We Need Civic Humanism to Save Our Cities

A philosophy for business leaders to contribute to their city’s renaissance.

If your business today doesn’t include a pathway for you to contribute to the common public good, it and you, are doomed to fail. And if business leaders in our cities, large and small, aren’t banding together to work on important public matters, but rather deferring to either part-time elected officials or lifetime civil servants, our cities will never flourish.

I write this from an apartment in Edinburgh, Scotland a few blocks from Palace of Holyroodhouse just off the Royal Mile. The past several days I have immersed myself in Scottish history. On my plane ride over I reminisced of my last European trip to Italy, and listened to the “Tides of History” podcasts about Florence. Over the last few hours I have tried to finger why my brain keeps trying to connect Edinburgh and Florence. It’s something beyond the centuries of history and the variety of architecture and density of art.

The link has nothing to do with these things. It has to do with exact moments in time of these storied places. It has to do with Florentine Lorenzo de’ Medici and Scot Adam Smith, and their contemporaries in each place. Medici died in 1492 and Smith in 1790. Almost 300 years separates these men.

Civic humanism connects them.

There are a hundred books, articles and summaries about Florence and Edinburgh. I didn’t find any that united these distant places with a quick search.

We wouldn’t know the work of Michelangelo and Botticelli without the guiding principles of civic humanism. Even more fascinating is the role that Florence In the mid-15th century played among a variety of Italian cities and beyond. Florentines weren’t particularly adventurous when compared to Genoese, Venetians, or Pisans. But the city flourished beyond compare.

Edinburgh, overshadowed in its time by British empiricism, during the late 18th century saw advances in science and medicine, writing and poetry, engineering and social welfare. The contributions to political and economic philosophy changed the world.

Both these places in their golden age and their notions of civic engagement directly influenced the founding fathers of America. Benjamin Franklin even visited Edinburgh during this time in 1759 and 1771.

Working to improve the greater good is harder than you think. There’s a resistance to change. There’s an instinct to fight the introduction of new ideas into a seemingly stable and successful environment.

But any Golden Age comes on the foundation of stability. History is littered with the anonymity of places and people who did just good enough to get by. There are far far fewer examples throughout human history that can truly be pointed to as a time and place of Renaissance or Enlightenment.

Typically, cities or regions wait for a few leaders to take on the biggest challenges or introduce the boldest plans. Then those who do typically fail to engage everyone else. Or there are times of immense public works, but zero cultural contributions. Or there are amazing strides made in business and industry but elected leaders fail to deliver sober management and fall to corruption. Or there are incredible strides in education with no connection to life off campus. Or there are businesses with immense wealth that refuse to engage civically whatsoever. It’s rare that the variety of people needed to work to create a magnificently greater city actually do.

I don’t have to look too far to find a great example. The Capital Region of New York State has within it’s borders all of the necessary ingredients to go from very good and safe to great and bold. I can’t recall a time when the mix of artisans, politicians, creatives, business leaders and scholars all worked together on something amazingly new. More often than not we just take The collective safe road.

Fortunately, we have the opportunity. As a more diversified workforce takes root I see the balance shifting toward embracing new ideas and directions.

For our small cities and urban downtowns in particular we need these newcomers to also embrace civic life and commit to playing a role. And we need the “old timers” to relent and see that there’s a chance for an amazing accomplishments, tackling even our biggest issues, working in unison.

It’s possible for this to happen in most American cities. There just has to be a common bond that unites everyone. A belief in in a unified philosophy — civic humanism — is a start.


Creative firm entrepreneur I Coworking community developer www.aureliuscoworks.com I Believer in small cities & middle markets