What is the greatest invention humanity has ever created? The wheel? The domestication and control of fire? Writing, maybe?
Personally, I’d put the city at the top of the list. Dangerous, Dirty, noisy, smelly, vibrant, wonderful, beautiful, cities (delete as appropriate).
Cities, like wars, have been the great driving force of human innovation. Think of the use of “Ur” to signify old or original, a prefix that got its name from the Sumerian city. This is the civilization that gave us Cuneiform the first recorded writing, baked on to clay tablets.
Cities create. They need engineers to create the apartment buildings, the plumbing, the aqueducts. They need scribes and accountants to keep track of commerce and business. They needed lawyers to settle disputes. They may not have needed politicians, but they got them, to help create the rules and laws to oil the gears and allow the whole edifice to work. In a word, they needed education. The great universities, (not) coincidently, are usually based in cities, or cities grew around them. The exception may be the Liberal Arts Colleges of New England, but they are (probably) part of the Pastoral Reaction of the 18thand 19thCentury to the horrors of industrialization.
Then there is democracy, that great experiment in governance create by the free-men (for the free-men it must be stated) of the city-state of Athens. Their great (and ultimately triumphant) nemesis, the militarized society of Sparta, which overcame them in the Peloponnesian War.
Then there is the greatest city of antiquity, arguably the greatest city of history: Rome. The first city to reach a population size of 1 Million people at the end of the first century B.C. It would take until the middle of the 18thCentury C.E. and the rise of London and the British Empire for Europe to regain such heights. (Ankgor Wat reached similar heights between the 9th-12thCentury C.E.)
Many of the countries of Western Europe still follow roads and boundaries of the Roman empire. Satellite cities grew to bring provisions and supplies to the great conurbation. I am sitting in one such place now: Barcelona. The History Museum of Barcelona has a wonderful covered excavation of the Roman foundations of the city which shows and its role in providing two of the great staples of Roman domestic life: Olive Oil and Garum, the fermented fish Ur-Condiment of Europe that Roman gourmets devoured by the gallon. I have seen Garum vats, vast pots a meter wide (or the holes where they sat) all over the remains of the empire, but some of the best are in the museum here. Their putrid produce destined to be sailed across the sea to Ostia and then up the Tiber to the City.
The role of agrarian society throughout history has been to sell provisions to cities. And, throughout history, that provision has rested on a battle between land-owners and their tenants. Serfdom was the basis for much of medieval Europe’s economy, just as Slavery provided a similar function in the nascent United States.
It might be coincidence but the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom, when vast numbers of “serfs” where sucked into the new towns and cities (Manchester in 1750 had 20,000 people growing to 250,000 within a century),coincided with the first great Enclosure Act of 1773 when vast amounts of ‘common’ ground (used freely for community farming and access) was enclosed by estate land owners. Access was denied. Livelihoods were decimated. People migrated to the urban from the rural. A journey that still happens today across the world.
The US, Canada and Australia in particular celebrate the wilderness and the role its domestication played in the creation of the country. Think of Cowboys of the American West, or Bush pioneers of Australia. HBC – the Hudson Bay Company in Canada and their iconic blankets owe their popularity and place in the Canadian mythos through this association, though that may be changing as their potential role in spreading smallpox to native Canadians has been investigated.
Our myths were forged in the country. Our industry, in the cities.
In 1870 50% of the US population was employed in Agriculture. It is this economic clout that led to the creation of the US Electoral College system, which favoured rural states over their more industrial neighbours. By 2008, less than 2% were directly employed in farming. The electoral system has not shifted to keep track with these demographic changes. Those left in the hinterland are facing exceptional economic poverty. Those in cities, under-representation.
To add insult to injury the agrarian workers who fled to the industrial manufacturing cities of the US rust belt, or the North-East or North-West in the UK, or South West Ontario, are now having those jobs shipped overseas or automated. The old industrial cities, think Detroit, are left to fester, the satellite towns and villages facing a similar fate.
Indignation has risen as the big “Modern” cities thrived. People spit the word ‘Toronto’ or ‘London’ almost as an obscenity, like the teenager not invited to the popular party whose anger at being excluded becomes a plot to seek revenge and inflict harm. Trump, Brexit and Doug Ford owe their success to such indignation. Cities are in the firing line. Brexit could inflict serious damage to the financial standing of the city of London. The economic standing of the Bay Area could be impacted by Trump’s tariffs. Doug Ford, in a fit of enormous unconstitutional pique, has thrown an enormous hammer into the municipal election of Toronto, bank on the rest of Ontario not giving a toss.
All in the name of punishing the so-called liberal elites such cities have come to represent.
But in inflicting damage on cities, we are potentially inflicting massive economic harm on the whole of our societies. Cities now account for 80% of the World’s GDP. They are drivers of wealth, and, therefore, the real trickle down through infrastructure and welfare.
They are our greatest invention. We should celebrate them. Support them. Value them. See them as beacons. Not places to sneer at, or feel jealous of, or fear. Places not of the elites, but of all the people.