Rules of Engagement?                (17 MA7 2014)

To many advocates of sustainable communities, making cities livable requires changing the fabric of civil society. To state it succinctly, the concept of sustainable communities is, for many cities and in many respects, fundamentally communitarian in nature. Without changing the way people relate to each other, and the values that underlie these interactions, pursuing sustainability would simply not be possible . .

Kent Portney presents these words as a statement of fact (Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously (MIT Press, 2013). They could as well apply to many “progressive cities” where a combination of general unease at capitalist depredations combines with a cohesive activist community that has won general control over city government – prototypical examples would be Burlington VT and several California cases, but at times Chicago, Boston and other large cities like Madison, and perhaps others like Jackson, MS under the late mayor Chokwe Lumumba.

The problem is that carried to its logical conclusions, strict requirements of progressivity (redistributive policies, open government) tend to conflict with accepted – sanctified? – principles of liberal democracy: acceptance of a generous interpretation of property rights, the valuation of equality of opportunity over equality of condition, and a general inability to moderate these principles.

Thus advocates of “sustainable cities” tend to “butt heads” with the majority of citizens, who may nevertheless seek more moderate environmental policies (recycling?).  And it is not a far reach to see the same issues affecting progressive activists – many of their supporters seek moderate measures, but will not go all the way to serious engagement of capitalist forces, even when provoked to excess.

These useful observations set up the essential political problem or the progressive city: even in the most successful cases, a core cadre – not necessarily communitarian, but at least analagous, similar – contends with a cautiously supportive middle element. Sustaining progressive policies depends on how the core deals with this middle group.


By now there is a lot of experience, seen this way. We can come up with many anecdotes. Are there also some rules of engagement that will help others?