Humans are urban creatures, or at least have evolved to be so. The first cities are thought to have risen in Ancient Mesopotamia. People from the surrounding lands gathered behind their walls to seek safety and wealth. Trade and travel among them flourished, a distant foreshadowing of globalization. The biggest city, Uruk, boasted 50,000 residents, making it the New York City of its time.
“The fundamentals of human life in these first cities did not differ greatly from ours today,” says P.D. Smith in City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age. “From the love of good food expertly cooked and enjoyed with friends and family, to the need to work and the pleasures of shopping, their daily lives mirror ours.”
More cities sprang up in the Nile Valley, the Indus Valley, Mesoamerica and China. The urban revolution was born. Much else, too. “With the city came the centralized state, the hierarchy of social classes, the division of labour, organized religion, monumental building, civil engineering, writing, literature, sculpture, art, music, education, mathematics and law, not to mention a vast array of new inventions and discoveries, from items as basic as wheeled vehicles and sailing boats to the potter’s kiln, metallurgy and the creation of synthetic materials,” wrote the British author Paul Kriwaczek.
Most people continued to live on the land. As late as 1800, the Encyclopedia Britannica tells us, “only 3 percent of the world population lived in towns of more than 5,000 inhabitants. No more than 45 cities had populations over 100,000.” Then came the great migration to the cities that followed the Industrial Revolution. By early this century, half the world’s population was urban.
Cities have met many dangers and disasters over time. Plague killed a quarter of Constantinople’s population in the sixth century, the Black Death half of London’s in the 14th. Belching factories made the air and water noxious in booming industrial cities around the world. Cities became tempting targets for bombers with the rise of air force as an instrument of war and, later, for terrorists looking for concentrated masses of people to target.
Each time they have pulled through. Modern sanitation evolved to solve the issue of water-borne disease. Limits on factory and automobile emissions cut air pollution. Cities in the developed world today are cleaner than they have been decades. There are salmon runs in Toronto’s once-foul rivers every fall.
The coronavirus is a relatively modest threat compared to what cities have overcome before. But it has made them think.
Modern cities have many weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Housing is too expensive for ordinary people. Ridership on public transit has plummeted during the pandemic. Planners wonder what will happen if it fails to rebound when the health emergency is over. Stubborn pockets of disadvantage and violence afflict even the most successful cities.
The pandemic has forced cities to examine all of their problems with new intensity, from snarled traffic to greenhouse gas emissions. As this issue of The Globe shows, thinkers of all varieties are bursting with ideas. Many of the more obvious ones – like expanding bike-lane networks and closing off more streets for pedestrians – have already made urban life more pleasant.
It would be naive to think that this moment will create the kind of sweeping change some urbanists talk about. Jetsonian ideas like underground tunnels to whisk away our trash are probably not going to take flight. Just as well. Some problems, like homelessness, resist simple solutions. It’s more complex than: Just house them. Though it’s good to try to loosen the grip of the motor vehicle on the urban landscape, drivers are pretty attached to their cars and politicians awfully afraid of annoying them.
Still, it’s good to dream. As P.D. Smith observes, cities inspired visions of Utopia from the very beginning. “The urban dream, that vision of a shining city on a hill, flows through our blood.” If it flows more quickly because of a global health emergency, cities can only emerge the better for it.