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The great debate


Philip Silverman April 24th, 2008

The recent MAPS tax proposal engendered endless editorial page discussions on just what would make Oklahoma City a great city. Mostly, these centered on the effect of a professional sports team. Cit...

The recent MAPS tax proposal engendered endless editorial page discussions on just what would make Oklahoma City a great city. Mostly, these centered on the effect of a professional sports team.

Cities are complex systems whose components interact sometimes in unpredictable ways. Nevertheless, useful generalizations can be made about the properties of cities widely acknowledged to be great. There are, of course, expert opinions on this topic, and mine is certainly not one of them, but I think it's important to keep the discussion going because I doubt whether an NBA team will mark perfection for OKC as a city. So, here goes.

Great cities are hubs of human activity. To qualify as great, a city must be a magnet for ambitious and creative people representing all aspects of civilized life. This requires an environment favorable to economic growth (without giving away the silverware), to jobs and opportunity, to culture and cultural institutions, and to tolerance and diversity.

Great cities function far from equilibrium. Constant commercial, social and intellectual ferment provide the free energy for adaptation and evolution. The diverse population that great cities attract and the inevitable conflicts and competition that accompany diversity also drive change. And change is crucial; for cities, as for other living things, stasis is death.

Great cities tax their inhabitants, sometimes heavily, and use their financial resources for public purposes, which in turn redound to the city's livability. Overall, the most impressive example of public moneys being used for civic purposes was the rebuilding of Paris in the mid-19th century. The result was the Paris we acknowledge today as one of the great cities of the world. Effective police and fire protection and efficient, safe and economical public transportation are more modest examples of such public purposes. (Locally, think MAPS.) Sports facilities might justifiably fall into this category. However, no great city has ever staked its claim to greatness on how many skyboxes it has. Public revenues are always limiting, and a careful evaluation of public priorities should never give way to private interests.

Great cities support numerous and distributed public amenities open to all. Examples are parks, museums, zoos, monuments, etc. Architecture is an important component of great cities. The Eiffel Tower, the Houses of Parliament, the Sears Tower and so on are all icons that immediately identify specific cities.

Great cities are centers of learning. They support public educational institutions and encourage private ones. America's cities have certainly failed to provide quality public education for all, but this failure has many, many fathers. 

Great cities generously support the arts as expressions and celebrations of humanity's highest achievements.

Silverman, a research scientist at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, has lived in Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area and New York; he is very happy now to be living in Oklahoma City.

 
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