A timely tale of three cities

by Fargy

Cities are large permanent settlements. Why do they lose their permanence?

Cities are immensely complex organisations. At some point their population grows beyond the size of mere towns and much work has to be put into basic amenities and services, such as the provision of sanitation, supply of water, electricity and communication lines, transport has to be provided, and the growth and use of land has to be planned.

Some innate advantages accrue because of the nature of cities. Workers are nearby, and it costs less per person to provide services as there is less distance between them.

One would assume that only large scale cataclysms could destroy a city. War, such as Troy, or nuclear devastation such as Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

But it appears this is not the case, that the speed of demise can vary and when looked back at, there is no single factor, such as war, that can be identified.

Why this decay then?

Cities without walls.

Cites provide security, we gather strength through numbers.  We are able to deter larger foes and are able to build greater works, when we are in greater numbers.

Cities normally grow near a water source and in a radial way, growing organically from a small village.  This growth can be seen in the road patterns of cities.  In the cities that have greater planning and less organic chaos we see straighter roads and grid designs.

We have become more proficient at designing for growth.

We have also become better are redesigning for changing needs.  For example revitalizing inner city areas that fall into disuse.  The London Docklands is one such area, once the world's largest port and now an area zoned for commercial and residential use.

The walled city has long gone, because modern weaponry and tactics make building walls a waste of time.  However we do still find security in city living, we have greater access to health care for example.  Other examples would include greater surety of food supply, emergency supports like fire brigades, education systems for ourselves and our children which provides greater security for their futures.

At their busiest, cities provide us with the greatest chance to bump into strangers.  These are all possible network connections, so many, that we build behavioral walls.  This great raft of possible opportunities overwhelms us and isolates us, in the midst of hordes of people.

The double edged blade of possibles is why cities attract us, it is in cities that we are more likely to find others that are like us.  Because there are so many people there.

And we like belonging.  We like to be with people that are like us, it makes us feel secure.

The city walls are still there, but invisible.

The past.

The temple city of Angkor Wat was constructed some nine hundred years ago.  These buildings functions and decorations were based on the Hindu religion.

About one hundred years after their construction the region gradually embraced Theravada Buddhism and the older temples were abandoned and most decayed into nothing, apart from the stone temples such as Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat was sacked once by the Cham in 1177 AD, and then recovered.

The only other war history for Angkor Wat was the 1970s and 1980s periods of time in which the Khmer Rouge operated throughout Cambodia.  Little archaeological damage was done.

The greatest enemy of Angkor Wat has been Nature.  Jungle plants encroaching and erosion from wind and rain for example.

This once great city reminds us to look for a reason.  Why did this happen?

Did people just lose interest?

I think the key can be found if we think of cities having a variety of reasons for people to live there, but to be at their greatest they need an overarching purpose.

For Angkor Wat that reason was to celebrate Hindu religion, and when that interest in Hindu religion died away, so did Angkor Wat.



The present.

Detroit, The Motor City.

At various times Detroit also earns the title Murder City.  With hundreds of homicides each year, over half of them narcotics related.

This could be related to other financial problems.

The city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July 2013.

But the writing was clear before this, in 2009 General Motors filed for bankruptcy.  General Motors and Ford are the two mainstays of the automobile industry of Detroit.

Henry Ford established "Fordism" in Detroit, mass production combined with competitive pricing and high labor wages.

The Model T Ford in 1908 was the foundation stone of Ford's ultimate $188 billion dollar empire.  He also brought prosperity to many others, offering $5 pay per day in 1914 which was double the usual daily pay, if you passed his Social Department's tests.

These measures cause a massive influx of highly paid workers which maintained Ford's competitiveness and industrial development.

This was the reason for Detroit, its purpose, to make cars competitively for the mass market.

Like Angkor Wat, that purpose was lost.

In the 1970s there were Renaissance programs to try and rejuvenate Detroit, but which only worked on a cosmetic level.  The focus on building for a competitive mass market was lost and how that displayed was generally as a determination to keep building large cars, when globalization and the resultant overseas competitors were showing people wanted different cars.

Ford once said that customers could have any colour they wanted, as long as it was black.  Black was his preference because it dried fastest and let the cars move along production lines faster.

But with competition one cannot have that attitude.

Angkor Wat had a religious purpose and lost it, Detroit had a manufacturing purpose and lost it.

The future.

Abu Dhabi, in 2007 the richest city in the world.

The city serves as the capital of the United Arab Emirates and is a generally expensive city to live in.  Abu Dhabi makes most of its wealth through oil.  Oil is its purpose.

Wisely the city has decided to diversify.  Oil cannot last forever and for that reason alone alternative purposes for the city must be found.  Tourism and financial services are the two main alternatives.  

