How cities can survive: Look to the Renaissance

September 04, 1997|By Joel Kotkin

LOS ANGELES -- The future of America's cities may lie in the urban past.

Instead of attempting to salvage the great mass-industrial centers of the 20th century, with their bulging populations, smokestacks and gleaming high-rise towers, today's cities would do better to emulate the cities of the Renaissance and the early modern period -- Venice, Florence and Amsterdam. These relatively small but dynamic urban centers created the forms, attitudes and patterns of commercial interaction that have shaped -- and continue to shape -- our civilization.

Rarely has the need for such a reassessment of urban strategies been more critical. Despite occasional hype about the ''comebacks'' of various cities, the reality of the 1990s has been a continuing out-migration of middle-class people, companies and opportunities from most urban centers. Gallup polls show a diminishing percentage of Americans -- as few as one in eight -- desiring to live in cities.

For cities to become appealing again, they must, as Japanese economist Jiro Tokuyama once observed, ''unlearn the secrets'' of their most immediate success. For nearly a century, cities grew according to a mass-industrial model, with economies based on large-scale manufacturing and the housing of vast corporate bureaucracies. Today, the cities most dependent on this model -- Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Newark -- are precisely those that have been shrinking most rapidly, in both population and economic importance. Since 1980, for example, Chicago has lost nearly 9 percent of its population; Detroit's has dropped by more than 17 percent.

By contrast, cities or parts of cities still serving the more traditional functions as centers of cross-cultural trade, artisanship and creativity -- San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York and West Los Angeles -- have performed markedly better. Their populations are relatively stable, and because of surging employment in high-end services, specialty manufacturing, entertainment and trade, they command among the highest rents and have the lowest office-vacancy rates in the nation.

Although these cities' commercial, artisan and creative activities have roots in the origins of urbanity in Mesopotamia, North Africa and the ancient Mediterranean, it was the great Renaissance cities that perfected these urban roles and helped lay the foundation for what historian Martin Thom has dubbed ''the age of cities.''

Venice, Florence and Genoa were essentially trading states that used their international connections to secure a lucrative role at the center of burgeoning commerce between the great cultures of the Levant and a still-awakening Europe. They also developed the second major pillar of urban economics -- a highly evolved craft-based economy. The Venetians divided up their neighborhoods along functional lines, with specific residential and industrial communities for ship building, munitions and glass-making.

Finally, the Renaissance city-states, with Venice in the lead, jTC benefited from the fostering of economic, technical and cultural contacts with the outside world, particularly the highly evolved societies of the early Islamic Middle East. This openness to outsiders was then, and remains today, one of the critical components of a successful urban economy.

With their diverse populations, huge trade complexes and design-based industries, Los Angeles, New York, Houston and San Francisco can fill these classic urban roles in the 21st century. Toward that end, their urban leadership must ''unlearn'' their success. The economic bulwarks of the 20th-century industrial city -- mass-production industries and giant corporate bureaucracies -- are shrinking in size and retreating to more pliant, less complex edge cities. Most surveys of corporate relocation suggest these trends will continue, even accelerate.

Faced with the loss of so much of their traditional economic base, cities increasingly must seek to exploit niches where they enjoy a comparative advantage. Ports, airports, rail lines -- the essentials of maintaining a role as a center of cross-cultural trade must be bolstered. At the same time, cities need to find better ways to stimulate growth of creative industries, such as multimedia, movies, television and theater.

City as a work of art

One critical element, understood instinctively by the Renaissance Italians, is the creation of the city as a work of art. Filled with pride in their accomplishments, the Venetians and their Renaissance rivals vied with each other in fashioning the most arresting urban landscapes.

Such cultural amenities help keep creative and educated populations from leaving. The appeal of cityscapes, interesting neighborhoods, museums and cultural attractions to such workers are among the reasons why West Los Angeles, lower Manhattan, San Francisco's South of Market district or downtown Seattle have nurtured burgeoning industries.

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