What Next for Great Cities?

Fascinating piece by Prof Harold James:

the virus has fueled a search for alternatives to the high-cost megacities of the pre-pandemic era. For knowledge workers, technology makes remote employment attractive and easy, eliminating unpleasant commutes and the expenses of city life. Why not work and live wherever one wants?

Of course, revulsion to dangerous, overcrowded cities is nothing new. The most catastrophic pandemic on record, the bubonic plague in mid-fourteenth century Eurasia, prompted a similar flight. To read Boccaccio’s accounts of self-indulgent young Florentine aristocrats fleeing for the hills of Fiesole is to link past and present. In the event, the plague triggered a long-term shift and intensified the class conflict in Florence, as ordinary workers turned against the urban elite.

But the most striking historical parallel for the decline of megacities today is Venice. Well before the current crisis, Italian and European politicians frequently invoked the sinking lagoon city as an allegory for the absence of reform. As immortalized by Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, the city has long represented a universal predicament. After reaching the height of its fortunes in the late sixteenth century, it suffered a long decline, owing to shifting trade routes, new competition from poorer but more dynamic cities, and proximity to disease.

And yet, Venice could also be a model for the post-COVID megacity. As modern economic historians remind us, the city’s story is not just one of industrial and commercial collapse in the seventeenth century. Rather, production of the most iconic Venetian goods shifted to the hinterland – to smaller towns such as Treviso and Vicenza – leading the Venetian Republic to build a new political relationship with the surrounding territories.


Without competent management, megacities are bound to share the same fate as the great cities of the past. London and New York could sink in their own way. But, this time, there would be no renaissance in the hinterland.

I wouldn’t be so pessimistic about no renaissance…

2 Responses to “What Next for Great Cities?”

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