Both these can be found combined in Abu Dhabi's plan for 2030 with a planned increase in non-oil revenue from 40% to 60% and the construction of many new skyscrapers.  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a spectacular showcase of the city, with Tom Cruise dangling from the world's tallest (at the time, 2011) building Burj Khalif.

Will Aub Dhabi thrive where Detroit and Ankgor Wat did not?

Angkor Wat shows that quality can survive over hundreds of years.  That even if we don't understand it, we appreciate the work that others do.  Yet even that quality of work cannot stop a diaspora if the purpose is lost.

Detroit shows that losing focus on the purpose of a company or city is damaging.

Abu Dhabi is at the height of its powers.  With an intentional plan to change its purpose over time because it knows the future will not be the same as the present.


Cities of the mind.

We can extrapolate further.

What of our virtual cities, our gathering spots and watering holes in cyberspace.

What of Google, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Amazon and Yahoo.

These are some of our great empires in the first years of youth.  And already we have seen some grow and decay.

Facebook captured 1 billion citizens, a seventh of the planet, in one virtual city.

Yet now we see Facebook Fatigue.

MySpace and Yahoo went through similar patches, a bloom of interest and interactivity, and then declining interest.

Google excels at its purpose, a search engine.  But in other areas such as its copy of Facebook, Google+ can severely struggle.  It may become too differentiated or it may find its various niches, but those niches will not last forever.

These gigantic cities exist because there is limited competition.  The future is ever-changing, and that is why a look into the past can help.

To tie the purpose to how we are as humans, rather than on things that change more rapidly, like types of technology should mean that we have to change our purpose less often.  And with fewer factors to consider, long term success becomes more likely.

My opinion is that if our virtual cities can offer variety, security and a sense of belonging then they should find purposes that can stand the test of time very well.


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Updated: 10/08/2013, Fargy
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Sheri_Oz on 03/27/2014

I also found this a thought provoking thesis. Regarding internet cites as cities gives an interesting perspective.

ologsinquito on 02/14/2014

It is interesting to think about online cities such as Facebook, and how Detroit has lost its permanence.

frankbeswick on 02/14/2014

Interesting, as the name seems to vary. The official name is Blackburn with Darwen, but some call it Darwen under Blackburn. I think that the usage depends upon which of the two towns you originate from. Lancashire people just call them Darwen and Blackburn.

While Manchester has a reputation for being rainy, it is not a permanent deluge, but is prone to regular light to moderate rainfall. There are places in Britian that are far rainier than Manchester, e.g. Seathwaite, Engand's rainiest spot, and Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia

Fargy on 02/14/2014

My Danish forefathers assure me that this expulsion was the result of the constant rain driving the Danes nuts. This knowledge is chronicled in the tales of Hagar the Horrible. :)

My wife is from Manchester area, a little town called Darwen-under-Blackburn.

"Neath the hills, bleak and barren,
Lies dirty Darwen"

The pronunciation is Darren in the song.

I truly enjoyed visiting the churches in the area. And the people were truly wonderful. I was so envious of the storytelling and language skills that are so common over in the UK.

frankbeswick on 02/14/2014

Good article. An example of a port city that lost its port, but survived is Chester, UK. The name means camp, and it was originally a Roman legionary base intended to be at the centre of the British Isles, the capital, as the Romans planned to invade Ireland as well as Britain. But the Irish invasion never happened, but the city kept its port, until the river started to silt up in the thirteenth century. At that time King John needed a deep water port to invade Ireland, so the city of Liverpool was established and took Chester's trade. Chester survived as a market town, county capital and ultimately cultural centre. Culture and history buffs should regard Chester as well worth a visit.

But Chester is one of the two UK cities to still retain walls, the other being Conway. You can walk along Chester's Roman walls.

Cities can survive destruction. Manchester, near where I live, was destroyed by the Vikings in 872, but now it is a thriving English city. In Manchester town hall there is a huge mural of the expulsion of the Danes from Manchester. Sadly it is not in an area where the public habitually go.

Fargy on 02/13/2014

Thanks Rose! It's interesting how our cities change.

Rose on 02/13/2014

Sometimes cities die because of geographical reasons. Bruges was big in medieval times and then it's river silted up making it hopeless for trade.

Fargy on 10/12/2013

Thank you, I'm on my way to have a look. I've never seen the Pinterest site.

cmoneyspinner on 10/12/2013

I shared this on our community Pinterest board.

Fargy on 10/11/2013

Thanks Cmoneyspinner, it's tricky. People put up boundaries around themselves because they got hurt before. And those boundaries can make relations harder for people that come after.

We have those external boundaries too, like the Mexico fence, China's Great Wall, and its 13 foot razorwire fence with North Korea that they built in 2011. Sometimes fences can make us feel safe but at the price of believing everyone on the other side is bad.

I'd hate to have to be the one to solve that problem.

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