BOOK REVIEW: ‘Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World’

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Post-COVID, are cities still the engines of civilization?

Physicist Geoffrey West has called cities “the crucible of civilization.” That widely quoted metaphor is worth unpacking. A crucible is a mold that holds molten substances as they are cooling and gives them new form. The claim here is that cities are – or at least have been – necessary to drive human progress. That is a bold but plausible claim. Is it true?

Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World begins with some hedging. “For most of human history, cities have been places of disease and violence, crime and poverty,” British science journalist Matt Ridley admits in the forward. “Of course, rural communities have made plenty of achievements as well,” notes Cato Institute policy analyst and author Chelsea Follett. They’ve created everything from stone tools to human flight.

The author cautions, however, that, “Rural life should not be romanticized, because “living in a sparsely populated community means fewer choices.” Yet she allows that it’s also possible, given the way the remote work revolution is shaking out, that cities might not be a great engine of economic and scientific progress going forward.

Still, Follett insists, “Wherever many people meet face-to-face, their potential to accomplish amazing things increases. The great evolutionary advantage of Homo sapiens is not physical strength or speed. … But our problem-solving abilities, which are magnified when we work together, are second to none.”

She sets out to show how famous cities, or at least large “gathering places,” have advanced human problem solving over millennia. Fortunately, Follett focuses on the trees rather than the forest for the bulk of the book. After the introductory apparatus, she looks at different aspects of human progress and how place and people made a difference that reverberated.

Read Pacific Research Institute economist Wayne Winegarden’s “The Free Cities Index.”

Read Jeremy Lott’s Free Cities Center article about homelessness in Seattle.

Forty numbered chapters are titled after the place and the innovation associated with it (e.g., “22 Seville Navigation”). Readers must dive in for the dates. This is not the sort of book that one reads for the pictures, but it has those, too. The trailhead of every chapter is decorated with one black-and-white drawing made of stipples and small lines by artist Yuriy Romanovich. They’re quite good. It was a missed trick not to have him do the cover as well.

One can learn a lot from this broad survey. This reviewer did not know, for instance, that the novel originated in Kyoto, Japan, or that what is arguably the first such work, “The Tale of Genji,” arose from the emperor’s court as two rival empress wives contended to place their own sons on the throne. Their weapon of choice was not violence but the arts, through extensive patronage. Nor did I know that the man who pioneered scientific medicine, Imhotep, did so as the head magician for Pharaoh Djoser in Memphis, Egypt, and that he also likely designed the first stone pyramid.

I thought I knew where the world’s oldest surviving legal code came from Babylon under King Hammurabi. It turns out he’s a Johnny Law-come-lately. Credit instead goes King Ur-Namu. “Under his direction, the city [of Ur] issued the oldest surviving legal code in the world, the Code of Ur-Nammu, which predates the better-known Code of Hammurabi by three centuries,” Follett writes.

There are other chapters where the reader may know the historical development described but have a less than complete understanding of how it happened. For instance, many would know about Tokyo’s postwar manufacturing boom and perhaps attribute that to the city’s proximity to a certain peninsula, the Korean War, and U.S. military needs. That’s part of the story, but Follett digs deeper.

Follett points out that Tokyo “often had to be rebuilt after disasters.” Its “predominantly wooden architecture,” over most of its history made the city a tinderbox and there were plenty of earthquakes to help strike that match. “The Great Kantō earthquake [of 1923], which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, caused a fire whirl that burned down the city center,” she writes. “More than 140,000 people perished in the catastrophe, and about 300,000 homes were destroyed.”

The author suggests it was thus easier for Tokyo to take the firebombing and political defeat of World War II in something like stride than most municipalities could have managed. Without that history of resiliency, manufacturing might not really have boomed there in a way that remade global industries from automobiles to home electronics. Japan rose to the world’s second largest economy largely on the strength of Tokyo’s manufacturing sector.

But of course, it didn’t last. “Sadly, since the early 1990s, due to a variety of misguided government policies, Japan’s economy has seen a significant slowdown and suffered from decades-long stagnation,” Follett writes. That’s par for the course. Of all the “Centers of Progress” she reports on, only a few locales no longer exist. Most are still with us but are no longer where concentrated, observable leaps in progress are occurring.

Some city planners try to force their municipalities into one of these molds, trying to coax the next Hollywood or the next Silicon Valley into existence. One thing that this book demonstrates is that while there are probably necessary conditions for cities to host progress, they are not sufficient to actually make it happen. It’s lightning in a bottle and is thus an expensive folly to chase.

A more down-to-Earth plan for how to affect mundane progress is laid out by Pacific Research Institute fellow Wayne Winegarden in the study “The Free Cities Index: A Pro-Growth Ranking of the 50 Largest Cities.” The Free Cities Index evaluates America’s 50 largest cities according to what it calls “pro-growth policies.” These policies include such categories as taxes, business regulations, cost of living, quality of life, homelessness, mom and apple pie.

It may not be a surprise that cities favoring pro-growth policies generally are bringing in taxpayers while those who embrace the opposite are driving people away in U-Hauls, but the magnitude is still impressive. “Between the new Census base year of April 2020 and 2022 … 28 of the nation’s 50 largest cities saw their populations decline, by as much as 7.5 percent in San Francisco,” Winegarden writes in the intro. “The other 22 cities saw growing populations by as much as 4.2 percent in Fort Worth, Texas.”

He goes on to demonstrate, with plenty of data, that those cities socked by declines generally did not have pro-growth policies in place while those cites that grew overwhelmingly did favor growth. Good governance may not be flashy or world renowned, but it gets the job done and. Who knows? Maybe lightning will strike again.

Jeremy Lott is a writer based in Washington state.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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