What’s the point of Cities?

In a recent blog post, “What is Civilization?”, I put forward the proposition that the presence of cities was the main determinant of whether a society was “civilized” or not. But why are cities so important?

(By the way, by “city” I also mean towns, of course. The word “city” is simply a label given to some towns, for a variety of reasons. For now, let’s establish that we’re talking about any urban settlement which is larger than a village. In a future post I may have to tackle what exactly we mean by such terms as “towns”, “cities” and “villages”, but not just now).

The thing about towns and cities is that, quite simply, they are big and dense. They represent a large concentration of people, all living together cheek by jowl in a more or less crowded environment.

This is important, and particularly so in the past. It meant, for a start, that there were a lot of people to defend the community in times of threat. Once a wall has been built around it, a town is hard to capture; it needs a large and organized body of soldiers, an army, to do so, not a rabble or group of bandits.

Having a dense population in a confined space makes its members amenable to control by a group or leading individual. If the same number of people are scattered throughout several villages, it would be much harder to impose authority on them all.

This might sound rather negative, but all communal achievements depend on this fact – and indeed, the frictions of living so close to ones’ neighbours makes some measure of control and co-ordination a necessity if people are to live ordered lives.

By the same token, it is comparatively easy for a town, with its large population, to dominate the surrounding countryside. No individual village can stand against it for long. Towns, therefore, tend to become centres of power over a wider local area. This is very hard, maybe impossible, for an individual village to achieve.

Organized states – chiefdoms, kingdoms or republics – cannot really exist without towns. Moreover, if a number of towns grow up in a region, each with its local area of control, they become the building blocks for a larger state.

This also sounds a bit negative, especially for the villages concerned. Instead of being independent entities, they now find themselves under the heal of the neighbouring town (or rather, its rulers). However, these towns also perform at least two positive functions for the villages. First, they can act as the protector of the villages, since the villagers can now call upon their town to support them in dealing with bandits, brigands or even hostile villages. Failing that, a walled town can act as a refuge until trouble passes.

Secondly, towns act as markets for the surplus produce of the villages. This of course incentivises villagers to actually produce those surpluses in the first place, because now they can exchange them for other things. It also stimulates them to specialise in producing things which sell best, or which they can produce cheaper than other villages. In pre-industrial times, this usually meant using the natural resources to which a village had easy access, allowing its inhabitants to produce the relevant goods more cheaply than others.

In this way, the entire economic production of the locality was raised, as each village-area specialised in making available those things for which it was best suited. Without a local market, each village has to be entirely self-sufficient, producing all the necessities itself. Inevitably there will be some things which its soil or terrain finds hard to produce. Having a local market allows each village to get on with what it does best.

Not only so, the existence of local markets stimulates the growth of long-distance trade. Rather than peddling goods around a number of villages, a trader can now lay his wares out in the town’s marketplace, knowing that he’s got his purchasers right there, waiting to buy his goods. In economic terms, the “transaction costs” of doing business have been greatly reduced.

All this has the effect of stimulating craftsmanship and manufacture. Having a local market makes it feasible for specialists to make goods which otherwise would not be made – or to make more of them – because the cost and effort of selling them has been so greatly reduced. People with the right skills can specialise in certain crafts, rather than having to spend most of their time tilling their fields.

And then there’s the unquantifiable – but crucial – cultural dimension. With a lot of people living closely together, more ideas can emerge and be talked about. They can spread faster. The most skilled artists and craftsmen can set trends, and new styles of pottery, weaving and art can become established. Ideas and styles coming in from outside can be talked about, adopted and spread more easily.

All this means that cultural change takes place at a much faster rate where there are towns. Townspeople have always been the trend setters and villagers the more conservative folk. The story of the town mouse and the country mouse illustrates all this very well.

So, the emergence of towns made the coming of civilization possible; in fact, it made it inevitable.That’s why their appearance marks the start of recorded world history.


By Peter Britton