Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Fri Jan 23rd 2009 at 8:33am UTC

Where Do Cities Come From?

Arnold Kling asks:

Today, we think of cities as places where people come to thrive. Wealth is higher in cities than in small towns and rural areas. Richard Florida tells us that the creative class is to be found in cities.

On the other hand, reading accounts of cities as of 1850 or earlier, they sound like death traps. People are less healthy in cities. Life spans are shorter. Poverty is Dickensian. I picture pre-modern cities the way I picture Russia today: people living off government assistance or criminal enterprise or sale of personal belongings; death at an early age; etc.

I wonder: who came to cities? Was it people without land? Were cities like an awful lottery that people would play when they had no other choice? A bunch of landless people gathered together to prey on one another, with the winners thriving (moving to the country as soon as they could afford it) and the losers enduring a Hobbesian existence, where life was nasty, brutish and short?

Did that make America in the eighteenth century seem like paradise, with its endless supply of land? Why were there cities in America? Was Jefferson’s preference for yeoman farmers a natural reflection of the relative state of urban vs. rural existence?

What would Jane Jacobs say?

In a series of famous passages, Jacobs argued that cities actually grew up alongside, and even before, advanced agriculture. It was cities Рlocations with dense, trading populations Рthat encouraged the transformation and modernization of agriculture. However difficult life might have been inside them, it was cities, according to Jacobs, that were the spur for modern economic growth and development.

Here’s a nice summary:

Jacobs contends that both animal husbandry and agriculture were most likely to have originated in the earliest urban settlements. Further, those settlements were the result of Paleolithic trade, and it was the intensification of trade in those early cities that paved the way for the development of agriculture and animal husbandry.

And another:

But don’t cities arise from and depend on agriculture? No: all economic progress originates in cities, Jacobs tells us; and cheekily adds that all agricultural progress originates in cities. Great advances, such as mechanical reapers and electricity, were invented and adopted in or near cities before being applied to agricultural regions farther out. Productivity improvements in agriculture always begin near the cities and spread out.

What we think of as purely rural activities often began in the cities. In premodern Europe, the quintessential cottage industry was weaving; but before cloth was woven in cottages the art was rediscovered and practiced in cities. Dark Ages peasants lived on gruel; the art of breadmaking was recovered first in cities (and based on city-grown bread; a medieval city had its own fields). In our own rural areas there are vast ranches where animals are fattened before slaughter; they are transplants from the city stockyards of Kansas City and Chicago.

Your thoughts?

11 Responses to “Where Do Cities Come From?”

  1. Buzzcut Says:

    Aren’t the Jacobs quotes you cite speculative?

    What do archaeologists say about all this? Historians?

    I’m glad you responded to Arnold. I had hoped you saw it.

  2. Yule Heibel Says:

    I’m not sure about the country-city dynamic in prehistory, but I would argue that the “cities as death traps” view is a legacy of the Industrial Revolution’s wrenching effect on social, community, and family life. That is, the Industrial Revolution was traumatic (and consider, too, the effects of the Digital Revolution, which outsources labor and makes entire sectors in one part of the world – ours, say – nearly obsolete: some generations from now, how wrenching will that come to be seen?, or consider the concomitant shift to a creative class economy).

    The trauma of the Industrial Revolution gave rise to lots of great literature and art, and also left us this lasting idea of cities as hell-holes. Just consider the word “slum” – what does it conjure? Factory workers, displaced persons (i.e., penniless immigrants at the mercy of economic forces beyond their control), intolerable working conditions: hallmarks of Industrial Revolution.

    As a result, many urban planners came to think of any place as a slum if many, many people lived there – which sort of meant painting cities with the same brush. It’s to Jane Jacobs’s everlasting credit that she parsed out the difference between *density* and *overcrowding*, rescuing density from slum conditions, and that she described how a non-centrally-planned-from-above process of *unslumming* actually works.

    I do know something of Renaissance and post-Renaissance cities. They weren’t hell-holes. Sure, full of thieves and shady characters (just look at Caravaggio’s paintings!), but vibrant and exciting, and definitely *the* place to be if you wanted to move up, intellectually, creatively, and – yes – financially.

