The Regionalist: Are cosmopolitanism and regionalism fundamentally at odds?

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There is an apparent contradiction, some would say, between the philosophical/ethical regionalist stance and cosmopolitanism. Regionalism, after all, concerns itself with our (human beings’) embeddedness in the ecological, social and economic systems that surround us. It is founded upon the idea that there exist important natural and social phenomena which cannot be apprehended, comprehended and/or acted upon by local, national or international political and social entities.

Cosmopolitanism, in contrast, concerns itself with the global human community – or even, in some its incarnations, with the global “community of life”. The cosmopolitan perspective (which is often contrasted with the communitarian philosophical stance) rejects all forms of particularism and views human beings as belonging to a single community with a shared morality. Whereas regionalism privileges the scale of ecosystems, cosmopolitanism privileges no scale at all – all forms of injustice concern us all, whether they take place here or elsewhere.

Superficially, they do seem to be in contradiction. The recent prolonged and acrimonious debate about Montreal’s proposed regional plan, for example, was centered primarily on “turf politics” (as opposed to addressing broader public policy issues). Ironically, the debate descended from a discussion of regionalism into a discussion of localism – and with the suburban municipality of St-Eustache now threatening to “secede” from the CMM, one might conclude that efforts to build a true regional coalition have failed – and that localism has won the day. Regionalism, some argue, is always caught up in local issues (the way federalism is caught up in provincial issues) and cannot, therefore, transcend its own boundaries.

However, regionalism and cosmopolitanism were once aligned – and there is no reason why they could not aligned once more. Indeed regionalism as a planning concept, as conceived of by the visionary Patrick Geddes in the early 20th century and as formulated by his discipline Lewis Mumford in the 1920s, was first and foremost “a philosophic template to guide modern city-building around the constructs of nature”. The early members of the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA, now called RPA) may have all been men, their brand of regionalism was still resolutely cosmopolitan in that they saw humankind in ecological perspective and as belonging to the wider natural world. In fact, most of the RPAA members were worldly men who saw regionalism as a cure for the dehumanizing crush of urban civilization (as they knew it).

I am not suggesting that cosmopolitanism is an absolute moral truth; far from it. It may, for instance, have the effect of flattening the moral landscape, making it difficult to decide between actions that have different but “equivalent” moral implications (e.g., should our government spend more on the poor in Canada or on the poor in the poorest of the world countries?). But I do believe we should aspire to “be at home in the wider world”, which is a central tenet of cosmopolitanism. Given that urban regions usually ecologically, ethnically and socially diverse, having a regional perspective is already to be “of the wider world”. Albeit, the regional perspective is limited in many ways – regions are obviously affected by other regions in more than one way  – but regionalism provides a platform for discussing non-local issues such as ethnic/racial segregation, food, water, the relationship of the city to nature and its hinterland, etc. It provides therefore an opening to “de-localize” our worldview, while keeping us grounded.

Which reminds me: for those interested in getting a broader perspective on the Montreal region, we are starting to plan for the second edition of Walk of the region. If you are interested and want to keep informed, send us an e-mail at walktheregion@gmail.com. And if you know anyone who doesn’t live on the island who might be interested in participating, please forward them the invitation.

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