Fringes and layers: how do cities develop resilience


There is a collective intelligence, I mean a lot of us, humans, indulge in thinking how smart we are, and this collective intelligence strives to sustain long-term access to cappuccino, which, in turn, most frequently, requires the presence of cities, conveniently disposed across the landscape. The access to cappuccino is put in jeopardy by secondary outcomes of a new pathogen making itself comfortable in the social space made of human interactions. Some human interactions become riskier than others. At first, we think all human interactions are dangerous, we entrench and yield to fear. Then, both science and individual capacity to learn step in and allow defining those reasonably safe social contacts, conveying low risk of infection, and we start distinguishing them, more and more finely every month, from the risky human interactions. As a matter of fact, we had been doing it for millennia, and stopped just recently, around 1970, when widespread vaccination made us progressively forget the terror of typhoid, polio, tuberculosis etc. Before we started forgetting, we used to follow some simple principles. Hang out with people whom you know and can observe for the time sufficient for an infection to manifest itself. Come close to those who are manifestly healthy. Shake hands, hug, kiss, share kitchenware and have sex only with those whom you can expect to be like really healthy. When you need to make acquaintance with complete strangers, select those whom you can be introduced to (or who can be introduced to you, depends on the arrow on the vector) by a person from the former category of knowingly healthy persons in your social circle. When hanging out with strangers, use all kinds of Ninja tricks: veils, hats with large brims, scarves nonchalantly put around the lower part of the face, fancy silken or leather gloves etc. Arrange the space indoors so as to separate rooms with doors and curtains, whilst putting many windows in external walls. That allows partly independent circulation of air in separate spaces. If you happen to become someone important, like a prince or a wealthy merchant, a lot of people will have some business to talk to you about, and then be smart enough to receive their visit in a space with significant social distance, like you sitting on an ornate, elevated stool and them a few yards in front, lower than you and breathing into the floor, not in front of them. It is fascinating and bemusing, how similar is our present experience with COVID-19 to historically documented episodes of plague in European cities. Reading Daniel Defoe’s ‘Journal of The Plague Year’, published in 1665, offers a lot of interesting insights in that respect, including the problem of asymptomatic carriers (!).  

All those small smart details of daily life sum up to paying particular attention to epidemic risk. Each of us, average hominids knowing what a cappuccino is, become more and more likely to endorse social roles involving recurrent, predictable interactions with knowingly healthy people, and just a fringe of society, those lords Byron-like types, or the really-f**ked types, as a matter of fact, remain likely to step into shoes that require abundant, haphazard interactions   with people of unknown exposure to the pathogen currently in fashion. At the easily conceptualizable level, we strive to sustain systemic access to cappuccino – i.e. to sustain the market-based, open economy which we know just works – whilst progressively modifying our social roles so as to operate in closed social circles, with precisely defined points of contact with other circles, and barriers to contact with non-circled people.

Cities are demographic anomalies, and inside those anomalies the density of population is abnormally high. According to my research, the wealthier the country, and the greater the consumption of energy per capita in that country, the smaller the difference between urban density of population and the non-urban one. That difference shrinks down to a point, which looks like a threshold: developed social structures hardly descend below urban density of population twice as high as the general density of population (see Demographic anomalies – the puzzle of urban density). Cities define themselves, and this is one side of the coin. Throughout history, cities have been emerging in specific places because some people, dwelling in those places, wanted a city to be around. The other side of the coin is visible from space, i.e. from satellites: urban land displays a specific agglomeration of man-made structures visible during the day, and a high concentration of night-time lights. Once again, there is a threshold in that agglomeration of structures and lights, beyond which your average alien, observing Earth from a distance, could informingly say to another alien: ‘Look, Jkitths, they have a city over there! I wonder how much is a four-star hotel night’.    

Interestingly, the two sides of this coin usually don’t match. The stretch of land qualifiable as urban satellite-wise is usually larger than the officially proclaimed expanse of urban territory in that place. Cities usually define themselves inside a de facto urban territory, and ‘inside’ means there is a margin between the physical boundaries of that typically urban agglomeration of structures and night-time lights, on the one hand, and the legally defined boundaries of the city. Normally, cities define themselves by acknowledging the urban nature of a place, not by arbitrarily declaring a place urban. There are exceptions, such as the programme of new cities in Egypt (Attia et al. 2019[1]) or the founding of the city of Gdynia, in my native Poland, in 1926.

