FoC Urban Change History

Slide Number 11
6,000 years ago, there were no cities. That may sound like the distant past; however, for context, humans have been around for about 4 million years. Hence, cities have existed for just 0.2% of our history. For the vast majority of the preceding period, the need to continually move to hunt and gather food dictated an itinerant lifestyle, whereas of course cities can only exist when people choose to stay in the same place.2
This started to change in about 10,000 BC due to a major technological shift - the invention of agriculture. For the first time this meant that people no longer had to move. In fact, they found significant benefits to staying in one place.3
The predictability of the harvest and associated security of food production created surplus and encouraged scale.Whereas previously it was impractical and self-defeating to hunt finite prey in large groups, humans found benefit in teaming up to deliver abundant crops. Accordingly, the size of communities grew, and stable settlements were created – perhaps the biggest advancement in the history of mankind.4
Surplus also allowed for the profusion of new specialist work roles such as priests, doctors, warriors and eventually civil servants. These flourished due to two interconnected concepts: division of labour, and trade. Whilst previously everyone worked in food production, now it was possible to have different roles in society and to trade the output of one’s work with that of other people.5
This bred specialism, which encouraged innovation, and is arguably the cause of all subsequent human advancement. However, it has only been possible due to interactions carried out in the physical proximity of a stable community.6
The benefit was exponential. As settlements grew in size, they discovered that economies of scale made them ever more effective and specialised. In a community of 10, you might have a butcher. In a community of 100, you might have a butcher, a baker and a grocer. In a community of 1,000, you will likely have specialist bakers for different types of baked goods. And by the time you get to 10,000 you might have people who make unicorn cupcakes. You may even have chartered surveyors, town planners and bankers.7
The scale that had previously driven economies of manufacturing, now also delivered economies of trade. As a farmer, your primary concern was the ability to sell your crop. Where better to find buyers than a large city? Large numbers of buyers and sellers created a market for goods and price discovery that would previously have been left to the vagaries of bilateral trade. Market towns, the market-place and corn exchanges were born; the forerunners for our modern stock market. The largest cities, like London and York, attracted buyers and sellers from across the known world.8
Urban success led to further societal developments. Firstly, prosperous urbanites wanted to protect their wealth and security, and started to enclose and fortify their settlements. Wall building defined cities in ways that are still visible today, either in the structures themselves, or in the road and grid patterns. Secondly, urbanites wanted to have control over their resources. Cities established themselves on either defensible (high) ground, or next to natural trading or free resources (rivers). Our major urban centres in the UK remain where they were founded over a thousand years ago. Thirdly, being part of a community allowed for central taxation and resource reallocation. This enabled common projects such as infrastructure delivery (e.g. the roman viaducts or Bazalgette’s sewer network), which improved public health and amenity.9
Cumulatively, this progress exacerbated the bifurcation of fortunes between those in the cities, and those in decentralised rural settlements. We started to see a trend towards urbanisation, where aspiring individuals like Dick Whittington fled rural poverty in search of the ‘gold paved’ streets of our major cities. This trend accelerated significantly due to a second major technology shift – mechanisation. As industrialisation created significant economic advantage to factory led operations over traditional artisanal endeavours, the cities.10
To get a sense of this, the population of Manchester tripled in just 50 years in the late stages of the industrial revolution. A new bourgeoisie mercantile class sprung up around the new factories, created complex tapestries of commercial and housing networks in our big cities.However, this was soon to change again. A third big technological change in the form of mass transportation radically reshaped our cities.11
The modern talk is of 15-minute cities. Go back a couple of hundred years, and that’s all that there was. People commuted on foot, or for the rich by coach. One’s work was close to one’s home for reasons of necessity. Heavy industry stood cheek by jowl with tenement housing blocks, and for many people their place of work was their downstairs room, or a chair in the street outside their house.12
Conditions were cramped and unsanitary. Only the rich could afford to live outside the major cities and commute in when needed. However, this all changed with the advent of passenger rail. Suddenly, a middle-class worker could move out to the fresh air of newly created suburbs, and still be able to capture the economic benefits of being part of the city ecosystem. The change was to be profound. The heterogenous composition of cities started to polarise. The centre became a place of work and shopping arcades; whereas the exterior become a quiet place to live; roomier, cheaper, but lacking local amenity.13
This brings us to present day. So what takeaways can we extract from this brief look through history?14
It is easy to make judgements about fundamentals through the lens of a human lifetime. ‘People work in offices’. ‘The commute is a part of our lives’. ‘Shopping is on high streets’. ‘People live in suburbs. ‘Cities are eternal’. However, a more than cursory look back over history reveals the opposite. Cities are highly dynamic organisms, that show the potential not only to change, but to change very quickly given the right conditions. This is highly relevant to any discussion about the future of cities. We should not conclude that because limited change has occurred in the past 20 years, that the rate of city evolution is slow. Consider the example of Manchester where the population almost doubled in 20 years during the industrial revolution and imagine what the city you live in might look like in 2040 were this to be repeated.15
The most significant urban change has been precipitated through the introduction of new foundational technologies. Perhaps more specifically, the most significant societal change has been precipitated through introduction of new foundational technologies; and the city merely wraps itself around them. Technology does not drive change, it enables it. Change is driven by people wanting something different to what they have. This point is highly relevant today, because (a) the zeitgeist for societal change is tangible, and (b) we now face one of the most significant technology shifts in history.16
Cities are all about scale. The primary raison d’etre of the city over history has been to provide the scale that allows for specialisation, predictability of interaction, innovation and effective trade. Large cities have pulled away from smaller ones on many metrics because scale begets scale and a virtuous circle of investment. This is fundamental to the concept of a city, and it explains the success of London compared with other UK cities. However, scale also comes with challenges. There are two factors which are emerging to threaten this very fundamental tenet of the city, in the form of (a) virtualisation and (b) density issues. In combination these could radically unsettle the benefits of being in a city and chart a new course for future urban change.17
Above all, cities are where most great things ever achieved by humans have taken place.They are the beating heart of civilisation; the font of creativity and invention.As we approach a period of significant societal and technological change, there can be few more important topics than The Future of Cities.18
Slide Number 1919

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