What is progress? How and where does it occur? Such questions are not easy to answer. Debates about the nature of progress have given rise to entire theories of historical development. “Whig history,” for example, relates the story of humanity as one of a rise from an oppressive past to a more enlightened present. Two world wars, the Holocaust, and Soviet terrorism in the 20th century, however, put some major dents in the idea that the modern world could be only an undiluted blessing.
Another problem is that identifying progress can be a perilous exercise. In the 1920s, for example, eugenics and racial hygiene were widely accepted by most educated Western opinion—especially progressives—as being at the very forefront of scientific development. Few would make such an argument today.
Then there are more philosophical questions. What, for instance, constitutes societal progress? Would we regard a society massively wealthier than its predecessors but also characterized by the normalization of pornography to have progressed? Does the brutalist architecture of the 1960s really represent progress on, say, Paris’s 13th-century Sainte-Chapelle? Is progress both linear and all-encompassing? Or does it proceed hand in hand with regression in other areas? How does one reasonably measure such things?
The ongoing saliency of these issues makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that much of the world has, in many respects, become a better place in which to live. That is the measured argument made by Chelsea Follett in Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World. Materially, she points out, people are generally better off than the vast majority of their ancestors. They also do live healthier and longer lives. These are positive achievements to celebrate. Follett also underscores how there have also been positive developments in the area of moral awareness. In the vast majority of societies, slavery and torture were once seen as uncontroversial institutions and practices. That is no longer the case.
In exploring how these developments came about, Follett focuses on the role played by cities. In her view, “The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city.” Her point is not that the rural life lived by most people throughout human history constituted barbarism. Rural communities, she states, “have plenty of achievements.” But sparsely populated areas also offer fewer choices, whether in terms of what people can eat or how they work.
Follett’s book has two goals. The first is to provide practical examples of how 40 different cities have contributed to human progress. The second is to challenge declinist historical narratives while simultaneously widening our comprehension of what drives positive changes.
The second objective, which Follett describes as “dissident,” is especially important. There is no shortage of historians who have focused on the role of particular philosophical, political, and religious ideas and movements in bringing about specific developments in legal institutions, technology, intellectual inquiry, and the natural and social sciences.
Follett doesn’t suggest that these things don’t matter. It’s difficult to deny, for instance, that the idea of we humans as made in the imago Dei, first given concrete expression in Judaism and the Book of Genesis, was crucial to a self-understanding that we are fundamentally different from all other creatures, making us less fearful of the natural world. Follett, however, is correct to state that the role played by urbanization in general and specific cities in particular is often neglected, and right to offer a corrective.
Each of the 40 cities identified by Follett is associated with a particular development. The first city covered is Jericho, and the theme is the shift away from hunter-gatherer arrangements toward the domestication of plants and animals that we call agriculture. The last city is San Francisco, which is associated with the digital revolution. Follett’s argument is not that San Francisco is a model city. Anyone who has visited San Francisco in recent years knows it has become a byword for severe dysfunctionality presided over by self-described urban progressives. Rather, Follett’s point is that “the area’s erstwhile achievements merit celebration.”
Some of the cities covered in Follett’s analysis are likely to be unknown to most readers. Uruk in the south of Iraq is an archaeological site that today is uninhabited. Four thousand years ago, in Bronze Age southern Mesopotamia, however, Uruk was a thriving commercial city that had developed extensive trade networks to make up for its lack of natural resources. But it was also a place in which accountants and recordkeepers started to develop pictographs to make more efficient the inventorying of goods. Those pictographs in turn developed into “nonpictorial symbols that represented concepts.” Such abstract symbols reduced some of the work of making detailed drawings. Those symbols further advanced to “represent the spoken sounds that people used to express those concepts.”
What is curious about this and similar turns of events associated with the cities detailed in the book is that few of them appear to have been planned, let alone ordained from the top-down. They emerged as creative responses over time to particular, often seemingly innocuous, everyday challenges. It was also the case that events sometimes intervened to spread the resultant knowledge such cities had to offer. The violence and economic turmoil that afflicted 15th-century Mainz in Germany was not good for the city. But that same carnage meant that the printmakers fleeing Mainz took with them a new technology called the printing press. The subsequent spread of that technology eventually helped to curb the power of the guilds and nobility whose conflicts had helped bring Mainz to its knees.
Not all the cities covered in this book are presented as being equally important in terms of their contribution to human progress. Nor does Follett engage in an equal-opportunity exercise. She does not suggest, for example, that every culture is as good as every other. By my count, 22 of the 40 cities that she discusses would be conventionally described as part of the West, while three of the others have been heavily subject to Western influences. Still, what readers will realize as they work their way through the cities identified by Follett are the ways in which much progress in Western countries owes a great deal to changes that occurred centuries beforehand in places ranging from Agra in modern-day India to Hangzhou in today’s China.
What, then, are the factors that Follett sees as common denominators in driving progress in these urban settings? One element is proximity. Cities are places that bring people—and their minds and creativity—together. When many people are in one place, conflict often occurs, but so does cooperation, conversation, the exchange of ideas, and chance encounters that lead to unanticipated positive outcomes. But the vital contextual ingredient that causes thriving, in Follett’s view, is when cities are also environments of liberty.
Of course, not all cities have always been free. Berlin was a very unfree place between 1933 and 1945, and its eastern half became a virtual prison from 1961 until 1989. Moscow and Beijing have, with a few blink-of-an-eye intervals, never been free. But when freedom does prevail in urban environments, exciting things can happen. Absent the set patterns of activity that often are part and parcel of rural life, men and women are freer to experiment, take risks, be entrepreneurial, or are simply more stimulated by the hustle and bustle around them to think and act differently.
“City air makes you free,” or so the German saying quoted by Follett goes. That is surely right, and something that can give us hope that the story of human civilization—and true progress—is not over.