What makes cities great?
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, December 12, 1998)

The Memphis music business in the early 1950s was manic in its rush to churn out hits and create stars. Memphis had made something fresh and exciting, the blend of blues and country music that would soon be called rock 'n' roll. The city burned with ambition. "It was like there was a magnifying glass placed over Memphis," according to Conway Twitty, the singer.

It's typical of Sir Peter Hall that Cities in Civilization (Pantheon, 1,169 pages, $56) contains a chapter on music in Memphis from 1948 to 1956. Hall wants to explain what brings a city to its golden age, and he lines up Memphis beside Athens, Vienna, Los Angeles and all the other culture-shaping cities of history. He finds in Memphis one of his themes: "outsiders, coming into the city and creating something strangely new." Memphis transformed the music of the Mississippi Delta into the dominant sound of the world. Upstart entrepreneurs jumped ahead of New York's tired and conservative music industry, the same process that worked in hundreds of cities stretching back to antiquity.

A British planning professor, Sir Peter Hall (that's his byline on the book, but he's not to be confused with the theatre director), unfortunately can't resist using terms like "high-amenity nodes" and "out-movement of activities" when he means prosperous districts and the spread of cities. But for the most part he moves nimbly and engagingly through history and culture.

Why did Athens, and not some other contender, become the greatest city of the fifth century BC? It had more of the right ingredients (trade, mixed cultures), but there was something else that was crucial. Athens rose at a moment of historical transition; it flourished under the social tensions created by the overlap of an old aristocratic society and a new commercial urbanism. Hall identifies similar transitions that enriched 15th-century Florence, Elizabethan London and 19th-century Paris.

Looking for theories of history, he takes sustenance from Harold Innis (1894-1952) of Toronto, "a remarkable intellectual figure, in some ways a 20th-century challenger to Marx." Innis argued that new modes of communications shape civilizations and cities. Delving also into the work of Marshall McLuhan, Hall devotes eight lively pages to "Innis, McLuhan, and the Toronto Tradition."

In the 1940s, Innis discussed the way new media dissolve distances. Hall's last chapter, The City of the Coming Golden Age, begins by quoting another theorist who says "the death of distance" means that any work relying on a computer screen, from designing an engine to monitoring a security camera, can be done from anywhere. Is it possible, Hall asks, that this will equalize the locational advantages of the whole world? It seems unlikely, yet I keep seeing evidence of it, even in work close to my own. If you drop into the Toronto graphic design studio of Allison Hahn and Nigel Smith, you may find them working for a publisher in Paris or Los Angeles. On a book project for Harvard, Hahn Smith supervised photography in Mexico City, presented their ideas in Cambridge, Mass., did the design work in Toronto and will have printing done in Minnesota. This is now normal for designers of high quality, but 25 years ago would have seemed outlandish.

Hall quotes a Bill Gates prediction that we'll one day do business, study, "explore the world and its cultures, call up any great entertainment, make friends, attend neighbourhood markets," without leaving our desks. Is he describing heaven or hell? It sounds like good news only for those who hate cities and find everyday life a bother. This raises the possibility that cities will become commercially irrelevant, occupied only by those who can't afford to live elsewhere.

Hall thinks that won't happen, but he can't summon more than a few generalities to support his view: "places with a unique buzz, a unique fizz, a special kind of energy, will prove more magnetic than ever. . . ." He distinguishes "electronic product" (such as touring a museum's Web site or phone sex) from "direct-experience product" (such as visiting a museum or touching an actual person). He guesses that even as the total value of electronic product increases, the value of direct-experience product will also increase. For the latter, we will need cities.

For all his learning, Hall is no more convincing than anyone else on the subject of what is to come. He understands why Rome or Detroit rose and fell, but has no impressive ideas about what the future holds for Seattle or Shanghai. Kierkegaard got it right: "Life is lived forward but is understood backward."

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