Monday, August 10, 2015

Why Counting States Misses the Point

Like many folks, I keep a mental log of states visited, with the goal of spending time in all fifty before my traveling days are over.

Thus, I was pleased when the group with whom I take an annual beer and baseball trip (Baseball Odyssey 2015!) picked the South for this year’s destination.  I’ve been up and down the eastern seaboard, visiting the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida on earlier travels.  Similarly, I’d checked off Tennessee and Texas in recent years.  But the Deep South of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana was virgin territory for me, giving me the chance to cross off three more states.

However, it was during the trip that I realized the absurdity of an urbanist measuring travels by counting states.  Except for the multiple encounters with the Alabama police, it was still a great trip, but the tallying up of states lost its lustre.

Here’s the problem with states.  The fundamental and organic organizing unit of civilization is the city.  Nations, and their subdivisions into states, came along relatively late in human history.  A brief review of world history proves the point.  The history of civilization begins with Babylon, Athens, Sparta, Rome, and Carthage before continuing onward to Venice, Vienna, London, Paris, Philadelphia, and Boston.  Cities are where learning, government, and culture all took root.

Even the ancient places that we know today by regional names, such Mesopotamia or Phoenicia, were collections of cities where the citizens felt their principal allegiance to their towns.  The regional names were only applied by later historians.

And even when nations finally began to appear, the birthing were still difficult.  China has a legitimate claim to be the oldest nation, but its borders continued to move in and out like an accordion for much of its history.  Neither Germany nor Italy even existed until the 19th century.  Britain reached stability earlier, but that process was aided by it being an island.  And even then it took the Scots two millennia to decide to join, a decision which they continue to second-guess.

The creation of nations was probably inevitable.  It’s hard to conduct either commerce or war with vast areas of uncertain allegiance between cities.  But the slowness of nations to arise and become stable points to the fundamental superiority of cities as a form of organizing human activity.

Which leads to the question of why we’ve ceded so much of the power of cities to the later inventions of nations and states.  We have taken the birthplace of civilizations and relegated them to the back row of governance.

Using the North Bay as an example, who would we rather have setting the standards by which we run our North Bay communities, the folks in Sacramento who are trying to write rules that apply equally well to San Diego, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno, and Eureka or a city government based in San Francisco but incorporating more of the Bay Area and thereby a government better capable of understanding Bay Area lives and desires?

My preference is for a regional/city government.  There would still be an essential role for nation and states, but I suspect we would manage our affairs better if allowed to do so at more of a city level.

So, when I count states visited, I’m paying homage to a concept that I think is fundamentally flawed and continues to impede the organic growth of civilization.  I need to stop doing that.

Cities rule.

Perhaps it was being away from the North Bay for twelve days, but upon my return I began noting local absurdities with urbanist angles.  My next post will enumerate some of these North Bay non sequiturs.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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