Security and Urban Decline

According to Joel Kotkin, the survival of 21st century cities depends on shifting focus back to the primary function of government — protecting the lives and livelihoods of urban denizens:

Though current fashion is to blame causes such as energy, food and water shortages for urban decline through the centuries, the truth is that far more cities have fallen due to a breakdown in security. Whether the menace is internal disorder or external threat, history has shown repeatedly that once a city can no longer protect its inhabitants, they inevitably flee, and the city slides into decline and even extinction. While modern cities are a long way from extinction, it’s only by acknowledging the primacy of security — and addressing it in the most aggressive manner — that they will be able to survive and thrive in this new century, in which they already face the challenge of a telecommunications revolution that is undermining their traditional monopoly on information and culture, and draining their populations. . . . . It’s too early to tell how businesses or individuals might react over time if terrorist attacks were to become commonplace. But the historical record isn’t promising. Many of the earliest cities of antiquity — in places as dispersed as Mesopotamia, China, India and Mesoamerica — shrank and ultimately disappeared after being overrun by more violent, but often far less civilized peoples. As is the case today, the greatest damage was often inflicted not by organized states, but by nomadic peoples or even small bands of brigands who either detested urban civilization or had little use for its arts.

Kotkin provides an interesting perspective on the matter, viewing recent urban depopulation and economic decentralization trends in a greater historical context. He also challenges the currently in-vogue notion of “creative cities” (popularized by author Richard Florida) — the idea that the path to urban revitalization lies in becoming “hip and cool” and attracting young, creative residents:

The U.S. cities that have declined most precipitously and consistently — Baltimore and Detroit are obvious examples — are those plagued by the nation’s highest crime rates. Attempts by mayors in these cities to be “hip and cool” have not turned them around, in large part because they are still perceived as unsafe. Baltimore’s Mayor Martin O’Malley has cultivated an image of coolness for himself and encouraged other “cool” people, including singles and gays, to add to his city’s “creative class.” Yet as one Baltimore resident suggested to me recently: “What’s the point of being hip and cool if you’re dead?”

While cities do face numerous challenges that must be addressed — such as underperforming schools, a stifling regulatory climate, and aging infrastructure — Kotkin makes a valid point that cities cannot afford to take their eyes off their primary mission: providing a secure environment for citizens and businesses to pursue their livelihoods. He also wisely cautions that strategies matter; security policy that comes at the expense of personal freedom and privacy can have the unintended effect of degrading the urban quality of life. Read the whole thing. (via Planetizen)