The Magazine

Going Downtown

How cities prosper, and why they decline.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By JAY WEISER
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The City

A Global History

by Joel Kotkin

Modern Library, 256 pp., $21.95

The City sweeps 5,000 years of urbanism into 200-odd pages of text, from the earliest city-states of ancient Sumer to the modern Third World megacity of Lagos. And Joel Kotkin frames his chronological treatment by tracing three urban aspects through the millennia: Successful cities, he argues, prosper through a balance of security, the sacred, and commerce. These themes, while provocative, neglect the economic factors that create cities and let them prosper. The ambition is stunning and the research immense, but the result is often simplistic.

Security is a necessary function: If there's no protection from internal crime or external invasion, no one will invest in the city. Kotkin correctly observes that post-World War II American cities deteriorated because they lacked internal security, with widespread crime. He also looks at security from external threats (the Roman Empire's cities flourished and waned with its military might) but doesn't consider whether a superior location and a skilled population are more important than defeating the occasional invader.

It's true, as Kotkin observes, that the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 destroyed that city's primacy in the Islamic world, but Baghdad is still (despite its current troubles) a major city. Similarly, modern Berlin and Tokyo bounced back after destruction. Kotkin doesn't address the recent work of the urban economist Edward Glaeser, who argues that cities historically arose at key junctions, like river mouths, to eliminate distance in the interaction of goods, people, and ideas; and that once a city is in place, human capital can create advantages that persist even after the original reason for foundation is superseded.

Kotkin offers a Goldilocks analysis of urban commerce, arguing that there can be too much, too little, or an amount that is just right. But the right amount is determined by the city's reason for being. It isn't clear that a booming commercial sector (in the sense of a major producer or entrepot of goods; Kotkin's definition is vague) is needed for success: As he notes, Paris has thrived for centuries as a government center. Kotkin frowns on the commercially oriented ancient Phoenician city-states for neglecting their political and military strength, leading to absorption by larger empires. But the Phoenicians had a centuries-long run as independent states, as did the German city-states of the Holy Roman Empire.

In this, he confuses the appropriate weight for commerce with the issue of efficient political scale. Some eras have had sufficient stability to permit long-distance trade, but insufficient economies of scale to support large states. In these periods, city-states can cheaply defend and govern a small area, and can buy whatever else is needed abroad. In other periods, a larger state may, in contrast to individual city-states, be a cheaper provider of public goods like security, roads, and a legal system since it can spread the cost out across an empire and penalize free riders who want to use the services without paying for them.

The Pax Romana is a famous example. When larger political entities are more efficient, the city-states get absorbed, but the cities remain: Athens, Milan, and even the old Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre are still with us today. (The recent city-state revival in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Persian Gulf emirates was enabled by free-riding on larger powers like the United States and Great Britain for the costs of external security.) Excess or insufficient emphasis on commerce has nothing to do with it.

By focusing on commerce as an end in itself, Kotkin underplays the role of infrastructure in creating the conditions for commerce. Kotkin does note the investment in public transportation that fueled Manhattan's early-20th century skyscraper boom. But this is a key process rather than a sidelight. Chicago's Loop was named after its mass transit system; Los Angeles created its leading position in the Southwest by landing the termini of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads and, despite lacking a great natural harbor, building a major port. And four centuries ago, Japan's Tokaido road--now the route for the bullet train--helped create a national market. (Oddly, Kotkin claims that Japan's urban development during this period was slowed by restrictions on foreign commerce. But Edo [now Tokyo], with a population of one million, may have been the world's largest 18th-century city.)