Levelling Up the United Kingdom (UK government white paper, February 2022) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/levelling-up-the-united-kingdom
Carcassonne, board game by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede (2000)
Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs (1984)
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver (1974)
My grandfather rarely made requests. He avoided dirtying his shoes, his tweed trousers were immaculately pressed by his wife without him having to ask, and he read the newspaper every day. But it was at his request that we had wound round and round French hillsides, with their attendant car sickness, and now sat, cooped up in the old Ford Cortina, on a bend in a road, listening to the creak of the windscreen wipers and staring out at a world of rain. Down there, distant, and intermittent between the slashing of the wipers, materialised out of the mist slate-grey conical roofs, the party hats of towers. My mother and grandfather got out into the rain so as to swap places, so that he could sit in front and get a better view, such as it was, while Granny squawked ‘George! Your raincoat!’
Sitting for a change in the front seat, amidst the fumes of petrol and sick, my grandfather gazed down at the gear stick and began to recite poetry in a husky sigh. I don’t know what the verses were. I only know they ended, ‘Carcassonne!’
Grandpa might have been reciting Mary Sherwood’s translation of Gustave Nadaud’s poem about a hardworking peasant farmer who wished to see those towers before he died:
“How old I am! I’m eighty years! I’ve worked both hard and long;
Yet patient as my life has been, One dearest sight I have not seen,
— It almost seems a wrong.
A dream I had when life was new; Alas, our dreams! they come not true;
I thought to see fair Carcassonne,– That lovely city,–Carcassonne!
“One sees it dimly from the height Beyond the mountains blue,
Fain would I walk five weary leagues,– I do not mind the road’s fatigues,
— Through morn and evening’s dew;
But bitter frost would fall at night; And on the grapes,–that yellow blight!
I could not go to Carcassonne, I never went to Carcassonne.
In 1972, eight years earlier than our family holiday, Italo Calvino published his Invisible Cities. Among his bejewelled collection is the city of Irene:
Travelers on the plateau, shepherds shifting their flocks, bird-catchers watching their nets, hermits gathering greens: all look down and speak of Irene. At times the wind brings a music of bass drums and trumpets, the bang of firecrackers in the light-display of festival…. Those who look down from the heights conjecture about what is happening in the city; they wonder if it would be pleasant or unpleasant to be in Irene that evening. Not that they have any intention of going there (in any case the roads winding down to the valley are bad)…. It is of slight importance: if you saw it, standing in its midst, it would be a different city; Irene is a name for a city in the distance, and if you approach, it changes….
Irene, by Johanathan Pellitteri, 2015, concrete, tar paper, aluminium
Calvino’s cities materialise out of aspects of the human mind: desire, memory, exchange and language. His cities are magnetic, fascinating, entrapping. This strikes me as a continental sensibility. In so much of our history here in England, the inhabitants of London and other cities seem to have been holding their noses and their breath, enduring till they could get enough money together to be catapulted back out into the land, plant gold into roses and potatoes, cosy cottages and country seats.
But then an ambitious farmer or country gent, ogling the neighbours, gets to dreaming of gold, and is sucked back into the vortex of the city. Another poem about Carcassonne seems to see urban battlements rising up from roots in rural hard work, rivalry and ambition. Perhaps it was this poem that Grandpa recited in the Ford Cortina with the rain drumming:
Across the fields, at dawn
Roy Perkins’ silos shine
Like gleaming towers of Carcassonne.
A ray of morning sun
strikes up across the new ploughed ground
And turns my towers to gold.
Oh shining towers of Carcassonne!
(J Raleigh Nelson from ‘Sketches from Sunny Pastures’)
It is the money-making aspect of cities that plays out in Klaus-Jürgen Wrede’s boardgame Carcassonne (2000). In fact, so powerful are cities at making money in this game that a farmer has only to lie down in his field beside one and he wins his player points! (The dream of every farmer in the Green Belt, if only their land could be awarded planning permission…..)
