Cities Are Extraordinary – by Peter Taylor

Photo: Mugley, Creative Commons 2.0

Photo: Mugley, Creative Commons 2.0

Peter Taylor is looking at world history from a fresh perspective: what happens if we put cities first? The results, as he explains in his new book Extraordinary Cities, are intriguing. Cities are revealed as being world-changing loci, with an innovative capacity that will be vital in producing a resilient global society necessary to carry us safely through the 21st century.

Extraordinary Cities is the culmination of a simple experiment of ideas I have been engaged in for more than a decade. The test I set myself was to see what happens to how we understand the history of humanity if we put cities first. Thus instead of the traditional stuff on the rise and fall of empires – narratives of war and peace between great powers – I have been focusing on how cities are implicated in the huge advancements humans have made since such settlements first appeared many millennia ago. I have been trialling ideas ranging from the beginnings of cities to today’s cities in globalization. The results have been fascinating; a series of findings that turn many conventional wisdoms upside down.

I am not in the business of just swapping narratives on powerful states for ones on great cities. I consider all cities to be extraordinary. Just think of the daily logistics of keeping such agglomerations of people going, the economic opportunities they present, and the social resilience they encompass: states and empires come and go yet when was the last city lost to history? But neither is my book a history of cities; I make no claim to a comprehensive treatment of cities over time. Rather I have looked at some 700 cities strategically, focussing on them as groups that form city networks. This is important because networks imply complementary relations rather than the hierarchical and competitive relations played out by states and empires, commonly resulting in wars. Thus putting cities first foregrounds the cooperative achievements of humanity and not just its destructive tendencies. Of course, the latter cannot be ignored; hence the relations between cities and states are at the heart of my argument.

My premise is that cities are extraordinary of their explosive growth (economic and demographic) based upon continual generation of new work. It is the basic facts of cities’ agglomeration of people (internal stirring of ideas) and their connections with other cities (external inputs of ideas) that makes cities so extraordinary. Put simply, cities are where world-changing clusters of ideas are generated, rather than in states, which are apt to compete merely in a long running game, a recurrent ‘changing of the guards’.

Here are the two contrarian results that top and tail my ‘putting cities first’ thesis:

  1. Everybody knows that the first cities arose in Mesopotamia some five thousand or so years ago. Really? What about the many large settlements found right across the world but at the wrong time (too early) and in the wrong place (not where ‘civilizations’ are traditionally found)? I suggest that we push back the beginning of cities many millennia so that they are where agriculture is invented: it is the extra demand for food in new agglomerations of people that makes the new work of agriculture necessary. And with the later invention of long-term sustainable agriculture, as in Mesopotamia, cities thrive but their resulting wealth creates a new demand for security, leading to the invention of the state; initially city-states and later empires (multi-cities states) resulting from winners and losers of war. This conversion of cities into city-states, indexed by the building of defensive walls, is also found across the world in innovative historical regions commonly referred to as ‘civilizations’. The argument is that world-changing clusters of new work such as agriculture and states could only have been invented in cities.
  2. The rise of states with their specialization in coercion curtails the innovative capacity of cities so that cities’ initial role as centres for creating new worlds is abruptly ended in each ‘civilization’ across the world. The result is that, for most of history, states have dominated cities. Innovation has not been wholly eliminated but a clustering of new work that is world-changing has not been able to develop as before. Until that is, the making of modernity in Europe half a millennium ago. This relatively poor world region did not have a strong coercive world empire. Ultimately a political world of multiple states was produced, which in turn allowed a new manoeuvrability for city commerce. This unusual balance in Europe between state coercive capabilities and city commercial potentials enabled a new unleashing of cities as world-changing loci through first mercantilism (intensification of trade), then industrialization (mechanization of production) and finally consumerism (mass consumption). This success of cities has culminated in today’s historically unprecedented situation where a majority of humanity are urban dwellers. States have remained important but with contemporary globalization, new work in cities – in the form of financial, professional and creative services – has devised ways for business to be conducted as if in a borderless world. And at the centre of this global turn is not simply a major state (i.e. the USA); I have instead identified a specialized world-region as the cradle of economic globalization: USAL, which combines US cities with London (NOT including other UK or European cities). Today’s most dominant place in the world is so useful for globalizing firms because it transcends state boundaries: it is not the USA nor the UK but is simply USAL.

If my thesis on the extraordinariness of cities is correct, then we are going to need their innovative capacity in what is likely to be a twenty first century of myriad crises in multiple ways. Living in these ‘interesting times’ means we need clusters of world-changing work as never before: the time for extraordinary cities – green networks of cities – is nigh.

Peter TaylorPeter Taylor is Professor of Human Geography at Northumbria University, Director of the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) Research Network, and an Advisor to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Beijing). He has been elected a Fellow of the British Academy and a member the Academy of Social Sciences (UK); he has been awarded Distinguished Scholarship Honors and a Lifetime Achievement Award (Political Geography) by the Association of American Geographers; and he has received honorary doctorates from Oulu University (Finland) and Ghent University (Belgium). As a world-systems analyst his research has largely focused on inter-state relations (hegemonies) and inter-city relations (connectivities), both current and historical. This research is reported in some 450 publications (including over 30 books), with over 50 being translated covering 23 different languages. 

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