For 30 years, I’ve read and reread Peter Drucker’s books. Drucker was a professor, writer and consultant who may have singlehandedly created the study of business management in 1945 with his magisterial book about General Motors, “Concept of the Corporation.” Drucker taught many things about how large organizations work, but his greatest skill was an ability to focus managers’ thinking without simplifying their tasks. And here’s an example: In 1954, Drucker defined, in 13 simple words, why companies exist. He wrote, “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.”
Savor that for a moment: Companies don’t exist to make profits (profits are a means to an end, Drucker would say), or provide jobs for employees (again, means to an end), or benefit society (wonderful if it happens, but it’s a byproduct, not a purpose). No, the purpose of a business is to create customers because, without them, there would be no profits, jobs or social benefit. So every company’s focus must be, first and foremost, on creating customers.
I’m no Peter Drucker, but I’d like to try my hand at defining a purpose for cities: Cities exist to create citizens. Not to generate economic gains (they do, but as a byproduct), or provide a home to the arts, entertainment or learning (again, byproducts), and certainly not to support a government (it’s a means to an end). I would argue that the real purpose of cities is to create a group of people who will take responsibility for their community. And it’s this willingness to accept responsibility that is the difference between a resident and a citizen.
The good news is that cities are almost uniquely positioned to do this. States don’t easily create citizens, nor do nations; rural areas do it only with the greatest of difficulties. But cities have three unique assets for building responsibility-seeking citizens:
- The people are already there. Cities are natural gathering places, so you don’t have to have a special meeting at the state capital or in Washington, D.C. to get the interested parties together. They’re around, seven days a week. And proximity is critical to building responsibility. If a person is concerned about an issue, there’s no need to read about it in the newspaper or watch it on CNN; she can go down to city hall, raise her hand and participate.
- Cities are not abstractions like states or countries; they’re tangible places that you can see, touch, hear, smell and walk around in. As a result, the issues that concern cities—economic development, housing, public safety, downtown development, water and sewers, roads and schools—are far closer to the everyday concerns of people than those that preoccupy Congress and state capitals.
- Maybe most important, cities can be molded by their citizens. They can determine the city’s physical form, the streets, buildings, sidewalks and connections. And that form, over time, will mold them. In that sense, it’s a feedback loop: the more you consciously shape the urban form, the more the form changes you and others around you.
When you put these things together—the accessibility of cities, their concreteness, and the opportunities for physical and social change—you can see why citizenship is much easier to create in cities than anywhere else.
And here’s maybe the best thing: Cities get much better as they create more citizens. Just about every problem in a city is easier to manage if citizens will step forward to help, from social ills and unresponsive government to a struggling local economy. So, just as businesses must focus first on creating customers in order to achieve their other goals, cities should focus first on creating citizens if they want to make progress in any other area.
I’m not the only one who thinks this. Daniel Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula, Montana, wrote a wonderful book in 1995 called, “The Good City and the Good Life” in which he described how important it was for cities to create responsibility-seeking citizens, even if just a few at a time. Kemmis wrote:
If every meeting that dealt with a difficult public issue could, by its own dynamic, produce a half-dozen people who took upon themselves some measure of responsibility for the way people treated each other, we would solve problems at a much higher rate than most of us in most of our cities have ever experienced.
I’ll talk in the future about how cities can create more citizens and point to one city that’s actually doing it, but let me close with an important caveat: Citizen creation is not the work solely of city governments. Governments can do a lot to encourage and facilitate citizen involvement, but we need many community institutions to be involved, from schools and neighborhood associations to youth groups and foundations.
It’s only when people are surrounded by opportunities to get involved in their communities, opportunities that come at them from many directions, that we can move large numbers from being passive residents to active citizens.
Photo by Matt Malone licensed under Creative Commons.