Size Matters?

We are accustomed to thinking of the great cities of the world as containing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.  I suppose most folks would think that it is their great size that gives them whatever greatness we attribute to them.

But in his excellent book Deep Economy Bill McKibben observes that some of the cities that have produced some of history’s most notable people and events were hardly more than small towns by contemporary standards.

He notes that most of the Greek city-states of antiquity averaged only about 10,000 residents.

“The Rome of Michaelangelo had 55,000 people. The Florence of Botticelli and Leonardo 40,000. A decade after the American Revolution, at the time of the first U.S. census, New York had 33,131 residents and Boston 18,320.”

Our closest city is Danville, Virginia:  population 42,852.

No one is likely to confuse Danville with Renaissance Rome, or the Boston of the American Revolution, but history tells us that it doesn’t take millions of people crowded into a city to create an environment from which genius can emerge.

I think history also tells us that there is a tipping point, past which cities have exhausted the resources of their surrounding rural communities and such a concentration of folks becomes more much more of a liability than an asset.  But I’ll save that discussion for another day.

8 comments on “Size Matters?

  1. I think one of the biggest lies told to the previous generation is that life should be forged in the city, that happiness and good fortune was waiting there, and that one should leave the rural life to find it. The thing it led to was more consumerism, more unhappiness and a loss of what is of true substance: land and a life carved from it Planned ghettos in inner cities another by-product.


  2. shoreacres says:

    But even in the cities, one has a choice of how to live. I’ve lived in Berkeley, Salt Lake City, Kansas City and right smack in the middle of Houston. Every experience was a good one. Of course there are downsides – but what’s happening in places like Detroit are not a natural nor necessary result of urbanity.

    It’s equally a “lie” to say that only on the land, only in rural areas, can one live a responsible, productive and loving life. I’ve lived and worked in rural Texas, too, and I can guarantee you that some of the worst of life can be seen there.

    I suppose my point really is that there’s no Garden of Eden in the country, and the Devil doesn’t necessarily live in the city. I live now in the suburbs of Houston, in a town of about 80,000 – more city than country. I have no land, and I have to drive a good distance to find the truly rural, but the values I live by can apply equally well in either setting.

    Hmmmm…. I sound cranky. Don’t really mean to, but I’ll let it stand. 😉


    • Bill says:

      McKibben argues throughout his book in favor of local economies and questions the sustainability of large cities. We lived very comfortably and happily in Tampa for over 20 years. You might say we were living off the fat of the land. But there were costs to our living that way that were being borne by others. Cities like Tampa wouldn’t survive a week if they depended upon the surrounding countryside to provide their food. Kansas City would probably be able to. I’m not sure about Houston, given how large it is.

      Mr. Berry’s oft-repeated argument, and what I understood Teresa’s point to be, is that rural people often migrate to cities in anticipation of finding happiness and good fortune there. All too often they end up in ghettos and prisons. The problem exists in the U.S. of course, but is probably most severe in other parts of the world, where the rural areas continue to be depopulated while the slums in massive cities continue to grow. Many of these folks leave farms because their labor has been replaced by machines.

      I hope you’re right that what has happened to Detroit is not natural. But many (if not most) cities have large “permanently unemployable” abjectly dependent populations, who live as wards of the state. That isn’t natural either, nor is it sustainable.

      The rural to urban migration of the last couple of generations has had a profound effect on the character of the nation, imho. It has produced happiness and wealth for some, and misery for many others. Once done, these kinds of things are hard to undo.

      A very interesting and important subject that deserves a more thoughtful discussion than I am probably capable of. It would probably be smarter for me to just point to a Wendell Berry essay or two. 🙂


      • shoreacres says:

        I’ve been thinking about this most of the afternoon at work, and appreciate your response. I really need to do more reading in Berry and maybe rattle my own cage a bit on these issues.

        By the way – did you see that Whole Foods is going to begin labeling all genetically modified food they sell – I believe the process begins now and is going to take until 2018. I’ll try and find the link.


      • Bill says:

        Maybe I’ll follow up with a blog post on that subject. It really wasn’t what I meant to suggest with this one, but it’s worthy of a good discussion, although that could best be accomplished by a talented essayist, such as you or Wendell Berry. I didn’t mean to categorically put down city-dwelling. Much good comes from cities, of course.

        I did see the Whole Foods announcement. It’s been lighting up my facebook page all day. I’m sorta ambivalent about mandatory GMO labelling, but I’m pleased that they are responding to what their customer base wants.


  3. El Guapo says:

    Great observations!
    I don’t know that the cities themselves are great (though some to me, like Chicago, Jerusalem, Paris, are great inherently), but a city offers the opportunity for diversity that smaller areas don’t have, and the exchange of a wide variety of views and attitudes that in turn combine and swirl off into new, previously unheard of patterns.
    (Disclaimer – I’ve lived in NYC all my life.)


    • Bill says:

      I think you’ve hit on what can make cities great: diversity and a marketplace of ideas. The examples from McKibben’s book reveal a city doesn’t need millions of residents to accomplish that.


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