strong because of the importance of property rights. Everyone should be a property owner. But do we really own property or are we stewards of such assets for future generations? The 73-million baby-boomer generation in the US, born between 1946 and 1964, created the greatest wealth the world has ever known, but will also leave behind the largest debt ever. Over 10,000 Americans per day are retiring, but half are still paying off their mortgages and may not have enough retirement income. Such retirement costs will mean more deficits and more debt – to be borne by future generations.

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Hence, it is understandable why the young are frustrated and often angry – they are not inheriting wealth, but huge debt burdens. Many students are graduating with crushing debts and the daunting prospect of large mortgages if they buy a home. This is when they start questioning the status quo.

What is the establishment going to do? Some give charity. But charity is not sustainable. This is where those who create socially responsible corporations can change the landscape of our communities and cities. Property firms should not be building ghettos of gated communities for the affluent, but ecosystems that engage all levels of society, with jobs for all. In many new development zones, high-rise apartments are sold like dreams for the affluent, but I seldom see a mix of space for health care, education, old-age homes and markets to support a sense of community.

Are we surprised therefore if our cities do not create an identity of community, but one of alienation and frustration? Social responsibility begins with each of us becoming aware that whatever we do, it is not individual interest but the social interest that counts in the long term.

This has been a landmark year of Black Swans and shocks. We have been surprised because we have found the enemy within us – our own alienation. As the New Year approaches, it’s time to reflect on how to rebuild our sense of community.

Andrew Sheng is a distinguished fellow at the Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong