Review: The City, A Global History

Imagedb The “tragedy of the commons” is a metaphor employed by economists to describe the difficulty of providing and pricing public goods.  Because grazing sheep in the commons is cheaper than owning private land, theoretical shepherds overuse the common thereby eliminating the available grass and value of the common generally. 

Joel Kotkin’s book, The City: A Global History, earns its broad title in its only 160 pages – and among other things, identifies for the reader how cities have over time managed the commons.  In particular, what has characterized cities that have thrived in their times?  In my view, these characteristics suggest a highly symbiotic relationship between public and private investments.  Successful cities of history are not defined by their size or their location as much as by the strategic thinking of their leadership, investment in infrastructure, and social openness. 

Pollution, high unemployment, rising residential foreclosure and commercial vacancy rates and strained education systems, these are costs that burden the public, private and civic sectors – not one or the other.  Whether costs are borne by a business or individual, or paid via the public sector using tax revenues from the same parties, is immaterial where regional vitality is concerned.  Either way, these costs reduce regional productivity and vitality and, to follow the metaphor, erode the commons.  Conversely, public investment can serve as a lever for the private sector, and vice versa.  Two points about how this played out in European history:

Two success stories are inseparable from their emphasis on public investment.  In the 1400s, the Venetians established urban zones devoted to key industries of shipbuilding, munitions, glassmaking and others, putting the authority of the Venetian Doge behind a physical urban organization that matched the market’s interest in locating vendors and financiers near their respective industries.  By 1500, Venice was the wealthiest city in Europe.  In Amsterdam, the investment in the canal system and city sanitation, as well as mandates to use brick to manage the risk of fire, provided a foundation for what Kotkin called “the first great modern commercial city,” and the capital of an unprecedented merchant and cultural engine.

Two success stories trace to recognition and control of “primary avenues to a widening world.”  Kotkin describes the approach of the Phoenicians, Mediterranean powerhouse of the 8th/9th century B.C., as focused not on rote acquisition of territory, but on controlling coastlines and trading with larger neighbors.  Consequently, Phoenicia developed what is widely considered the first influential merchant class in an urban society.  In the late 1500s, the Dutch (yes, again) adopted a similar strategy, rapidly coming to dominate the Spanish, who had continued to emphasize military power fueled by religiosity at the expense of economic strength.

Vital cities have been with us for our 10,000 years of urban life, and we can learn from successful models used to finance thriving places through history.  If nothing else, The City speaks to how fostering strong urban economies is the responsibility of public, private and civic sectors alike.