City of Hope

Sometimes when I despair of the world today and the difficulties I anticipate in the future, I like to remember the strength and resilience of cities. And by ‘cities’ I don’t mean Atlanta or Los Angeles or other sprawling entities that are ‘cities’ in a legal sense–that’s fine, I don’t want to quibble over words–but when I say city I mean a settlement of 2-6-story buildings next to each other on narrow streets. Shops and workplaces are on the bottom floor with residences above. These narrow streets open into larger plazas with public buildings, and gathering places. Some cities have walls and some do not, some have millions of residents and other only tens of thousands, but since before the Bronze Age humans having been thriving in multi-story buildings next to one another above shops and workshops along narrow streets that open into public squares. This a very ancient, widespread, successful, and resilient way for humans to live.

The screenshot above is Argos, Greece. I’ve been there but I barely remember it. During a junior year in college I was part of something called College Year In Athens (Highly recommended!). The program included trips to various regions in Greece, including The Argolid, modern Greek Argolis (named after Argos). The bus stopped in the middle of a grungy, little town. We stumbled out into the bright sun and a professor pointed to a fenced-off hill beside the road. “This was the site of ancient Argos.” Then we piled back onto the bus and went to somewhere more interesting, which isn’t hard to find in the Argolid, since the area is filled with fascinating places. (My top three are the seaside town of Nauplion, the ruins of the ancient theater of Epidauros, and the ruins of Argos’ ancient frenemy Mycenae from which much of Bronze Age Greece is called Mycenaean.)

But plain, little Argos should impress us because it’s 4000 years old. It has been a continuously settled polis (the Greek word for ‘town’ or ‘city’) for at least four millenia.1 Argos has survived wars, famines, conquests, subjugations, and changes in language, culture, religion, economics, climate, and politics. Argos and cities like it can live forever as long as the water holds out, and as long as they aren’t destroyed deliberately by an invading army.

You can use Google maps to click and drop the little yellow person and explore Argos yourself, or here are some shots I collected:

See: multi-story buildings with shops on the ground floor along narrow streets! In one of the pics you can see these smaller streets converging into a plaza. Notice how the buildings shade the streets. Today in the U.S. we may live in an air-conditioned world craving sun exposure, but much of the world instead craves shade–as we will in the future when energy will be much more expensive. (Shade can lower air temperatures 20 degrees.)

Also I included a couple of shots from the edge of town. For most of history urban areas didn’t gradually dissolve into increasingly-sparse, car-dependent suburbs. Cities stopped abruptly where countryside began. Townies could walk forty minutes and be fully in rural areas. This abrupt line reveals the wealth of cities–the truth wealth that makes them richer than rural areas–which comes from people living in concentrated areas. For most of history this meant walking distance. In the not-to-distant future when fossil fuels will be 10x current costs, it will again. (And don’t kid yourself that electric cars will change this, but that’s the subject of another post.)

I chose Argos because I’ve been there, because you can wander almost all of it with the little Google yellow person (which isn’t true of all cities), and because it’s not rich. This shows what your ordinary, basic, plain old city looks like. If you want an example of what a rich city looks like, here’s Nauplion (or Nafplion), Argo’s richer, tonier neighbor:


Much prettier, and it’s nice that they’ve banned cars. But the building structure is still the same. Shops on the bottom, housing above, narrow streets that lead eventually to open squares.

Here are some screenshots from cities around the world. Different levels of wealth and fame, different sizes, different construction techniques, but in all cases the multi-story buildings are close to one another overlooking narrow streets with shops at the ground floor and residences above. These streets wind their way to larger squares with public buildings and markets.2

I could have shown New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco, Charleston, SC, or Savannah, GA. Or Paris, London, Florence, Rome or Prague. The photo on the lower right is my home of Charlottesville. (You’ll notice a perennial problem for traditional cities is fitting in the automobile, but that’s definitely another post.)

Going back to the Mediterranean, here’s Byblos in Lebanon (the region called Phoenicia in ancient times) the mercantile city-state from which the Ancient Greeks got their name for ‘book’, byblion (literally ‘the thing from Byblos’), from which we get the word bible:


Byblos has been a town or city for as long or longer than Argos. DNA extracted from ancient skeletons show that the modern citizens of Byblos are directly descended from their Bronze Age ancestors. Think about it. People have lived in this town, grandparent to parent to child to grandchild, on and on, for twenty thousand generations. Twenty thousand generations of parents waking up to crying babies, teenagers complaining there’s nothing to do, old folks fearing everything is going to ruin. Twenty thousand generations of picking up the pieces after catastrophes, weeping at the death of loved ones, hoping for a beloved’s acceptance, or just marveling at the unexpected beauty of a spring morning. Byblos has outlasted dozens of empires, adopted four different native languages, devoutly embraced three different religions, adapted to changes in the very climate, and even been counted as part of multiple ‘civilizations’ however you catalog your civilizations. For all practical purposes, cities can live forever.

That includes Charlottesville, where I’m living now. Like Argos and Byblos, we too can outlast empires, languages, religions, and civilizations. But until the water runs out, or we’re literally destroyed, or we abandon our city, we can work, eat, sleep, raise our families, building on what our ancestors built, and leaving our descendants to build on us. In many cases these are the same streets, squares, fears, and hopes.

How do cities survive? What is the source of their wealth and power? Why don’t people realize this about them and instead imagine them as places of poverty and suffering? I’ll take this up next time. Meanwhile drop a little yellow person into a map and explore or if you live in a place in which some part is a city like this–however small–go for a walk. In all cases you’ll be traveling through time–walking through the distant past and the futures to come.

1What’s the difference between a town and a city? William the Conqueror led a French-speaking army that seized the throne of England in 1066. For the next several centuries the commoners of England and lowland Scotland continued to speak Germanic languages (Anglo-Saxon/’Old English’ or Danish) while the elite spoke French. Gradually they merged until English today often has a sort of dual vocabulary with common words from both French and Germanic that subtly complement and contrast with one another. Think kingly (German) versus royal (French), or lord (German) versus liege (French). Or woods versus forest, weapons versus arms, gifts versus presents, stronghold versus castle, and the Germanic word town versus the French word city. Asking the difference between a town and a city is like asking the difference between bravery and courage. The actutal linguistic difference is French-derived vocabulary conveys vestiges of importance, nobility, sophistication (all French words), while German words sound down-to-earth, bearing hints of low standing from back in the old days (all German words). This is why English-speaking science fiction and fantasy writers when making up barbaric or warlike languages unwittingly give them lots of consonant clusters, while the peaceful, civilized languages have lots of gliding vowels.

2 There’s a lot of interesting debate on when the first markets appear.


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