Here on one of the shelves in my study in their bright colours of orange, yellow and green are the massive books produced by The City Project. This is an undertaking for the London School of Economics together with the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft run by Ricky Burdett, Deyan Sudjic and Philipp Rode. The City Project takes a world-wide view on mega cities and incorporates in their research cities like New York, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Berlin, followed in the next volume with Mumbai, Sao Paulo and Istanbul. The effort put in these books is difficult to compare with an individual effort like Cities in Civilization where hardly anyone will buy it for the illustrations. The Endless City draws attention by its fantastic photographs and visualizations. The intellectual effort is less interesting in the series of essays by various writers: a lot of what they have to say has already been said better elsewhere before.
“We do not know when a surplus of food first allowed the establishment of a community based on the division of labour in a large, self-contained settlement. Exactly when the first city came into being lies hidden in the depths of history. The early cities that that have been discovered by archaeologists show signs of already being fully developed. There seems to be hardly any difference between the problems they experienced and those of today’s big cities problems like waste disposal, drinking-water supply, epidemics, traffic noise, street fights after sports events, environmental pollution (…) Ancient Rome could be recognized from afar by its pall of smoke.” writes Wolfgang Novak in his essay in The Endless City. And he proceeds with: “The city is an expression of the ‘human quality’, like writing and religion. Civil liberty, science and the rule of law arose in cities. It was here that the foundations for modern states were laid. Compared with cities, nation states, are young’ enterprises that have yet to prove their viability.” As an explanation on why most authors on cities don’t want to look back more than ten centuries he comes with an explanation saying: “The urban world of the Roman Empire, which had produced so much culture and technology, was replaced by rural stagnation. As cities disappeared knowledge itself moved backward. The Roman cities prized skills, while the world of rural warriors and peasants rewarded a strong arm more than a trained mind. At the peak of Rome’s power Europe was on the world’s technological frontier, a worthy competitor with the advanced societies of China and India (…) in the great metropolises of Asia, urban proximity was pushing humanity forward while rural Europe stood still.” Nevertheless, what exactly was going on in these advanced societies of India and China is not very well documented, at least not in a way that it is relatively easy to find it. “A thousand years ago, Europe had only four cities with more than fifty thousand people, one of which was the last vestige of Roman power, Constantinople. The other three cities: Seville, Palermo, and Cordoba were all Islamic. The Islamic caliphates, which stretched from Persia to Portugal, created a new trading network that exchanged both goods and ideas over vast distances, and great cities emerged under the protection of powerful emirs and caliphs.“