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A New Perspective on America's Cities

Back to the Renaissance? A New Perspective on America's Cities

Joel Kotkin


The future of America's cities lies in the urban past. At a time when the very efficacy of urban areas is being widely doubted, their surest guide for survival rests with their ability to capitalize on the historic niches as centers of trade and commerce, of artisanal industry and cultural creativity occupied by cities through history.

By filling these civilization-building niches, observed historian Lewis Mumford, the cities of the past helped humankind throw off the ancient routines of village life to develop art, science, culture, commerce, and organized religion. In the Renaissance and early modern periods, cities such as Venice, Florence, Antwerp, and Amsterdam not only revived the high culture of classical civilization, but also created the forms (the attitudes and patterns) of commercial interaction that have shaped our own civilization to this day.

In many ways, these cities of the past provide a surer guide for contemporary urban areas than the great industrial agglomerations that have so dominated society from the late nineteenth century to the present. For the most part, the metropolises built upon this mass-industrial model Detroit, Chicago, Saint Louis, Newark are precisely those that have been shrinking most rapidly, both in population and economic importance. In contrast, those cities or parts of cities serving largely as centers of cross-cultural trade, artisanship, and creativity such as San Francisco, Seattle, Manhattan, west Los Angeles, and Boston have markedly brighter economic prospects.

Yet the fate even of these areas remains very much in doubt. Historically, the rise and fall of urban areas has been due not only to external factors such as wars, invasions, and changes in trade patterns, but to internal factors as well (most especially, to their ability or inability to organize themselves to meet new challenges). All too often the political economy in our major cities has become self-destructive and highly balkanized, obstructing the very economic, cultural, and social transformations crucial to their own successful evolution. Only by reviving the great historic sense of common civic purpose can urban areas once again thrive, and so secure a viable place in the new millennium.