    The Victoria-era legacy of Industrial Revolution trauma (thinking of cities as slums by default) is pernicious, but with ecologically-influenced thinking, we’re getting over it (I hope).

    I write a monthly column for Victoria BC’s Focus Magazine, and my March 2008 column, “Victorian Fables: Does Victoria have an urban planning blindspot?” deals with this. You can access it here: (it’s a PDF on In that particular piece I suggest (cheekily?) that the Industrial Revolution left some planners with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), which is why my city (Victoria BC) has such a block when it comes to embracing urban density. I think many Canadian cities – with their ingrained British legacy – have traces of Industrial Revolution PTSD, and it’s too bad.

  3. Wil Says:

    Yule, My primary residence is in the country near Victoria, so I frequently go into the city. The idea of greater density in Victoria is revolting, and I hope that the efforts to allow for even more cheaply built, tiny, but overpriced, condominiums fails. Victoria was, not long ago, a “country ” city where you could find mini-farms, horses, and agriculture within the city, among neighbourhoods with single family houses. Victoria does not currently have any slums, but one day it may if enough tiny, high density units are built …………Jane Jacob’s theories about cities spurring rural development doesn’t acknowledge that the basis of real wealth, historically, has consisted of gold and land. Landowners possessed the means to increase their income on a wide scale, and increase wealth. The rentier class consists of landowners. …. The role of cities is primarily as a place for commerce and culture. Ancient Athens had a population of around fifty thousand, which is a reasonable population, San Francisco is only around seven hundred thousand, which is much more than enough to provide the environment for commerce and culture. Are cities of millions, with sprawling slums, and lots of crime, really the best way of life?…. Cities today are filled with workers, and the most dense parts are young people seeking partners, or those that can not afford more space while living close to their work (the rich in NYC, and a few other cities are exceptions)

  4. Yule Heibel Says:

    @ Wil – I’m at a disadvantage since I don’t know who you are or where you live (whereas you can google me, read me, find me). But I suspect, from your comment, that you’re one of the many suburbanites in this region who hate downtown. I don’t hate downtown, and I feel that Victoria’s handicap is the many who have historically considered downtown to be a source of tourist-trap revenue (part of the boom-and-bust mentality that characterizes all resource-extraction driven Western urban centres – in Victoria, tourists are simply the latest iteration of “resource,” after the seals, whales, and lumber dried up). Now the tourists are drying up, and it seems everyone has I-told-you-so-itis.

    No one is asking you to live downtown, Wil. But some people actually do like living there, and they would be as flabbergasted to hear you describe their homes as slums, or “cheaply built, tiny, but overpriced, condominiums,” or as something that anyone hopes will “fail,” as you might bristle at the out-of-hand rejection of suburbs.

    Different strokes for different folks. That’s something Victorians need to learn – and in Victoria’s case, it includes letting downtown be downtown. You can’t have it both ways – live in the suburbs and force a suburban mentality on the city.

    And by the way, I’m not sure that you’re talking about a Victoria I recognize when you mention “mini-farms, horses, and agriculture within the city, among neighbourhoods with single family houses.” That sounds like Saanich or another municipality in the Capital Regional District. Victoria has that unique 13-distinct-municipalities thing going on (total pop. ~350,000), but the city of Victoria itself is only ~80,000. It isn’t, wasn’t, and won’t be again a “country.” I grew up here in the late 60s and early 70s, and don’t recall what you describe within the city of Victoria.

    I am disheartened by the hatred directed against the city by those who don’t even live here. You are misusing our region’s best potential by denying its existence. Saanich can be Saanich – but please let Victoria be the city it is.

  5. Wil Says:

    Victoria can only be called a city out of courtesy, it’s really a large town. Saanich, is a de facto part of the the city because it is in the metropolitian area, separated only by a line on the map. ….I don’t hate downtown, in fact I was at the “Noodle Box” just two days ago. I do hate the tiny, overpriced, and cheaply built condominiums that increase density, age poorly and end up being eyesores, that is why I live in the country…The region’s greatest resource is the natural environment of South Vancouver Island, and the people who choose to live there, without those features, downtown Victoria may as well be Topeka, Kansas. The fact that you live downtown, with the retirees, yuppies, and trustafarian “street people”, is fine with me, I just hope that the densification doesn’t make downtown into another Granville mall, or East Hastings. I see no benefits in that.

