[Paleopsych] Joel Kotkin: Cities: Places Sacred, Safe, and Busy

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Thu May 12 00:39:11 UTC 2005

Joel Kotkin: Cities: Places Sacred, Safe, and Busy

    [spacer.gif] Humankinds greatest creation has always been its cities.
    They represent the ultimate handiwork of our imagination as a species,
     compressing and unleashing the creative urges of humanity. From the
      earliest beginnings, when only a tiny fraction of humans lived in
    cities, they have been the places that generated most of mankinds art,
                 religion, culture, commerce, and technology.
        Although many often mistakenly see cities as largely a Western
     phenomenon, with one set of roots, urbanism has worn many different
    guises. Over the past five to seven millennia, cities have been built
    in virtually every part of the world from the highlands of Peru to the
       tip of southern Africa and the coasts of Australia. Some cities
       started as little more than overgrown villages that, over time,
       developed momentum and mass. Others have reflected the conscious
    vision of a high priest, ruler, or business elite, following a general
     plan to fulfill some greater divine, political, or economic purpose.
         The oldest permanent urban footprints are believed to be in
      Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates River. From
       those roots sprang a plethora of metropolises that represent the
      founding experiences of the Western urban heritage, including Ur,
     Agade, Babylon, Nineveh, Memphis, Knossos, and Tyre. But many other
     cities sprang up largely independent of these early Mesopotamian and
      Mediterranean settlements. Some of these, such as Mohenjo-daro and
    Harrapa in India and Changan in China, achieved a scale and complexity
      equal to any of their Western contemporaries. All of these cities,
    numerous and various, are however reflective of some greater universal
                              human aspiration.
     The key to understanding that universal aspiration lies in the words
     of the Greek historian Herodotus. While traveling in the 5th century
      B.C. to places both thriving and struggling, he wrote, For most of
    those which were great once are small today; and those that used to be
    small were great in my own time. Cities throughout history have risen
      and fallen. The critical questions of Herodotus time still remain:
       what makes cities great, and what leads to their gradual demise?
    I argue that three critical factors have determined the overall health
     of cities: the sacredness of place, the ability to provide security
      and project power, and the animating role of commerce. Where these
      factors are present, urban culture flourishes. When these elements
        weaken, cities dissipate and eventually recede out of history.
                           The Sacredness of Place
      Religious structurestemples, cathedrals, mosques, and pyramidshave
     long dominated the landscape and imagination of great cities. These
     buildings suggested that the city was also a sacred place, connected
      directly to divine forces controlling the world. This was true not
    only in Mesopotamia, but also in the great capital cities of China, in
     Athens, in Rome, in the city-states of the Italian Renaissance, and
      among the far-flung urban centers of the classical Islamic world.
     In our own, much more secularly oriented time, the role of religion
    and of sacred place is often downgraded and even ignoredlikely at our
    own great peril, as evidenced by the downfall of overly secular cities
      from ancient Greece to the centers of Soviet society. Yet even the
      most secular of cities still seek to recreate the sense of sacred
      place through towering commercial buildings and evocative cultural
     structures. Such sights inspire a sense of civic patriotism or awe,
        albeit without the comforting suggestion of divine guidance. A
       striking landscape, historian Kevin Lynch once suggested, is the
      skeleton in which city dwellers construct their socially important
                            The Need for Security
    Cities must first and foremost be safe. Many contemporary urban areas,
     notably in western Europe, North America, and East Asia, have taken
    this precept for granted, but the threat posed by general disorder in
      many Third World cities and by Islamic terror around the globe may
       once again focus urbanites on the fundamental issue of security.
    An increased focus on safety would be in keeping with historic norms.
     Many cities, observed historian Henry Pirenne, first arose as places
     of refuge from marauding nomads, or from general lawlessness. When a
    citys ability to guarantee the safety of its citizens and institutions
        has declined, as at the end of the western Roman empire or in
      crime-infested late-20th Century American inner cities, urbanities
      have tended to retreat to the hinterland or to migrate to another,
                                 safer city.
                             The Role of Commerce
      Yet sanctity and safety alone cannot create great cities. Priests,
      soldiers, and bureaucrats may provide the prerequisites for urban
     success, but they cannot themselves produce enough wealth to sustain
    large populations for a long period of time. Great cities can flourish
     as administrative, cultural, or artistic centers for only as long as
        they either create wealth or can extract it from other places.
     Over time, virtually every parasitic urban economyincluding the most
     effective of all, ancient Romehas declined as it lost the ability to
    siphon off the resources of its periphery. Cities that generated their
                 own wealth have proven far more sustainable.