I’ve been enjoying the Christmas gift of Carcassonne. It works as a game for two or more, so I can play it with my 9 year old. It has that pleasing combination of a little strategy, a little luck and visual patterns, as you gradually build up a generic map of mediaeval Europe, with fortified towns, monasteries, roads, bridges and the odd vegetable garden. You can make money in the countryside if you are a highwayman, or an abbot, but, contrary to what the poetry of the time might have suggested, knights and farmers only really make money when they’re involved in completing a city.
I feel that the inventor of this game must have read Jane Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Polymath and campaigner for urban neighbourhoods in New York and Toronto, Jacobs wrote this convincing and still under-used guide to economic health in 1984, just twelve years after Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
Jacobs similarly takes the breath away with her gung-ho approach to urbanisation. According to Cities and the Wealth of Nations, pretty much all economic life is created by one city sparking life into another. The countryside is abject poverty and dearth of imagination. If they had imagination there, they would be a city. Agriculture is healthy and diverse when it is near a city. She cites urban conurbations as far-flung as Tokyo and Toronto to support her thesis.
The whole of Western Europe’s economic development in the previous millennium is down to the fact, says Jacob, that a few enterprising salt peddlers in the marshes of the Veneto began trading with Constantinople, just in time, before the economic fire in that ex-imperial city had finally burnt itself out. Those marginalised people, pushed off the good agricultural land, created Venice, and Venice created Europe.
For Jacobs, Armageddon is the gradual dying off of cities, which she pictures like lights going out one by one:
Suppose, hypothetically, that the world were to behave like a single sluggish empire in decline. Such a thing could happen, if cities in too many places stagnated simultaneously or in quick succession… If global city stagnation ever does occur, it will inexorably cause economic life everywhere to stagnate and deteriorate, and there will be no way out: no existing vigorous cities to intervene, no young cities arising while they still have opportunity to do so. If that were to happen, we may be sure that as the practice of developing city economies vanished, the memory of how the thing is done would vanish too, and after that, belief that it could be done by perfectly ordinary people would no longer be credited… Indeed, it is not credited in much of the world even today. Isolated hamlets, bypassed countries like Ethiopia, would become the norm. Everywhere, all would become morosos, those without hope. We all have our nightmares about the future of economic life; that one is mine. (P.134)
Jacobs points out that Ethiopia BC and Europe in the early centuries AD had prosperous cities, but later lost the markets and forgot the skills. It can happen. (Author Philip Reeves solves this problem in his futuristic trilogy Mortal Engines by putting cities onto wheels. They then set about hunting each other….)
How do we know if a city is healthy or declining? Jacobs says it’s all down to ‘import replacement’. In fact import replacement is such a key driver for her I’m wondering why it isn’t in the A-level Economics syllabus. Economists, she would argue, have become all about measuring activity but not about discerning its origins.
Healthy, growing cities find ways to replace what they are importing. They make goods for themselves that previously they imported, leading to new and different imports and the ability to export goods on to other cities, who, if healthy, will then start the same process. In the course of manufacturing goods that were previously imported, cities develop myriad small businesses and myriad skills, which then combine and re-combine to make other products, hitherto unknown.
If cities do not manage to replace their imports, they are doomed. Perhaps in this context we can contrast Liverpool and Glasgow with Birmingham and Manchester. The former acted as gateways for commodities but did not add value and have since declined catastrophically from their nineteenth century glory while Birmingham and Manchester show more flexibility and inter-relate with larger hinterlands.
To aid ailing cities with hand-outs, such as the centrally funded micro finance included in the current government’s Levelling Up agenda, is, says Jacobs, to engage in ‘transactions of decline’. These transactions may be necessary politically, to hold countries together, but they do not turn around a regional economy. She draws on copious evidence at city, region and nation levels to show that aid does not work as an economic tool – which is not in any way to disparage its other aims, of relieving suffering or keeping the peace.
Either you make your own fortune or you don’t have a fortune. That is how it is. (Or is this the old Protestant work ethic talking?)
