“Kingdoms fall for luxury, for virtues cities prosper.” — inscription at the base of Donatello’s statue of Judith and Holofernes
The comings and going of empires have been recorded in stone, from Ancient Egypt to the British in the nineteenth century. As the British Empire rose, the poet Percy Shelley wrote of the inscription found on ancient ruins associated with the Pharaoh Ramses II (Ozymandias, in Greek):
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”
The city gone and all that was left of the great empire of Ramses II were a few ruins. The sun has more recently set on the British Empire as well. Large polities have an inevitable ‘hidden poison’ (to borrow a phrase from the eminent historian Edward Gibbon) which undermines their power. Sustained cultural and individual flourishing can best be achieved through the creation and maintenance of smaller states. The greatest triumphs of civilization were, indeed, cosmopolitan. However, they depended on borders just as much as they depended on the semi-permeable nature of those boundaries. Scale was also important. Empires tend to become ‘Tower of Babel’-like superstructures which undermine, rather than promote, the individual.
A handful of city-states gave the West its greatest political, cultural, and artistic achievements. Western Civilization was born out of a struggle between the city-states of Greece and the Empire of Persia. The various city-states of antiquity gave a solid foundation for societies which balanced development of the individual with civic responsibility. Though an empire, Rome inherited enough from Greece, added its own innovations (the republican constitutional government) and contributed to the greatest civilization of the ancient world. The Italian Renaissance developed out of an environment (albeit a fragile one) of local government, civic virtue, and humanism. Theodore Dalyrmple notes the artistic production of Renaissance Florence — note the sheer magnitude.
“It is more or less incontestable that the artistic production of mediaeval and renaissance Florence, with a population a seventh of that of contemporary Akron, Ohio, or a quarter of that of Croydon, was of greater value than that of the whole of the western world, with a population 7000 times greater at least, for the last seventy years.” — Theodore Dalrymple
In terms of planning, limited is probably best. The Tuscan models mostly seem to be based around a central piazza (or several if big enough) and sprawl out from there. Planning should probably be left to the builders themselves. Planned towns rarely turn out to be particularly efficient and are rarely as breathtaking as Pienza. Organic, people-centric urban development tends to be the most effective, longest-lasting, and antifragile type of city.
“Both Rome and Athens were irregular cities without “master plans.” Their subject cities (colonies) however, were not. In essence: A free people will build organic cities. A dependent people will inhabit the planned grid iron city handed to them.” -Wrath of Gnon, Twitter
Organic, people-centric cities with robust local economies and constructed around the actual needs of the local inhabitants would also be less costly on the environment.
“ I want dumb cities: dumb as bricks. I want anti-fragile human scaled dumb cities. I want cities so dumb they can be run by high school kids and a bunch of 90 year olds. I want cities so dumb they can survive without oil and solar panels and distant water processing plants.” -Wrath of Gnon
In Tokugawa Japan, Edo (present-day Tokyo) was one of the most environmentally-conscious cities in the history of human civilization. In Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, Azby Brown covers in great detail advanced recycling systems, utilizing natural light, awareness of the life cycle of common objects (such as using old straw sandals for fertilizer), use of trees and green spaces, and organic development. Edo (Tokyo) was not a planned city. It grew from a modest fishing village to meet the demands of the increasing numbers of people who moved there after Tokugawa Ieyasu made it the base of his operations. Many castle towns in Japan developed similarly — organic sprawl with the center of town built around the local lord’s castle.
Though Tokugawa Japan was not a city-state, it was a proto-federal system whereby the local rulers had a significant degree of power. This allowed cities to flourish and led to long-term developments (such as increasing literacy) which made the nineteenth century Meiji Restoration as successful as it was.
The key to the city-state’s success as a political unity rests in both the bottom-up nature of robust local governments and the development of the individual. The purpose of the polity is to give rise to the individual. A proper individualism is not one independent of groups. Rather, it is one in which a person is able to transcend the group — that is, masters the skills of a given group and go beyond. Such is the case with successful individual in families, in trades, and in polities. Bottom-up political developments in smaller states better allow for individual development because of the size of the state. States which are too large become either overly bureaucratic (and, thus anti-individualistic) or authoritarian (top-down centralization, as was the case in ancient Rome and with every Chinese dynasty).
City-states are not without their shortcomings. The great city-states of Renaissance Italy were conquered by various empires or each other. Florence, for example, conquered the Republic of Siena. The Florentine Republic was not maintained — it became a duchy, then a grand duchy before being absorbed into the Habsburg Empire in the eighteenth century. The Republic of Venice lasted until the 1797, when it was conquered by Napoleon.
The Republic of Venice lasted for over a thousand years, far longer than most states throughout history (three times as long as many of the longer-lasting Chinese dynasties). The Most Serene Republic of San Marino, founded in the fourth century, remains both the world’s oldest surviving republic and one of the longest-surviving polities in the world today.
The origins of the following can be found in city-states/local bottom-up polities: philosophy, representative government, nascent capitalism, efficient architecture, and ideas of individualism. The sun has not only set on the British Empire. Even a cursory look at the history of human civilizations will show that, with regard to the greatest achievements of our civilizations, the sun has set on the idea that large, top-down polities are anything but vehicles which move people toward greater oppression.