     The self-sustaining city has required an active economy of artisans,
       merchants, working people, and sadly, in most places and most of
        history, slaves. Such people, necessarily the vast majority of
       urbanites, have, since the advent of capitalism, emerged as the
                     primary creators of the city itself.
                               The Islamic City
     To understand how the three critical factors have worked throughout
    historyand to understand the challenges facing cities around the world
      today, in the first era in history in which the majority of people
     live in urban areaswe must look beyond the Western context that has
     been the focus of most urban historians in America. Only two of the
     worlds twenty largest metropolitan areas, New York and Los Angeles,
     are fundamentally Western cities. Most of the worlds fastest growing
       cities, such as those in the Islamic world, and many of the most
    increasingly influential ones, notably in East Asia, have developed in
                  strikingly different historical contexts.
        Islam started out as a profoundly urban faith. Mohammed was a
    successful merchant in Mecca, a long established trading and religious
     center on the barren Arabian peninsula. Mecca had been influenced by
        first Hellenistic and then Roman rulers; its varied population
    included pagans, Jews, and after the 2nd Century, Christians as well.
     The old clan loyalties of the desert culture posed a distinct threat
     to this nascent urban community. Meccans lacked the common ethos and
       rule of law applicable to unrelated people that had held cities
     together since Mesopotamian times. In this respect, Mohammeds great
        achievement was to supplant Bedouin clan ties with a sense of
    universal moral valuesimilar to the role played by the Catholic Church
                        to Europe in the Middle Ages.
     The Muslim epoch which followed Mohammeds death in 632 represented a
        new beginning in urban history. Islam broke dramatically with
     traditions of classical urbanism such as Socrates, who saw people in
         the city as a primary source of knowledge. Islam fostered a
     sophisticated urban culture but did not worship the city for its own
     sake. Religious concerns, the integration of the daily lives of men
      with a transcendent God, overshadowed those of municipal affairs.
      The primacy of faith was evident in Islamic cities. Instead of the
     classical emphasis on public buildings and spaces, mosques now arose
     at the center of urban life. Todays West sees Islam as intolerant of
    modernity and cosmopolitanismpartially because of an actual threat of
    Islamic terrorists and partially because of more general stereotypes.
     Yet early Muslim civilization promoted something far different than
    intolerant jihads. The early Islamic conquerors sought to incorporate
     newly acquired citiesDamascus, Jerusalem, and Carthageinto what they
          believed to be a spiritually superior urban civilization.
    Other peoples of the bookas Muslims considered Jews and Christianswere
    allowed to practice their faiths with considerable freedom. The Koran
      simply suggested that these dhimmis be made tributaries to the new
     regime, and thus humbled. Otherwise, their rights were assured. This
    relative toleration led some Jews and even Christians to welcome, and
             even assist, in the Muslim takeover of their cities.
      The cosmopolitan and orderly character of Islamic urban life also
    spurred the growth of trade, as well as the elevation of the arts and
        sciences. In the newly conquered cities, the Arab suq (market)
        improved on the Greco-Roman agora. Rulers developed elaborate
    commercial districts, with large buildings shaded from the hot desert
        sun, including storerooms and hostels for visiting merchants.
    The new rulers also built large libraries, universities, and hospitals
    at a pace not seen since Roman times, across a remarkable archipelago
       of new urban centers. From Cordoba in Spainwhich one German nun
    described as the jewel of the worldto Cairo in Egypt, Baghdad in Iraq,
    Shiraz in Persia, and Delhi in India, Islamic cities provided a model
         of urbanity at a time when much of Europes once great urban
                    civilization was largely in disrepair.
     The subsequent decline of Islamic cities, dating to perhaps as early
     as the 17th Century, represents one of the great urban tragedies of
         the last millennium. Under assault from technologically and
     economically aggressive Western societies, the great Islamic cities
    generally fell behind, most particularly in the wake of the Industrial
    Even the great windfall offered by the presence of massive reserves of
    energy has failed to reverse this decline. Despite the expenditure of
         billions in petro-dollars, most of the worlds largest Muslim
    citiesfrom Cairo and Baghdad to Tehran, Lahore, and Jakartacontinue to
        lag behind Western cities in economics, technology, and social
     development. These societies have generally failed to understand the
    importance to city life of the free flow of commerce, a decent regime
    of law, and a sense of moral order that tolerates the existence of the
                     East Asia Revives the Urban Society
    East Asia, the home of one of the worlds other great urban traditions,
       presents a far more hopeful picture of urban prospects. After a
     precipitous decline that started in the 17th Century, cities in East
          Asia have in recent times enjoyed a remarkable resurgence.
