How Cities Become Great
By Peter Hall
Newsweek International republished on MSNBC
Freud famously said that after 30 years researching the feminine soul, he'd never answered his real question: what does a woman want? We urbanists could likewise confess that we've failed to answer our conundrum: what makes cities tick?
What makes London different from Ipswich (Suffolk), or New York different from Ipswich (Massachusetts)? Why do cities have brief golden ages, but then languish? Why are Athens or Florence or Vienna no longer creative powerhouses? Why have Manchester and Glasgow and Berlin, once workshops of the world, given way to Guangzhou and Shanghai? Why do some few cities—London, New York—seem to retain, or regain, their power?
Some of us think the answer lies in number crunching—as with economist Richard Florida, author of "The Flight of the Creative Class," who found that concentrations of gay people correlated with urban creativity. The problem is that even if this approach works for one city at one time, it may not work for others. The other method is to use history, to ask how precisely it was that great cities came to be great. Here, the danger is that you may end up with a series of unique one-off explanations. The challenge is to find if there's anything the stories have in common.
And they do. Look at creative cities at their zenith: Plato's Athens, Michelangelo's Florence, Shakespeare's London, Mozart's Vienna. All were economic leaders, cities at the heart of vast trading empires, places in frenzied transition, magnets for talented people seeking fame and fortune. Outsiders made these places what they were: Athens's version of green-card holders, the noncitizen Metics; the Jews in 1900 Vienna; foreign artists in Paris around the same time. They were all patrons because many had made money from trade, as well as artists. They occupied a special marginal position: not at the heart of courtly or aristocratic establishments, yet not entirely shut out either. And thus they absorbed and reflected the huge tensions between conservative and radical forces that threatened to divide these societies.
It was the same, but with subtle differences, in the great manufacturing cities. Consider Manchester in 1780, Glasgow in 1850, Detroit in 1910, Silicon Valley in 1960. These were places without aristocratic baggage; egalitarian places open to talent, self-improving and self-educating, engaged in learning and innovation through networks that were at oncecompetitive and cooperative. There are astonishing parallels between Lancashire in the 1780s and 1790s and Silicon Valley in the 1960s and the 1970s. In both, one innovation brought forth another in great chains of creativity. Places like these flourished not because of physical circumstance, but because their people demonstrated exceptional innovative energy.