The Wealth of Cities

For most of human history the types of traditional cities I described in my last post have been richer than their rural neighbors. They’re famous for it. Cities were where the good life was found: varieties of food and material possessions; imported and luxury merchandise; impressive public buildings; conveniences like readily available water supplies; health improvements like doctors, hospitals, and public baths; and high culture like books, theater, schools, and public art. This was true of all cities of this type on any continent. The image above is Zanzibar, but it could be Athens, Tlaxcala, Montreal, or Xi’an

Since the industrial revolution cities have also been associated with a particular crime-filled urban hellscape of belching smokestacks and coughing orphans, and we’ll get to that–and other potential disadvantages of cities–some of which are real enough–but historically take a thousand households and put them next to each other in a town or city that’s governs its affairs with even the barest competence and they will be much richer than the same thousand families spread out over rural farms, even if the land is good and those thousand families are wise and frugal and know all their grandparent’s herbal lore, pie recipes, and woodcrafts. (And no, it’s not because the cities rob their rural neighbors, though sometimes they do.) City people may tell themselves this wealth is due to their plucky moral work ethic and sophisticated can-do minds, but it’s just math. We’ll start with pre-industrial cities, then see how the industrial revolution impacted them, and then see how cars and suburbanization impacted them.

The wealth of cities is efficiency. More people living closer to one another allows greater specialization; greater speed and precision in activities; greater collective power in labor, knowledge, and capital; and easier transportation and distribution. It has nothing to do with individual intelligence, wisdom, effort, or luck. Some basic ways for someone to increase the profit of a product are to…

(1) Sell to a larger market

(2) Reduce distribution costs

(2) Manufacture the product more cheaply

Cities do these things automatically. In a city…

(1) You have a larger potential market because you have more people

(2) You can reach those people much more easily because they are nearby

(3) You can specialize crafts to increase speed and quality of goods, This last is in many ways the most important so it’s worth taking a moment to go into it. In a rural area maybe you have one blacksmith, and they’ll have to do all metalwork. In city in addition to multiple blacksmiths, who probably have special areas of concentration and skill, you’ll also have tinsmiths, silversmiths, watchmakers. There’s a baker, and not just a baker, if the town is larger enough they’ll be different types of bakers with different specialties. A city can have not only many neighborhood pubs, but restaurants, hotels, theaters, bookstores, newspapers. With so many people near one another there can be an enormous variety of stores that can afford to stock specialized merchandise.

This advantage of concentrated populations extends to public utilities. Take water. If a thousand households are spread out, they’ll need a thousand wells, which takes, say, ten thousand hours of work to dig–ten hours per household. Put those thousand families next to each other and they can share twenty wells, which is two hundred hours of work to dig–two minutes of work per household. The same is true of creating roads or any sort of public facility.

The cultural creativity of cities is especially famous. Writing and printing both came from cities. Almost all Greek philosophy and literature originated cities, as did most Indian and Chinese philosophy. The Buddha may have gone to the countryside but he was a city boy at birth. (From Lumbini.) Every book of the New Testament was originally written by, about, and for city people. There are definitely parts of the Old Testament that retain non-urban passages but all the books of the Hebrew Bible were put into their current form by urban Jews living in Babylon, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.1 Islam came from not from the desert but from the Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina.

But at least rural people can feed themselves, right? Wrong. The famines start in rural areas when crops fail. Cities starve only if the city is under siege or if every rural area is starving first. Since rural areas depend on their crops for revenue, if their crops fail they don’t have money to buy food from places where the crops didn’t fail. But cities trade for their food, so if there’s food anywhere, cities can buy it, and will.

At this point the wise rural advocate might say, Yes, but that misses the point. Of course cities are richer but money doesn’t matter. It’s the simplicity and self-sufficiency of country living that makes it appealing. I completely agree! Cities aren’t for everyone! Self-sufficiency and simplicity are admirable virtues too. This is an essay about cities, an ancient human settlement pattern than produces wealth.

At this point the foolish suburban libertarian might say, Yes, but what about urban poverty and crime? (Suburbs seem to instill a deep fear of urbanity.) Historically, most urban poverty is displaced rural poverty. The horrifying conditions described by Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo were not caused by the cities where the stories took place. For example the horrid slums of Industrial-Revolution England came about because rich landowners in England began about Shakespeare’s time to use their political power to steal common lands that rural villagers for centuries depended on for grazing and gathering.2 Those now destitute commoners ended up as penniless migrants to the cities, where they became the factory workers of the industrial revolution. This pattern is repeated all over the world. Rural people who lose their homes go to towns and cities, and then to larger cities. Most of the teeming homeless populations of cities like L.A. today came from smaller places. It is absolutely true that the inherent wealth-generating nature of cities was and is in no way up to the task of generating enough wealth to cope with an onslaught of hungry, brutalized humans, but it’s awfully strange to blame the city for problems dumped on the city’s doorstep by rural and suburban neighbors. Cities also do have their own poverty problems. But contrary to the popular beliefs of clueless suburban theorists the problems are hardly ever ‘crowding’ but instead the same problems that rural people face: bad water, bad or too scarce food, poor waste management, lack of money, and crime. And all of these tend to be worse for rural people than urban. Noise is definitely worse in cities and noise can harm people, and there are communicable diseases that are worse in cities, but the real jump in disease rates is between agricultural people and non-agricultural people. Wherever there is agriculture there will be communicable diseases, and the best defense is the kind of utilities that only cities historically could afford, like piped drinking water and working sewers. So while cities can be more dangerous for some diseases, almost all the modern methods used to reduce disease and increase lifespan originated in cities.3