    Today many of the worlds most prosperous citiesincluding the largest,
    Tokyoare located in East Asia. Japan forged the first great expression
    of modern Asian urbanism, consciously blending imported technology and
     city planning techniques with a uniquely Asian sense of civic values
    and order. Its model of urban development has inspired others in Asia.
     This is particularly evident in the sprawling metropolitan areas of
      Seoul, a onetime Japanese colonial capital which has thrived under
    American military and economic protection over the past four decades.
     Yet arguably the most critical evolution has been the one that took
     place in Chinese-dominated urban spheres of East Asia. Although old
     imperial cities such as Beijing continued to decline throughout much
         of the 20th Century, modern Chinese urbanism evolved, often
      dramatically, in cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore
                      under powerful western influence.
      Until the Communist takeover in 1949, Shanghai was the greatest of
    these cities: a corrupt but powerful industrial and commercial center.
    Subsequently the two colonial cities, Hong Kong and Singapore, showed
              the way to a new model of Chinese-based urbanity.
    Although Hong Kong expanded more rapidly at first, it may well be that
        Singapore developed the urban archetype that, over time, would
     dominate much of East Asia. At the time of its independence in 1965,
    the prospects for the tiny, 225-square-mile Republic appeared dubious
      at best. The city suffered all the usual problems associated with
      developing countries: large, crowded slums, criminal gangs, and a
    relatively unskilled population. The country also faced the hostility
    from neighboring, far more populous, and predominately Muslim Malaysia
                        from which it had broken away.
    Singapores great achievement lay in employing its new sovereign power
        to construct one of the stunning urban success stories of the
           late-20th Century. Under the authoritarian leadership of
     Cambridge-educated Lee Kuan Yew, tenements were replaced by planned
      apartment complexes; congested streets were supplanted by a modern
    road system under which ran an advanced subway system; and crime, once
                       rampant, was nearly eliminated.
      The key to Singapores success lay in economic growth. Lee and his
    government worked assiduously to exploit Singapores natural advantage
     as a harbor and transit center for trans-Asian trade. Moving rapidly
    from low-wage industries like textiles to high-technology and service
     industries, Singapore by the end of the 20th Century boasted one of
      the worlds best educated and economically productive populations.
     Class divisions remained, but most now achieved a standard of living
          and wealth unimaginable for masses in other cities of the
     post-colonial world. Income levels, barely $800 per person in 1964,
                      had risen to over $23,000 in 1999.
      Critically, Lee was not only interested in improving the short-run
    economic prospects for his tiny city-state; he wanted to develop a new
     Asian urban culture capable of competing globally well into the 21st
       Century. Having given them a clean city, modern amenities, and a
    strong economy, one of his ministers declared, we are now thinking of
                      what culture we should give them.
     By the mid-1980s, Lee had decided what kind of culture he wanted for
         his people: one built on the bedrock of the citys Asian, and
       particularly Chinese, values. The self-described Anglophile now
       promoted an essentially Confucian ethos based on respect for the
    authority of a wise and powerful mandarin elite. Without this culture,
    he suggested, Singapore would soon degenerate into what he scathingly
                  described as another Third World society.
      By the 1980s, even Chinas Communist leaders, long contemptuous of
       their capitalist-minded overseas brethren and hostile to Western
    notions of urbanism, began to embrace the Singaporean model. In 1992,
     Chinas paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, openly expressed particular
        admiration for Singapores approach to social order as the best
          blueprint for the rapid development of Chinas own cities.
    Under Dengs Four Modernizations, Beijing gradually loosened its strict
     control over municipalities. Local officials now encouraged private
     initiative and outside investment. The creation of special economic
    zones, such as that in Shenzen between Hong Kong and Canton, attracted
      the largest amounts of foreign capital, much of it from Hong Kong,
    Taipei, and Singapore. Within fifteen years, the area around the Pearl
     River Delta had, much like British Midlands in the mid-19th Century,
    become not only the countrys workshop but rapidly the workshop of the
     In less than a generation, Chinas predominately rural society is now
       being rapidly urbanized. Streets which only two decades ago were
       filled with bicycles are now choked with automobile traffic. New
     modern office buildings, hotels, and high-rise apartments dwarf the
    old Stalinist-style state buildings along the major boulevards. Public
      markets have reappeared, offering an ever-wider variety of meats,
      vegetables, and fruits to an increasingly affluent public. Chinese
      cities, notably Shanghai, now are the stage for some of the worlds
       most ambitious infrastructure projects and most spectacular new
                               The Urban Future
                            The Need for Commerce
     Today most governments, private corporations, and non-profits around
     the world focus on creating both a dynamic economy and reducing the
     age-old scourge of poverty. In this respect, the brightest immediate
      prospects for the urban future lie in East Asia. In contrast, the
     commercial vitality of many older European cities, and at least some
         in the New World and Australia, seem likely to be ever more
     challengedeven in the highest value-added activitiesby urban centers
          not only in China, but in India and other Asian countries.
