Monday, June 18, 2012

What explains the Golden Age of Cities?

We were just talking about how crucial just the right balance between order and chaos is in evolutionary search, and how that might help explain the huge burst of complexity in the industrial revolution.

Here's another way to look at the issue. The great British urban historian Sir Peter Hall wrote a huge book in 1998: Cities in Civilization. Why are there bursts of extraordinary vitality and creativity in the history of cities - which indeed makes up most of the history of civilization - often followed by stagnation and decline?

Why was fourth century Athens an astonishing crucible of ideas, followed by two thousand years of slumber right down to the riots and anxiety of the Greek election today? Why did Elizabethan London or fin-de-siecle Paris and Vienna or early-twentieth century Los Angeles fizz with ideas? And why does no-one look to Vienna for the next big thing now?

Hall writes fascinating case studies of each of these cities, as well as quattrocento Florence, Weimar Berlin, and the technological boomtowns of Manchester and Detroit in their eras of growth. It is beautifully written and full of intriguing details in its thousand pages.

And his explanation: it's not simply wealth. It's not Marx's class relations, it's not Hypolyte Taine's "creative milieu" or Kuhn or Foucault.

Instead, the golden age of a city an evolutionary stage. The burst of creativity comes at a point of transition where an older order is breaking down and fluid, so the city is not rigid, but it isn't chaotic either. Take Athens:

Athens in the Fourth Century BC first gained enormously from the personal and social tensions brought forth by a unique moment of social evolution: a movement from a static, highly conservative, aristocratic landowning society to an urban, trading one open to talent. The old society gave wayin the face of the new, but at the same time bequeathed to it many of its values. We find that kind of transitional society at other particular moments in urban history, and nearly always it is highly creative; it is the society of Elizabethan London, of nineteenth century Paris, of Weimar Berlin. Such societies are invariably in social and cultural turmoil, riven by the battle between the celebrators of the old order and the proselytizers of the new. But out of that conflict comes unique creativity; a society emerges that combines the fine discrimination and critical standards of the old society with the scepticism and inventiveness of the new. Such was Athens. (p68)

But it does not last:

And the moral to come from the story of Athens is that creativity of that order is never stable; it carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. .. We shall see that it is always that way in the history of cities: the tension between the principle of order and the principle of freedom brings something uniquely wonderful, but it does not last beyond a few golden years, for the tension will result in victory - usually, though not invariably, for the forces of change - and with that the wellspring of creativity will dry up. (p68)

Florence had its astonishing golden age at the transition from medieval to modern values, as humanism began to break down older medieval thought. To be sure, there was an increase in the status of artists, and a surge in wealth. The surge in wealth in itself can produce a breakdown in traditional values. But it was in essence a particular kind of transitional state.

And as for the great industrial upstart cities: Manchester, Glasgow, Detriot, Berlin, Silicon Valley, Tokyo, some of it was certainly the growth of local networks or clusters of knowledge:

There was in every case a local network, which not only supplied highly specialized kinds of skilled labour and services, but also created a climate of innovation in which everyone learned from a dozen competitors: competitor-cooperators would be the best term.

But the character of the place mattered too:

The places in which this happened had a very special character: they were located at the fringe of what the geographer James E. Vance calls the "ecumene." They were not the leading cities of their day, but neither did they exist in outer darkness. All had a tradition in some activity closely related to the one in which innovation came: Glasgow in sailing ships, Detroit in transportation engineering, Palo Alto in radio, Tokyo in a range of craft production. And they had a quality difficult to define: they were free of older traditions, prejudices, restraints. Stadtluft macht frei, city air makes free, as the old medieval phrase goes; but in these small cities the air was particularly heady. There was a nervous energy, a belief that there was no limits to the possible. (p494).

Again, balance, the right degree of liquidity, was essential. And rigidity eventually set in again, certainly in the case of single industries which eventually collapsed in Manchester, Glasgow and Detroit.

Doesn't this recall Kauffman's discussion of the "edge of chaos"? You need the right degree of liquidity for innovation and progress. Such bursts of creativity have happened many times through history. It just so happened that the launch of the industrial revolution had much larger and long-lasting consequences - if not in its original hometowns. Coalbrookdale is not the megalopolis of our era.



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