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The Story of Cities

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An Important Transition

The history of humans shows how a few significant technological changes resulted in major cultural transitions. One such transition began around 12,000 years ago when humans started the shift from roaming hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. As a result, humans domesticated plants as well as animals and settled down in one place. This is called the Neolithic revolution, and it dramatically changed how humans interacted with their environment. 

The next transition began around 3,000 BCE (about 5,000 years ago). The increase in food production allowed more people to live together in one place, and this may have been the driver behind the invention of cities. 

What does a city stand for?

With more and more people in one place, a significant new challenge had to be faced. If one person commits a crime in a small family or group, it is easy to identify and punish the person. However, in a large city where people are not all known, neither of these two conditions is valid. What keeps a city functioning is justice. Hence along with cities, developed laws and power structures that imposed these laws and ensured social order. Thus cities gave rise to:

  • Power structures/governments
  • A form of justice

Having more people in one place allowed a diversity of ideas to be exchanged, which drove further innovation. The creative arts and trade began, and gradually over centuries, science also developed. Thus cities also gave rise to:

  • Trade
  • Creative arts
  • The sciences

In short, cities enabled collections of humans to develop great civilizations. It is in cities that humans achieve their most incredible mental heights. But cities also need to be defended, and thus cities also gave rise to:

  • Armies and worriers.

Thus we see cities brought tremendous benefits but also disadvantages and we live today with both.

How big can cities get?

In 7,000 BCE, the largest city is thought to be Jerico, with 1,000 to 2,000 people. By 2,000 BCE, the largest cities were in Sumeria and Mesopotamia and had 50,000 to 100,000 people. In 200 CE, Rome had one million people, and by 1900, London, the largest city, then had 6.5 million people. Today the most populous city on earth is Greater Tokyo, with 37 million people! 

With the advent of smart cities and more technologies, will cities keep growing? Is there a limit? There is no clear answer. In the next 100 years, mega cities may develop. These might be, for example, one enormous urban sprawl from Mumbai to Pune. 

Today more than 50% of the world’s population live in cities. In another five years, it is projected that another 1.2 billion people will live in cities. A better question, perhaps, is whether the quality of our lives will be better in such massive urban settings. We are already so far away from nature. Will this completely sever our link to the natural world? 

How long do cities last?

We are used to measuring time in days, weeks, or years. But once we realize that history stretches across centuries and millennia, we see no permanence about particular cities. On the contrary, cities, and civilizations grow and also crumble with incredible speed. The difference today is that all cities and all civilizations face the same common challenges – climate change and the need for universal liberty and a kind and compassionate governance. 

Carl Sagan wisely wrote, “It is clear that the nations of the world now can only rise and fall together. It is not a question of one nation winning at the expense of another. We must all help one another or all perish together.” 

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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