Research | Pepperdine University | School of Public Policy


The Future of the Center: The Core City in the New Economy

Joel Kotkin


The present revival of the central city hearkens back to the oldest traditions of urban life. Early cities were by necessity compact places with defined centers where people could worship, go to market, and interact with others of their community. The early city, Lewis Mumford notes, needed to be "sufficiently condensed" to allow the efficient storage, marketing and transmission of goods, both tangible and intangible, to the surrounding populace. They also needed to stay within containable borders for defensive purposes. Even Babylon, the greatest of Mesopotamian cities, covered an area no larger than 3.2 square miles. Shrines, marketplace, the palace, the spring, all conspired to create new central places.

Over time, particularly as villages grew into small cities, and those into larger ones, these central districts took on an ever-greater significance. In the Greek cities and, later, Rome these areas were consecrated as the founding place, the central stones upon which the ever-expanding urban edifice would be constructed. These were frequently connected to the homes and tombs of the city founders, who in turn were worshipped as deities. Rome's core, noted Livy, was "impregnated by religion. . . . The Gods inhabit it."

Beyond its religious significance, the city center also took on a vital commercial role. The central meeting place—the Mesopotamian market, the Egyptian temple square, the Greek agora, the Forum in Rome—allowed for the trading in goods and ideas essential to the urban ideal. Writing, symbolic methods of storing goods and ideas, were born in these central places. Due to the temperate climates enjoyed by most early cities, this activity could be conducted out of doors, without any of the shadowing darkness associated with the contemporary city-center. It was here, amidst the shade of olive trees and Mediterranean light, that the earlier emergence of such key center-city functions, such as banking, first took root.

These patterns re-asserted themselves in the Renaissance. Since there had been no real essential revolution in transportation or communications technology—writing was still by hand, transport by wind or human-powered ships or on horseback—the need to cluster services close together remained paramount. Indeed the greater reliability of water traffic tended to shift commerce to define port location, accentuating the importance of concentrated market towns such as Bruges, where consumers could gather and sample, in the words of one traveler, "everything that the whole world produces."

As is increasingly the case in today's urban cores, the denizens of these cities often differed dramatically—ethnically, culturally, and often religiously—from their hinterland cousins. For one thing, foreigners (including religious minorities such as Jews or Huguenots) heavily populated them. They also attracted those who chose to live unconventional lifestyles such as actors, artists, educated women, and those without children as well as the usual urban assortment of charlatans, criminals and con-men. At the height of the Renaissance, roughly 50 percent of Venice's "men of good birth" remained unmarried. From the 14th century, particularly between the upper and middle classes, extended families tended to weaken and individualism grow. Notes historian John Hale:

Increasingly, those who were reasonably well-off felt themselves, and were perceived by others, emotionally and financially, to be separate units. Increased urban prosperity led to greater mobility—from country to town and country to country—which drew the ambitious individual away from the settled kinship group into a house of his own and a self-sufficient way of life.

This individualism expressed itself in everyday life—in art, in crime and often for the disregard, both for better and worse, of social norms. The residents of Florence, noted historian Jacob Burkhardt, regarded such things as dress as "a purely personal matter, and every man set fashion for himself. . . ." Burkhardt, writing at the height of the industrial revolution in the late 19th century, contrasted this individualistic spirit with "our own age which, in men's dress at least, treats uniformity as the supreme law. . . ."

By the 16th and 17th centuries, the individualism and diversity characteristic of Renaissance cities could be found as well in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Changes in technology, science, and theology were ripping away the bonds of the older society and laid the foundation for a new freedom of thought that housed itself most comfortably in the urban core. Sophisticated urbanites, freed from medieval restraints, embraced the idea that "nothing human is foreign." This openness to the exotic could be seen in everything from dress to architecture to the plays of Shakespeare and writings of Samuel Johnson or Montaigne.

As in the Renaissance cities, urbanity also produced a new core of liberated women who in 17th century Amsterdam could go, unchaperoned, to work, conduct business, and converse with men. Higher levels of public safety and the advent of street lighting further bolstered this process. By removing the dark corners, street lights allowed Amsterdamers, male and female, to expand the hours of both commerce and pleasure for the first time; lighting also, incidentally, reduced the incidence of drunks drowning in the canal.

These same canals, indeed the entirely artificial system that made Amsterdam the great port of its time, also provided a new impetus for an expansion of the role for the city-center. With the expansion of world trade, there developed an immediate need for a centralized area, which could not only collect or warehouse goods, but also provide financial, insurance, and other needs on a global basis at single location. Amsterdam, compact and situated by the water, was ideal for this function. As one contemporary wrote:

I compare it to a fair where merchants from many parts displaying their merchandise, which is sure to find a customer; as in ordinary fairs the merchants one meets do not use the things they sell, so the Dutch who collect goods from every corner of Europe, keep for their own use only what is strictly necessary for life and sell to other nations the products they consider superfluous and which are always more expensive.

This centralization process took place in other emerging great cities as well. As the population of cities like London grew exponentially, expanding fourfold just within the 16th century, their cores evolved into centers for ever-more sophisticated activities beyond the simple trade in goods. London became more conscious as the stage of urban spectacle and provider of the arts to an ever more literate populous. Modern information-based industries like finance, publishing, insurance, and shipping can trace their to developments at this time in specific areas such as St. Paul's, Fleet Street, the Lloyd's coffee shop and, the city itself.