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Centers of Progress
From Uruk to Florence to Tokyo, most civilizational advances have occurred in cities, where people come together to compete and exchange ideas
By Chelsea Follett
Some people deny the reality of progress. Others look back and find even the idea of progress naive. True enough, progress has often been episodic and uneven. Furthermore, it is not inevitable or irreversible. Still, in spite of many existing problems, those of us alive today are the beneficiaries of centuries of real progress.
To appreciate this, we need to step back and consider our history. Until recently, most people, including the vast majority of our ancestors, lived in dire poverty. Today, material abundance is more widespread than those ancestors could have ever imagined. People are living much longer, healthier lives. More people than ever take adequate nutrition and proper sanitation for granted. Literacy and internet access are at all-time highs. As poverty declines, opportunities to enjoy travel and entertainment as well as art, music and culture have increased.
And there has been moral progress too. Slavery and torture, near universal and widespread since the beginning of human civilization, are today reviled almost everywhere. More people around the world enjoy political freedom than was the case 100 or even 50 years ago.
Where did all this progress come from? The answer largely lies in the development of cities. It is cities that have helped create and define the modern world by acting as the sites of pivotal advances in culture, politics, science, technology and more. Or as the physicist Geoffrey West put it, “Cities are the crucible of civilization.” In a new, just-published book “Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World,” I explore 40 examples of these “crucibles” and why they’re important.
Why cities? Why not the country? While people outside cities have also contributed to human progress, they have not had as much impact as those in urban settings. That’s because living in a sparsely populated community means fewer choices; fewer people to work with, compete with, befriend or marry; fewer choices on where to work, shop, relax, eat and worship—the list goes on. Cities offer more of all of these things, which is why progress tends to emerge from them. Cities are gathering places. And wherever many people meet face-to-face, their potential to interact and accomplish amazing things increases. From the Silk Road merchants in Tang Dynasty Chang’an to the thinkers debating in the pubs and reading societies of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, where people congregate, their ability to enrich the world by exchanging goods and ideas is magnified.
Cities are marketplaces, hubs of commerce. Cities are factories, centers of production. Cities are hotbeds of creativity, where artists compete and collaborate. Cities are laboratories, sites of experimentation. Cities are great big classrooms, where we debate and learn from one another.
But those things are only true under certain conditions. Although there are some exceptions, most successful cities tend to be highly populated and to reach their creative peak during periods of peace. Most centers of progress also thrive during times of relative social, intellectual and economic freedom, as well as openness to intercultural exchange and trade. This pattern has led to achievements ranging from Abbasid-era Baghdad’s breakthroughs in astronomy to postwar New York’s creation of modern finance.
That makes sense because, in every city, ultimately the people who live there drive progress forward—if given the freedom to do so. Free people are the ultimate source of innovation and abundance, a topic I previously explored for Discourse.
To be sure, city life has its challenges. When people live close together, they are more vulnerable to host of dangers, from bombardment to pandemics. And because technology now allows people to work together productively even while thousands of miles apart, continued progress need not necessarily rely on ever-higher levels of urbanization. If more people choose to live in quieter areas while working remotely, humanity may reach a turning point where the long-standing trend of urbanization reverses. But the outsized contribution of cities to human progress up until now is undeniable.
It is mind-boggling that the world has improved in all the ways it has. But history is too often told as a story of degeneration. Many intellectuals and everyday people alike embrace this “declension narrative” of history. Perhaps due to skewed media reporting or negative psychological biases, they see history as a lengthy tale of decay since some lost, idealized golden age in the past, while dismissing the overwhelming evidence of progress.
There is no question that certain very specific places, at certain times in history and in many different parts of the world have contributed disproportionately toward making the world a better place. Indeed, history’s greatest urban centers include a diverse set of societies, ranging from ancient Uruk to Song-era Hangzhou. But some common themes stand out. Again, those are (relative) peace, freedom and multitudes of people. Identifying those common denominators among the places that have produced history’s greatest achievements is one way to learn what causes progress in the first place. After all, change is a constant, but progress is not.
As urban economist Edward Glaeser explains in “The Triumph of the City,” “Cities, the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace.” Artists in Florence rediscovered perspective and created some of the most beautiful art of all time, businessmen and workers in Manchester gave us the Industrial Revolution, entrepreneurs in Los Angeles created modern cinema and a new artform and inventors in postwar Tokyo brought forth new technologies that transformed the modern world. And the list goes on. As Glaeser also notes, “Wandering these cities—whether down cobblestone sidewalks or grid-cutting cross streets, around roundabouts or under freeways—is to study nothing less than human progress.”
The story of cities is our story. City air provides the wind in the sails of the modern world. Quite simply, cities have been some of history’s greatest centers of progress ... and often still are.
The following is adapted from the introduction to Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World just published by the Cato Institute.