But certain circumstances make it easier for cities to flourish. One key factor is self determination. If cities can govern themselves, set their own taxes, strike their own currencies, put up and take down their own protective customs barriers, then they can respond more flexibly to the economic circumstances around them. Examples of this sort of success are Singapore today, HongKong in recent times, Trieste and Rijeka, when they were free cities of the Austro-Hapsburg Empire and, Italian city states in the Renaissance, the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, and so on.
The central tenet of the book is that nation states are not economies. Cities are economies. States therefore usually contain several economies but, within a nation state, most cities begin to die off in favour of just one. This is partly because the country’s exchange rate comes increasingly to reflect the trade of the most powerful city. Looking at the UK, our interest rates remain a little high in order to keep the pound strong which benefits the City of London but not manufacturing.
Jacobs’ title, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, is of course a deliberate reference to Adam Smith of Edinburgh’s influential work on how trade can create win-win relationships. Smith’s treatise, The Wealth of Nations, is right about trade, says Jacobs, but wrong in seeing nations as economic units. In attempting to measure and influence so-called ‘national economies’, politicians and academics are fighting a chimera.
Jacobs’ work can be useful to Smith’s countrymen, as she favours devolution and self determination. The UK government’s Levelling Up agenda errs in seeing central government as part of the solution: it is more likely part of the problem. Allowing city councils to set their own council tax and business rates and to develop the economy of city and hinterland in their own ways is what will work.
Jacobs recommends ‘Drift’, letting things happen rather than over-planning. Her final chapter on the subject of ‘Drift’ emphasises the role of playfulness, invention and serendipity. Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese for firework displays. The first railway was an amusement ride in London. Oil wells were originally drilled for lamp oil. Later electricity was invented and found a new use for all that oil. Linked to this idea is the attention economy, and the trend of the last few decades where city economies have developed through links with their universities. Examples: Cambridge, Leeds, possibly Sheffield. And then there are cities that live on, purely because they so besot our fancy. Las Vegas, Venice, Carcassonne.
The forces that Jacobs notices can be well illustrated in Carcassonne which, from Roman times if not before, was an important fortified town positioned on trade routes that linked the Mediterranean with the Atlantic seaboard. It flourished right through the Middle Ages as a trading post and scene of religious strife before France was united into one nation. It then had a life as a fortified border town, until the French border was pushed further south. It continued to be successful at manufacturing woollen cloth, selling to the Ottoman empire, but its fortunes failed at the end of the eighteenth century when that trade with Turkey collapsed. It became just a local county town and only poor citizens remained living within its splendid walls. However, in the nineteenth century, the Parisian architect Viollet-le-Duc, in love with romantic notions of the Middle Ages, recreated the city as a gothic dream to inspire the yearnings of tourists and poets; thus restoring property prices within the city walls.
There remains an element of uncontrollable and unknowable mystery within even our economic life, no matter how hard we labour and how carefully we count our coins. The world’s real cities, our economic drivers, are not so far in nature from Calvino’s imagined ones, however fantastical they may appear at first reading. Calvino’s Argia is entirely below ground, Thekla is in a constant state of construction, driven by a fear of destruction; Esmeralda is a city of routes, feet pattering along canals and balconies or swallows swooping through the air; Raissa is two cities, a wholly happy one and an utterly grieving one, intertwined; Eudoxia is a mess and yet there is a map on a carpet which can guide you, although the map is tidy and the city is messy. Perinthia was designed to be entirely propitious following the guidance of the best astronomers and has produced nothing but deformity among the inhabitants, posing the question whether deformity was what the stars intended… And somewhere in the collection is a city suspended from columns by webs – but I can no longer find it.
These cities are described by the Venetian trader Marco Polo to the conqueror Kubla Khan, so that he can know the jewels of his vast empire. But the two men have no language in common. Polo must convey all this complexity through gestures, which trigger what the emperor already knows in his heart about his territories, or about human life. Later they let chess pieces stand for the different factors that can go to make a city, and they play the game together. Every pattern on the board stands for a city that exists, or has existed, or could exist.
Who will win the game? The warrior or the merchant?