Many cities throughout history did not build their citizens water or sewer systems, though the cities of many of the greatest ‘civilizations’ did. (Think the ancient Persian qanat system or the Roman aqueducts.) But cities have the option of water systems, sewer systems, paved roads, public buildings, and public parks for the same reason cities can band together for mutual defense or city festivals: because lots of people are living near one another. A city is like a potential Amish barn-raising every day.

Industrialization, along with the challenges, also increased the possibilities of cities. The industrial revolution began in England, as I mentioned, when rural people lost their land and fled to the cities. This pattern has often repeated throughout the world when countries have quickly industrialized, though not always with the same grinding poverty. Western Europe after WWII greatly urbanized (France especially) but had in place all sorts of national and city programs to help the transition. Basically, they had an industrial revolution with almost no slums. The U.S. was different from both the British Isles and Europe, since most of our urban poor came not from nearby impoverished farms but from other countries (often from their impoverished farms), though one exception is the movement of African-Americans to northern cities as a response to violence and segregation in the south.

Along with the huddled masses and the factories of fumes, smoke, and clamor, the industrial revolution brought trains, streetcars, and electric lights. Before this cities mostly hovered in the 10,000 to 30,000 population range–though cities that were central to political administration could grow to 100,000 or even more–but railroads and canals allowed goods and services to move more efficiently which allowed cities to grow to millions. Cities became the huge, intensive behemoths we’re familiar with. These new cities built public baths and columned libraries, hulking bridges, idyllic parks, and the first ‘skyscrapers.’ These are the cities in old movies where young people fall in love and burst into song, or men in shadows follow other men in shadows, and plucky yokels arrive from the sticks to find their dream. The efficiency of the city now was multiplied by fossil fuel. Streetcars, running water, and electricity worked like the shared wells of two centuries before. And this new efficiency-on-steroid is what made it possible to extend city luxuries (water systems, paved roads, sewer pipes, and electricity) into rural areas.

Which ultimately, ironically, provided the platform for the cars and suburbanization that destroyed the cities, chewing into first their muscle and then their bone. But that’s another story.

And a temporary one. In the future, fossil fuels, as reserves run lower, will become too expensive for current use, and cars and suburbanization will reverse.4 Global climate change will cause a lot of death, but won’t change this basic reality. Eventually, humans will have to return again to our marriage of sun, wind, and water after our brief hedonistic petroleum affair. That will mean that those with the advantages of the traditional city pattern will be richer than those left in suburban and rural areas. The urban centers that weren’t ripped up for parking will again become the core of city life, as the ‘cities’ that destroyed their urban cores or never built them, will vanish.

  1. The oldest passage in the bible is generally believed by scholars to be the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:2-31) which tells the story of a king fleeing after a military defeat. Deborah lets him hide in her tent and while he’s sleeping drives a tent spike into his head. This seems a genuine window into the life of Hebrew tribes outside of cities before the kingdom of Israel or Judeah.
  2. “The Tragedy of the Commons” is an epic bit of propaganda conceived by city-hating Englishman William Forster Lloyd in the 1830s and promulgating by eugenicist American Garrett Hardin in the 1960s. This claimed that English common pastures were overgrazed so theft by rich landowners was ecologically beneficial. In reality the common pastures and woods of England had been managed with tremendous ecological success for a thousand years.
  3. U.S. improvement in lifespan and reduction in infant mortality track closely with greater urbanization.
  4. The cost of maintaining a water system is mostly not the amount of water that flows through the pipes, but the miles of pipes that have to be repaired and replaced. Water systems in the U.S. are failing in decentralized areas like Flint, MI (a suburb of Detroit, which was the first auto-based major ‘city’ and a harbinger of the future of all auto-based ‘cities.’) and Jackson, MS because there’s too many miles of pipes for the number of residents. These were cheap to build back during the era of Jed-Clampett/John D Rockerfeller oil, but very difficult to repair and replace. All suburban water and sewer systems will fail when the price of oil rises high enough.

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