Thursday, December 1, 2016

Greg Clark - How cities took over the world: a history of globalisation spanning 4,000 years

History shows that cities have tended to embrace international opportunities in waves and cycles. They rarely break out into global activity by themselves. Cities participate in collective movements or networks to take advantage of new conditions, and often their demise or withdrawal from a global orientation is also experienced jointly with other cities as circumstances change, affecting many at once.

The world’s first great market-driven cities were established more than 4,000 years ago in the early bronze age, and their rich history is only now beginning to be understood. An urban revolution was taking place, with most residents of what is today southern Iraq living in cities, and this process of urbanisation was accompanied by trade on a new scale.

Farther east, the cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, in modern-day Pakistan along the Indus River valley, were among the first cities with diversified economies and societies. They were located on trade routes that specialised in gemstones and spanned the whole of central Asia. These cities formed the epicentre of a vast trade network based on a common cultural and linguistic community, and built infrastructure to provide good standards of living for residents. With their deep-rooted cultures and external orientation, they exhibited many of the hallmarks of what are now considered to be global cities.

One important lesson to be drawn from the early waves of urbanisation and the long distance activities of cities is that prized assets and luxury possessions have often been drivers of interconnection and collaboration. As China began to expand its horizons, the trade in horses, silk, bamboo, rice and wine was vigorous and often used in diplomacy to guarantee peace between empires and cities. Silk even became an international currency.

Within a few hundred years, the world had been effectively shrunk by the growing sophistication of the trade network. As historian Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads, notes: “We think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon, yet 2,000 years ago it was a fact of life – one that presented opportunities, created problems, and prompted technological advance.”

The first European city to develop networks akin to those of a modern global city was Rome. Its empire came to consist of a federation of cities – stretching from Spain and Scotland in the west, to the Euphrates river in the east – each of which had a territory attached. Rome provided the administration, the stability, the monetary regime, and the tax structure for cities to thrive amid a huge spike in population mobility and mercantile activity... read more: