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