What is a city? According to a demographic and sociological description of the modern city, a city is an extensive geographical area where large numbers of diverse peoples live together with the goal of forming a vibrant, humane, and productive community. In the United States this urban population is often diverse racially, ethnically, economically, culturally and religiously. Given such diversity, to achieve this goal of an urban society, an urban population must display a significant degree of acceptance or at least tolerance of many aspects of daily life. Historically, as Richard Florida elaborates in the New Urban Crisis, the urban U.S. has rarely if ever achieved this ideal.
In what sense, then, is dialogue an urban ethic? Why would urban dwellers enter into a serious conversation with fellow citizens who hold different or opposing positions on aspects of urban, national, and international life? When persons agree to participate in such a dialogue, it is because they have come to realize that they need to learn more about “the other”; they seek to open themselves to stances other than their own. They realize that other citizens often hold very different perspectives on issues and with equal passion. If urban life is to unfold peacefully and productively, somehow all views must be entertained. The decision to enter dialogue becomes a self-imposed ethical commitment. People begin to view dialogue as a civic obligation. Furthermore, once within the dialogical setting, participants must commit themselves to risk listening openly and to speaking clearly and truthfully. In genuine dialogue, as Diego Fonti comments, using the words of Emmanuel Levinas, “something emerges that is contained in neither of the partners by him/herself.” In short, the dialogue partners must embrace a degree of vulnerability to hear new words, to ponder new and, perhaps, strange realities. Any other approach to dialogue would violate the very purpose of dialogue.
One cannot claim that dialogue is the answer to the many urban problems. The challenges to urban life are too complex for any one program to resolve. Political and social structural changes certainly have an important role in establishing a favorable setting for a humane urban community, as Charles Montgomery so skillfully articulates in Happy City. But citizen-based dialogue on critical urban, national, and international issues provides the real possibility of fostering relationships and of providing an important basis of trust. Moreover, becoming acquainted with other citizens face to face and learning that they too care deeply about the plight of the city and the world become an incentive to deepen one’s sense of responsibility to commit oneself to the task of fashioning a truly humane, productive urban community, the ideal of urban life.
Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis: How our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class – and What We Can Do About It. Basic Books, 2017.
Diego Fonti, “‘The Essence of Discourse is Prayer:’ Emmanuel Levinas, the Structure of Human Communication and Its Religious and Ethical Implications,” Spiritus 15, n. 1 (spring 2015) 25.
Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. MacMillan, 2014.
Daniel Di Domizio
Cardinal Stritch University