  6. Kevin Kleen Says:

    Paul Seabright writes about this in The Company of Strangers. Short version, towns formed to defend immobile agricultural resources and grew as marketplaces where strangers could safely interact.

  7. Barb Chamberlain Says:

    I’ve just started reading Sir Peter Hall’s “Cities in Civilization” so I’d have more to contribute if I were further into the book.

    My memory of courses in anthropology & history suggests that we needed agriculture to produce the surplus that allowed labor specialization, and thus cities, to survive. It’s not quite chicken & egg, but close.

    The cities served the purpose of exchange centers (market day in medieval towns, for example), and a way of turning excess agricultural production, which had a limited shelf life, into something of value for the next season.

    Seems to me it would be logical for those who had something other than food to create, such as artists, weavers, and so forth, to be at the trading center to which the agricultural producers brought their excess.

    I live in Spokane, WA (where Prof. Florida spoke a few years ago). It is often described by people who live here as a city with a small-town feeling. We have both a symphony, art museums, universities, & so forth, and agricultural production close at hand. If I want to, I can bike to the Green Bluff farming area or go to the farmers’ market in downtown and buy food directly from the people who grew it.

    As energy prices increase (and they will, despite the current drop), I think these cities, which have the opportunity to provide both urban-style amenities and lifestyle with access to locally produced food, are going to thrive.


  8. Robert Says:


    Corn Law. Enclosure Act. Starvation. Unemployment or seasonal labour with no prospects or opportunities for learning a trade or skill. Absentee landlords. No franchise. Overcrowding. Press gangs. Arbitrary taxation with no representation…. the background characters of Thomas Hardy’s and George Eliot’s novels aren’t glossed over, we just choose to ignore them to promote the “city bad, countryside good” fantasy.

    Even if cities were deathtraps, if people moved to them, they did so to escape even worse conditions in rural areas run by an aristocracy who generally didn’t give a toss.

    I always thought that the rural idyll was a particular disease of English romantics and nostalgics who parade as The Conservative Party. It’s interesting that this particular myopia spreads to the US as well!

  9. Buzzcut Says:

    If I had to live in a pre-20th century city, I would hope that it would be an ancient Roman city. They set the city on a grid, piped in clean water from the mountains, and disposed of human waste with a proper sewer system. Urban planning started 2 millenium ago!

    In many ways, cities did not better what the Romans did until the 20th Century. Certainly, living in a Medieval city, with trash simply thrown from windows into the street, would be nasty and short, if not brutish.

    Regarding rural life, I think the point is that, much like during the Depression, rural folks are more self sufficient. That might make survival more likely in tough times. And filth certainly isn’t as concentrated there, which might make life expectancy a lot higher.

  10. Robert Says:

    I love the way everyone is making gross assumptions about what life was like in Roman or ancient settlements when a lot of “history” is merely speculation based on scant archaeological evidence.

    The answer is: prejudice!

    I’m sure life for a slave in ancient Chester was pretty **** no matter how neat the cobbles were laid in roads. Similar life for a feudal vassal was probably equally miserable whether he was living in York or some miserable hamlet ruled by some noble who was off to batter the French every summer, and taxed his estate accordingly.

  11. Michael E. Smith Says:

    Jane Jacobs was a great thinker, but she was completely wrong (factually incorrect) in suggesting that cities preceded agriculture. This is not a matter of opinion or disagreement over interpretations. The archaeological evidence that agriculture preceded cities is overwhelming and incontrovertible. Jacobs should have known better in 1969, and Soja certainly should have known better in 2000 when he published the same idea.

    I discuss this in my blog at:

    I also mention briefly problems with Jacobs’s interpretation in an upcoming paper:

    Smith, Michael E.
    2009V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: An Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies. Town Planning Review 80 (in press).