City Of the Future

Urban decay: A city that can't protect its citizens may face the kind of flight and extinction that met the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan.
Urban decay: A city that can't protect its citizens may face the kind of flight and extinction that met the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan. (By Dagli Orti -- The Art Archive)
By Joel Kotkin
Sunday, July 24, 2005

You've got to hand it to those Londoners. They refused to be cowed by the July 7 terrorist attacks. And when new explosions in the underground last week threatened to paralyze the city again, they carried on with characteristic British stiff upper lipness. But admirable as their urbanite resilience has been, it shouldn't blind us to the reality that the bombings in the British capital underscored: that the great challenge facing the world's major cities today is finding a way to make life safe for their citizens.

Though current fashion is to blame causes such as energy, food and water shortages for urban decline through the centuries, the truth is that far more cities have fallen due to a breakdown in security. Whether the menace is internal disorder or external threat, history has shown repeatedly that once a city can no longer protect its inhabitants, they inevitably flee, and the city slides into decline and even extinction.

While modern cities are a long way from extinction, it's only by acknowledging the primacy of security -- and addressing it in the most aggressive manner -- that they will be able to survive and thrive in this new century, in which they already face the challenge of a telecommunications revolution that is undermining their traditional monopoly on information and culture, and draining their populations.

As businesses and industries escape the urban core to operate in small towns and even the countryside, demographic surveys show that the population is going with them. After a brief, welcome surge in inner-city populations in the late 1990s, most older American cities have lost more people than they gained since 2000. Families, retirees and immigrants, all the key sources of new population growth, are largely deserting the urban core. This is true not only for perennial loserssuch as Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Detroit, but also places that enjoyed a brief resurgence in the last decade, like San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago.

Nor is this flight a mere American phenomenon: Inner-city population has been dropping in London, Paris, Hamburg, Milan and Frankfurt. In many of these cities, the only rapidly growing group is immigrants, most of them Muslim, including many who are increasingly targeted by and susceptible to Islamist extremism.

We don't yet know entirely how the terrorist threat -- "the fear factor" -- exacerbates urban depopulation trends. It is clear that American inner-city residents reacted far more strongly to 9/11 than people in suburbs and smaller towns. Polls taken months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington showed that twice as many big-city residents as suburbanites, and four times as many as rural residents, felt "great concern" about future attacks.

More palpable are the decisions by financial services firms to shift more of their operations to suburbs and smaller towns, in part because they are less vulnerable to a potential terrorist assault. Jobs that used to be done in Manhattan are migrating to New York's outer suburbs, as well as to places such as Florida. The same has been happening to London. British observers note the steady movement of financial and other high-end service jobs to less vulnerable and less expensive provincial cities, as well as offshore havens in India and other parts of the developing world.

Terrorism clearly poses a greater threat to some cities than to others. The symbolic global importance and high population density of London and New York made them inviting targets to terrorists. Moreover, unlike smaller cities and suburbs and more modern, sprawling places such as Phoenix, Houston or Los Angeles, which depend on multiple job centers and private cars, centralized London and New York rely on the very transit modes -- subways, trains and buses -- that terrorist operators clearly target. Over the past three decades, in fact, terrorists have attacked such transportation systems to kill more than 11,000 people in cities from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Baghdad to Madrid and London.

It's too early to tell how businesses or individuals might react over time if terrorist attacks were to become commonplace. But the historical record isn't promising. Many of the earliest cities of antiquity -- in places as dispersed as Mesopotamia, China, India and Mesoamerica -- shrank and ultimately disappeared after being overrun by more violent, but often far less civilized peoples. As is the case today, the greatest damage was often inflicted not by organized states, but by nomadic peoples or even small bands of brigands who either detested urban civilization or had little use for its arts.

One of the earliest examples is the urban civilization of the Indus Valley that flourished around 2000 B.C. in what is now Pakistan. After Aryan nomadic raiders penetrated the defenses of the ancient cities of Harappa and Moenjodaro, it was many hundreds of years before large metropolitan centers once again rose on the subcontinent.

The first great cities of the Americas -- those of the Olmecs and the Maya in Central America and the pre-Inca civilizations in the Andes -- declined primarily due to invasion. Between the 4th and 6th centuries, between 50,000 and 85,000 people lived in Teotihuacan in central Mexico. Following an invasion from the north in 750 A.D., residents fled and the site has remained largely deserted ever since.

The best-known example of security-driven collapse, of course, is Rome. The Roman Empire was a confederation of cities. By the 2nd century A.D., people, products and ideas were traveling quickly from urban center to urban center over secure sea lanes and 51,000 miles of paved roads stretching from Jerusalem to Boulogne, which connected scores of cities in between. Europe would not again see such a proliferation of secure and well-peopled cities until well into the 19th century.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company