The Good City and the Good Life: Renewing the sense of community

Book Review contributed by David Campbell

aniel Kemmis, mayor of Missoula, Montana, is one of the nation's most astute interpreters of civic life and the practice of citizenship. This book, based on his experiences as mayor and his travels to communities around the word, documents the small, patient and encouraging steps by which citizens are reviving democracy and building more sustainable communities. Two of the book's primary arguments bear directly on the concerns of sustainable agriculture: 1) the idea that direct marketing arrangements, particularly farmers' markets, are critical not merely for promoting local commercial activity but also as vehicles for civic renewal, and 2) the view that 'citistates' (i.e. cities and their surrounding region) are and should be replacing the nation-state as the proper frame for political and economic life as we head into the next century.

Kemmis begins his investigation of "the good city" in what might at first seem an unlikely place: the Missoula Farmers' Market. Like many others, Kemmis admires the market as a center of commercial activity that supports nearby farms, including those begun only recently by Hmong residents. But he sees more as well. Amidst the bustle and activity of the market, Kemmis sees the organic creation of a new civility in the city's life; civility that is making possible a renewed and deeper sense of citizenship in the community:

I believe that the way people carry themselves at the Farmers' Market is essentially the way of citizens, and that referring to the market as civilized is an implicit recognition of this fact. ... We know that most cities through most of history have grown up around markets. We know that people needed gathering places in order to exchange material surplus for deficiency, but also to exchange news, stories, joy, and grief. ... As Steve weighs my broccoli and Lucy counts out my change, the whole history of their farm and of our friendship is part and parcel of what we exchange. Moving back through the market, back to the spot where I'm to meet Abe, I see in dozens of conversations around me an interweaving of these life stories, and I find delight and security in realizing once again that this fabric is Missoula, my home, my city. (p. 5, 11)

Kemmis believes that the cynicism and despair that mark today's politics are a reflection of the lack of occasions for people to be present with one another in ways that acknowledge their wholeness as human beings and their common dependence on particular places on the earth. Obscured by the groundcover of a more cynical politics, human scale institutions like farmers' markets are quietly but successfully reviving the civic sensitivities required for democratic politics to thrive.

Drawing on the economic thought of Jane Jacobs and the recent political analysis of Neil Peirce, Kemmis suggests that the economic and political viability of cities and their surrounding regions is increasingly tied to how creatively they develop self-conscious and self-reliant regional economies. Kemmis argues forcefully against government policies that segment urban and rural interests. Not only have these policies allowed suburban sprawl and interests to spread unchecked, they have created the illusion that the economic health of farmers and the economic health of urban centers can be pursued independently:

Throughout history, the role of cities has been precisely to focus, organize, and multiply the resources of the surrounding regions to which they are organically connected. In the era of the nation-state, we had not only lost sight of this role, but what is worse, national policy has misled both cities and their rural surroundings into believing that they could prosper independently of one another, especially if each could open a wide enough pipeline to Washington. ... One of the best ways for the Agriculture Department to help its rural constituents would be to insist upon a rigorous review of the long list of national policies that have exploded the natural integrity of city-regions, deluding city centers, suburbs, and rural surroundings into ignoring their mutual dependency. (p.119-120)

Kemmis is correct in suggesting that support for sustainable agriculture and rural development requires more than aggressive lobbying for increased funding of these programs by the USDA. Indeed, he raises a larger question: On whom will farmers and rural residents choose to be dependent? In an age where federal expenditures continue to shrink, and global corporations often exploit communities to benefit stockholders, wouldn't the interests of farmers and rural residents be better served by increasing their links and ties to nearby cities? From this perspective, it appears that the work of building a more sustainable agriculture is inseparable from the work of building more self-reliant regional economies suited to particular places.

As the concept of sustainable agriculture continues to evolve, greater attention is being directed to linking urban and rural interests and building tangible connections between those who grow food and those who eat it. The principle of "systems thinking" has expanded well beyond the farm gate, giving rise to a concern for the "urban-rural interface." In large measure this new emphasis grows from the quite tangible economic stakes that farmers have in developing more beneficial and direct marketing relationships with consumers. But in a larger sense, the new concern speaks to a growing understanding that without shared stewardship of our resources it will be impossible to sustain either the agricultural economy or the quality of life we wish for our cities.

The efforts of individuals to shape a political economy that allows a city and its surrounding countryside to thrive and prosper can be summed up in a too often neglected word. That word is citizenship. In fact, citizenship is the proper name and rightful home of systems thinking applied to public problems. The hallmark of such thought is the effort to attend to the particular needs of citizens without losing sight of the common good, and attend to the whole without losing sight of the value of each particular citizen. It is perhaps not too surprising that farmers devoted to whole systems approaches on their farms are among the nation's most inspiring leaders in sparking a renewed emphasis on citizenship, community building, and civic literacy.

The Good City and the Good Life (Daniel Kemmis, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY. 1995 ) can be purchased from your local bookseller for $22.95. For more information about farmers' markets and community revitalization in California, contact the reviewer, David Campbell, UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, University of California, Davis, CA 95616.