     Far more distressing are the economic prospects of the cities of the
        Third World. These continue to struggle with the historically
    unprecedented condition of rapid demographic expansion and weak, even
    negative, economic growth. Until the poverty of these citieswhether in
    the Middle East, Africa, South America, and parts of Southeast Asiais
         adequately addressed, there seems no way for them to develop
                          successful urban centers.
                    The Continuing Importance of Security
    In addition to the economic challenge, the worlds cities also face the
     challenge of maintaining both law and order. Urbanites, to be truly
    productive, must feel at least somewhat secure in their persons. They
          also need to depend on a responsible authority capable of
       administering contracts and enforcing basic codes of commercial
    Today, fear of both crime and capricious authority slows the movement
      of foreign capital to many Third World cities. Even in relatively
       peaceful countries, kleptocratic bureaucracies deflect business
         investment to safer and less congenitally larcenous places.
        Yet the greatest threat to the urban future comes from Islamic
      terrorism. In the years following the 2001 attack on New York and
       Washington, D.C., both individuals and businesses have begun to
        rethink locating close to prime potential terrorist targets in
      high-profile urban locations. To the already difficult challenges
    posed by changing economic and social trends, cities around the world
    now have to contend with the constant threat of physical obliteration.
                               The Sacred Place
     Despite such threats, the urban ideal has demonstrated a remarkable
     resilience. Fear rarely is enough to stop the determined builders of
     cities. For all the cities that have been ruined permanently by war,
     pestilence, or natural disaster, many othersCarthage, Rome, London,
    and Tokyohave been rebuilt, often more than once. Even amidst mounting
    terrorist threats, city officials and developers not only in New York
      but in London, Tokyo, Shanghai, and other major cities continue to
            plan new office towers and other superlative edifices.
    Today as much as when cities originated, the value people place on the
        urban experience over time will prove more important than any
    assemblage of new buildings. Whether in the traditional urban core or
      in the expanding periphery, issues of identity and community still
     largely determine which places ultimately succeed and which do not.
        As progenitors of a new kind of human existence, the earliest
     city-dwellers found themselves confronting vastly different problems
        than faced in prehistoric nomadic communities and agricultural
      villages. Urbanites had to learn how to co-exist and interact with
    strangers from outside their clan or tribe. This required new ways to
     codify behavior and determine commonly acceptable behavior in family
                    life, commerce, and social discourse.
     Today, the lack of a shared moral order could prove as dangerous to
    the future cities as the most hideous terrorist threats. Cities in the
    modern West, as historian Daniel Bell has suggested, have depended on
    a broad adherence to classical and Enlightenment ideals: due process,
      freedom of belief, the basic rights of property. To shatter these
        essential principles, whether in the name of the marketplace,
        multicultural separatism, or religious dogma, would render the
    contemporary city in the West helpless to meet the enormous challenges
                                  before it.
        Yet history tells us that the West represents only one road to
       successful urbanism. History abounds with models developed under
    explicit pagan, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu auspices. We cannot ignore
      that notable success in city-building has occurred in recent years
        under neo-Confucian belief systems, amalgamating modernity and
     tradition. Over time these systems must also find ways to deal with
      the ill-effects of unrestrained market capitalism on society and,
     particularly in China itself, the self-interested corruption of the
                         ruling authoritarian elite.
    It is to be hoped that the Islamic world, having found Western values
         wanting, may discover in their own glorious pastreplete with
      cosmopolitan values and belief in scientific progressthe means to
     salvage their troubled urban civilization. From that model they may
         learn that successful cities must adapt their moral order to
                      accommodate differing populations.
     Cities can only thrive by occupying a sacred place that both orders
      and inspires the complex natures of gathered masses of people. For
    five thousand years or more, the human attachment to cities has served
    as the primary forum for political and material progress. It is in the
      city, this ancient confluence of the sacred, safe, and busy, where
            humanitys future will be shaped for centuries to come.

      This article is excerpted from Joel Kotkins new book, The City: A
          Global History, recently published by Modern Library. ed.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list