I’ve been thinking about this question as I prepare to bifurcate this blog into transportation and sustainability topics. You might have noticed a tendency to stray from the quantitative to the qualitative, and from transportation to sustainability, history, and even economics. This is all within the original scope of sustainable transportation, but my signal to noise ratio has been slipping.
Which brings me to the question of the identity of City. Permanent concentrations of people have been around longer than the oldest documented Jericho, in Palestine (6,500 kya). They are an artifact of people congregating to achieve trade in goods, effort, or protection collectively. This could only be done after the business of staying alive through foraging, and only after the business of growing surplus food had been mastered. Since agriculture made open land valuable, towns were one way to keep the people out of their own way. Another way was actually living in the fields, but this required more effort to keep all the land claims in order.
The town, and later the city, was an artifact of plenty in a time of walking, horses, ships, trains, and roads. Many of the most successful cities were there to trade goods between one transportation mode and another. Rather than just being the agricultural trade hub a day’s walk from the next town, the cities grew with their ports, and did the business of unloading ships and trading their goods between shippers and customers in their respective nations*.
The land at the center or nearest the port of these cites became the most valuable, because the most money changed hands there. Much of that trade was industrial or noxious, which set up a natural distribution of wealth between those upwind and those downwind. All this had to be within walking distance until late 1800s, even if the first transit was developed two centuries earlier (1662) in Paris**.
Cities grew as concentrations of commerce. Which remained concentrated so long as commerce was a documentary process. With the rise of telegraphy, telephony, and the internet, this was no longer necessary. Companies in manufacturing and later banking moved out of the city as soon as they could. Manufacturing moved first, because of a simple truth. Density at the city center made manufacturing difficult. A multistory factory wastes huge amounts of energy moving materials and work between floors. Even if their process is lucky enough to use gravity feed, the materials still have to be hoisted or pumped to the top of the building to keep the process flowing. Better to move to the countryside, where everything can be arranged on one flat shop floor.
This was not possible until transportation got good enough to haul goods around the country in sufficient quantities. When everything was moved by horse cart over dirt roads, there was a real compelling case to be made for keeping things in town, or just moving it once and leaving it there on the farm. Once Canals (-600 in Mideast, -300 in Asia, 1300 in Europe, 1800 in Americas) and Rail lines (1830) made moving stuff the point of transportation, there was an incentive to move more, not less stuff. Moving factories out of town was as simple and expensive and providing a high-capacity transportation link to global markets and local labor.
Businesses did not get big without cities. In Europe, the model was hierarchical, religious, and aristocratic. Most Western Europeans were serfs; bonded labor, until the 1400s, but many Eastern Europeans and Asians remained serfs until the 20th century. This concentrated power in a firm pyramid from serf to sovereign, with agriculture the currency. Many never saw or needed a coin, they belonged to the land and their liege, and this was enough. They were paid in safety and enough food. Coins, and commerce were near the churches and the rulers, in cities. The factory arose as a mirror of the farm, with many hands making light work of dull repetitive task, for cash this time, not just food. Factories were a novel enough concept in 1776 that Adam Smith describe them at length to readers of his already lengthy work.
A factory, or any large business, is an exercise in marrying labor, materials, and machines on unprecedented scales. This was formerly impossible, because there wasn’t enough labor to do the work. The first factories were surrounded by homes of their workers, and they were always located near their materials or a port. Beaver Pelts, Cow Hides, Timber, or Steel are heavy, and it’s best to pick them up only when necessary.
With improving transportation by rail and later truck, the location of the factory was not longer wedded to its heavy feedstock. With improvement in personal transportation, by rail, transit, bicycle, and later traffic, workers no longer needed to live near their factories. With the spread of services and administration, and the outsourcing of manufacturing to poorer parts of the nation and eventually the world, there was no longer a need for large businesses to be near freight lines at all. All they needed was sufficient infrastructure for their workers to reach work.
The only thing that remains of the original factory is shift work, on the idea that teams who know each other work better than these who only meet each other occasionally. This is a legacy of farm life, when the sun, soil, and seasons dictated the schedule, intensity, and aim of work. Then as now, the penalty for not working was starvation. The currency then was labor, the currency today is cash.
You can always tell the age of a place within a century by the network of its streets. This reflects an evolution of transportation technology. The web of walking paths of Midaeval cities gave way to blocks in the 1800s. Blocks were partially there to facilitate real estate transaction in cities growing too fast to survey every deal, and partially to improve safer as wagons and later transit became faster, larger and heavier. It is social to run into a walker in the city, disastrous tot do it in a wagon or a car. By 1875, “faster” was still 6 MPH, and by 1905 had been doubled to 12 MPH with improvements in paving and America’s rising car manufactory. You can get to 12 MPH idling your engine in drive with today’s cars. As vehicles became faster, blocks became longer, and could fit larger buildings upon them. Or parking, which motorized traffic demanded by the 1910s as a matter of course.
The rise of motorized traffic has denatured the formerly tight knit fabric of the city. That is not a value judgement, but a statement of fact. Traffic and the information economy offer the option to locate any sort of business within driving distance of worker and shipping distance of customers. They offer the option to get to any sort of job or shopping from any sort of neighborhood, as long as it is a drivable one. The commute into work, first a walk to the fields, then the factory, and then a train or bus ride into downtown, has become a web of different origins and destinations. The suburb-suburb commute is now the largest commute for most American cites, supplanting the suburb-city commute since the 1960s. My native Atlanta switched before I was born, and, notably, before MARTA’s suburb-city heavy-rail network was built.
I’ve kept the toes of this story in the 19th century because those are the roots of the modern city. For our whole lives, , and the levies out our great grandparents, the city was a unique, gigantic, and bustling place. I work in a field that values its form and function inherently. That doesn’t save me from the fact that the city is an artifact of technology. If the technology changes, the city will change. It is worth guessing at what the changes will be, and how they will change, and maybe even destroy, the city.
* There were towns in the US before the European invasion. The largest, Cahokia, along the Mississippi, was maintained for and by the farming of Corn, which had been cultivated in Mexico 4 kya and traded through the desert southwest 3 kya. Other American towns on the east coast coalesced for protection from neighbors, better hunting, or fire management. When your food depends on burning hillsides to allow you and your game to forage in understory bushes, your location in the landscape is fixed.
** Paris transit was initially protection for the upper classes from the lwer classes of Parisian street life. Five sous was about a dollar in today’s currency. Nobody from the dregs of Parisian society would ever use that much cash for mere transportation.