From guns and germs to ideal ecosystems: are cities the pinnacle of human organization?

In June 1975, travellers arriving to New York City were handed pamphlets by members of the police force. Their title, printed along a chilling illustration of a hooded skull, read “Welcome to Fear City”. These macabre “survival guides” may have exaggerated the city’s security problems and infuriated public officials, but they drew on unarguable facts. The number of murders in the city had doubled in the past decade, and crime rates altogether were rising. New York City’s shortcomings in the seventies reflected the ill-informed decisions of its elected officials, but also the obstacles that kept cities altogether from being desirable living spaces.

The rush to cities had begun as a necessity. For entrepreneurs in industrialized economies, cities provided a pool of readily available workforce as well as markets to sell their products. For workers escaping rural penury, urban centres offered unparalleled working opportunities. But this environment came with its costs: cities were also centres of rampant crime and disease, where living conditions were poor. In 1900, a boy born in New York City had a life expectancy of seven years less than one born elsewhere in the United States. It comes to no surprise, then, that when cars came into the picture, people were drawn out of cities and into suburban neighborhoods that promised a better quality of life. Workers could finally take advantage of the employment opportunities offered by urban areas without having to stomach their abysmal conditions. This seemed to be the end of cities.

NYPD “Fear City” Pamphlet

Time has proved that it wasn’t. Crime rates declined, access to clean water and sanitary services reduced the incidence of disease and, gradually, the downsides of demographic density were mitigated by the city’s benefits. Indeed, as urban areas helped spread germs, they also helped spread ideas. The relationship between innovation and urban density shows increasing returns: highly populated cities intensify human interaction and intellectual exchanges, creating a fertile breeding ground for innovation and technological breakthroughs. Urban centres also generate economies of scale, optimising environmental impact and infrastructure use. For Edward Glaeser, american economist and Harvard professor, they are humanity’s greatest invention: “humans are a destructive species”, he argues, and if we love nature we should stay away from it. Rural areas have less access to public transportation and longer distances to cover, leading people to rely on personal cars. Houses are also typically bigger outside of cities, needing higher electricity and heating consumption. As a result, people living in the countryside emit more carbon than those living in urban areas: perhaps counter-intuitively, cities are the most environmentally-efficient way of living in occidental societies.

“Spare me your sermons and I will fix your sewers”

– Teddy Kollek, Mayor of Jerusalem

Politically, they may be the ideal organization as well. In his book “If Mayors Ruled the World”, Benjamin Barber argues that cities have the potential to be paragons of good governance. Nation-States, he claims, are outdated – even where they succeed. They were born in an era of national societies, when the problems that the world faced were mostly contained by national jurisdiction. In today’s global world, in which supranational and transnational organizations often hold more power than individual governments, States no longer have the upper hand. On the contrary, he believes city mayors to be the most efficient public servants. Barber tells of a time when Jerusalem’s long-term mayor, Teddy Kollek, was confronted by Jewish, Muslim and Christian officials arguing about the access to the city’s Holy Sites. Cutting the discussion short, Kollek told them: “Spare me your sermons and I will fix your sewers”. Mayors focus on solving tangible, daily problems: keeping streets clean, keeping schools running, keeping constituents safe. This readiness to act leads to efficient solutions. Marty Walsh, Boston’s Mayor, can also vouch for this efficiency: “I was driving … and [I saw] a big pothole down on Park Street. I made a phone call and five minutes later it was filled”. Historically, cities were the first to take care of their constituents. In the United States, large scale municipal spending preceded large scale State spending, and both of them preceded large scale federal spending. At the start of the twentieth century, cities and towns across the US were spending as much on providing clean water as the federal government was spending on everything on its budget, except the post office and the army. Two world wars increased the country’s international role, and the impact of economic crises led the federal government to become an agent against recession and inequality. As a result, it was only in the first half of that century that the federal government dramatically increased its size. Tasks such as redistribution, anti-recessionary policies and waging wars, however, cannot be measured with such precise accounting as cleaning streets. As a result, city governments are not only deeply executive, they are also held more directly accountable for the results of their time in office.

As they need to represent their constituents without losing future votes, Mayors are also inherently bipartisan. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that whether a Democrat or a Republican is elected mayor, they tend to do the same thing. In short: there is no Democratic or Republican way to clean the streets. As a result, the political party of the administration does not affect crime rates, the size of the local government or its allocation of public spending. This can bring its own set of challenges. Neil Kraus, researcher at the University of Wisconsin, warns that this necessity to please can reinforce urban inequality. In Minneapolis, public schools used to distribute students so as to have some level of racial balance, complying with desegregation rules. That is, until increasing rates of poverty alarmed public officials. When they reached 20% of the city’s residents in 1990, policies started being designed to keep the middle class from leaving the city. Sharon Sayles Belton was elected mayor in 1993: following this trend, she advocated for a return to community-based schools, where students would be distributed according to their place of residence. The measure was widely supported by Minneapolis’ residents, but it quickly led to rising inequalities in student achievement between schools: lowest income neighborhoods, where most students came from racial minorities, displayed the lowest scores. Other cases across the US led Kraus to similar conclusions: popularly adopted decisions tend to illustrate and reinforce local patterns of inequality. While it goes without saying that such a problem can be shared by representative democracy as a whole, the increased accountability of local governments reinforces its incidence.

Whether they are considered as the pinnacle of human organization or simply as interesting subjects of study, cities definitely have potential. This leaves behind some fundamental questions: what cities should we strive to build and how should we build them? Whether we look as cities as built environments or we consider them as political systems, it is fundamental that we understand that such decisions are not neutral. They are deeply political, they reflect the type of society that we aspire to become and, with 55% of the world’s population living in urban areas, they have the potential to dramatically influence the future of humanity.

Malena Reali

Malena is a third year political sciences student at Sciences Po Paris, currently studying as an affiliate at University College London.

Her particular interests of study and research include political theory, feminism and latin american studies.



Benjamin R. Barber (2013) If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, Yale University Press

Diane E. Davis and Nora Libertun de Duren (2011). Cities and Sovereignty : Identity Politics in Urban Spaces, Indiana University Press

Edward Glaeser and Simon Jenkins (2015). “What are cities doing so right – and so wrong?

Edward Glaeser talks to Simon Jenkins”, The Guardian

Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko (2011) “Do Political Parties Matter? Evidence from U.S. Cities”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics

Kevin Baker (2015) “Welcome to Fear City’ – the inside story of New York’s civil war, 40 years on”, The Guardian

Luís M A Bettencourt and Dirk Helbing (2007). “Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Neil Kraus (2013) Majoritarian Cities : Policy Making and Inequality in Urban Politics, University of Michigan Press