We Should Appreciate Cities
With real estate prices rising in nearly all of the world’s major cities, there is a heavy emphasis on ‘decentralisation’ and the power of a ‘sea’ or ‘tree’ change. I think our impulses to search for clearer air shows just how much we underrate cities (which isn’t to say modern cities aren’t polluted, they very much are). I’m the first to admit that I underrate cities myself.
However, for various reasons, I’ve spent quite some time lately observing, reading, thinking and writing about cities. It has made me re-evaluate my perspective. What if cities have always been the crucial engine of change for the human species? Let’s explore this thought.
Cities were born in what we now call Iraq, in the heart of the Middle East, situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. It is here, that we find the birthplace of the modern world.
Around 8,000 BCE (10,000 years ago), the climate started to change. The land grew cooler and drier. The sparse and nomadic peoples began to band together to obtain the benefit of working together to create larger irrigation systems. We see cities like Çatal Hüyük and Jericho spring to like elsewhere in the Middle East and surrounding Mediterranean. However, it is in in ancient Mesopotamia by 3,000 to 4,000 BCE that we see the cities of Eridu, Ur and Hamoukar. It was the most incredible change in urbanisation that the world had ever seen.
Here we have the birth of real urban spaces as we know them today. They brought about an indescribable set of changes about how we live and work together. Examples included industrial scale facilities for producing food, division of labour, the birth of writing and trade.
With more free time, people were able to start specialising their skills. Deeper social, legal, cultural and religious imaginary orders were built to help people work together. I consider it a crucial inflection point where strictly biological evolution was paired with a rich cultural evolution.
Cities were where ideas evolve faster than our biology. In this way, cities are the very engines of civilisation. There is just so much more opportunity for ideas to be created, exchanged, challenged and redeveloped. Georg Simmel phrased this energy in a wonderful way, “the metropolis acted as a powerful stimulus to men’s mental developments.”
Current research suggests cities also positively impact life expectancy. Data gathered from 1969 to 2009 suggests that people in rural areas actually have a lower life expectancy then those living in metropolitan areas. This continues to apply even when the analysis combines race, gender and socioeconomic status.
For example, two combinations from the research show a stark difference in life expectancy between less affluent African American men in nonmetropolitan areas, who have a life expectancy 22 years less than less affluent women in metropolitan areas of Asian or Pacific Island decent.
The twist in the tale is that cities can also be the engines of their own destruction; a little like Minky’s ‘financial instability hypothesis’, which theorises that long periods of wealth create the context for the next financial crises. Applying this economic theory to the wider geography of a city, it is easy to see how a city can keep expanding until parts of it collapse in upon itself. This could include populations that grow too quickly, environmental impacts, cultural pressures, growing economic gulfs between the wealthy and the poor, and a strain on various social and infrastructural services.
So as much as I now appreciate and celebrate cities as crucial engines of change, I worry that in a number of cities around the world, we might be at an inflection point. Will the various global cities survive it? I certainly hope so. Though I expect I may drift from the heart of a city to its edges and then back again throughout my life, I have a suspicion cities offer a crucial context of cognitive and social collisions to generate change that cannot be easily replicated by any other means.
Simmel, Georg (1996) The Nature of the City from Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities, edited by Richard Sennet. New York.
Watson, P (2005) Ideas. Harper Collins: New York.
Gopal, K.S, Siahpush, M. (2014) Widening Rural–Urban Disparities in Life Expectancy in the U.S. from 1969–2009. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, Vol. 46 (2).
Photo of City by Andre Benz on Unsplash.