An interesting question emerges: to what extent does new epidemic risk, such as that generated by COVID-19, modify the objectively observable agglomeration of structures and night-time lights? On the other hand, how does epidemic risk affect the way that cities define themselves? Intuitively, I would say that acknowledged epidemic risk leads to spreading ourselves over a larger territory, i.e. to temporary slowdown in the speed of growth in the density of urban population, or even to a temporary reversal towards lower density.   

Life in the presence of epidemic risk had been city slickers’ daily bread for centuries, and yet cities have grown up from existing as demographic anomalies to being demographically dominant in our today’s civilisation (55,27% of mankind lived in cities in 2018).

In 2016, I visited Colchester , reputedly the oldest city in Britain. I was bemused to observe the contrast between something which, fault of a better expression, I can describe as multiple layers of being a city. There is that old castle, dating back to Middle Ages, surrounded by the Old Town. It all looks like a really old car with new covers on the seats. Really strange. In a wider radius around the old core, various types of peripheral structures stretch. There is the not-as-old-yet-quite-old a part, which I tentatively date at like the 18th century. There is a district which looks like a model industrial city from the 1970ies, i.e. an expanse of virtually identical, small terraced houses without apparent centre of gravity. There are patches of more modern buildings, like shopping malls or apparently recent residential blocks. There is the academic campus, displaying layers of its own: old concrete architecture from the 1970ies, combined with the most recent forms of wood and concrete structures (those latter ones look like Hobbiton, I swear). Colchester makes me think about people who have been resolute to be a city, in this specific place, and over centuries they were inventing and superimposing different ways and technologies to serve that purpose.

As I think about it, all the cities I know which have some solid history in them are like that. They are layered patchworks of physical structures. It is interesting. People who will come after us, centuries from now, are most likely to superimpose their urban structures over our contemporary ones, rather than put them somewhere else. Cities seem to be like cores of coagulation in civilization. Why? Why does it work this way? How does it apply to the possible adaptations of our urban space to the newly emergent epidemic risk?

As I read Adam Smith’s ‘Lectures on Justice’ (1766, published in 1896[2]), I realize that historically, cities have been allowed to make their own laws, and that legislative power has been so prominent over centuries that some classics of legal sciences, such as, for example, Herbert Hart, use the expression ‘municipal law’ to designate national legal systems, as opposed to international law. For centuries, cities have been largely defining themselves as demographic anomalies endowed with idiosyncratic, local institutions and jurisdictions. As a matter of fact, the last two centuries have seen a progressive transfer of those legislative powers from cities to national governments.

The impression that cities make is not necessarily identical with their real size and importance. In Richard Cantillon’s ‘Essay on Commerce’ , dating from 1755, we can find the following claim: ‘It is generally supposed that half the inhabitants of a State subsist and have their homes in the town, the other half in the countryside’. Yet, in Fernand Braudel’s ‘Civilisation and Capitalism’, we can find a completely different estimation, namely some 16% of the French population being urban in mid-18th century. What we think is urban, around us, is not necessarily as urban as we think.

Sometimes, cities define their own existence in strange, apparently counterintuitive places, such as the city of Mulhouse AKA Mulhausen, in Alsace, France.  According to Albert Metzger (Metzger 1883[3]), the city of Mulhouse was just in the middle of a territorial conflict since its very beginnings, around the year 1150. Founding a city there was economically logical, with the proximity of the river Rhine, and yet, politically, it was like asking for trouble. On some occasions, such risky locations turn into permanent failures. If one day you visit the city of Frombork, in Northern Poland, where Nicolaus Copernicus wrote his book ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’, you will immediately understand why he was so much into writing this book. Besides the big cathedral, whose estate Nicolaus Copernicus was in charge of, there is hardly anything else there. Yes, there is a commercial port, and quite an old one, by the way, still the city founders were obstinate to locate that port, and make it prosper, between two other big ports: Gdansk and Elblag. As soon as Frombork had established any kind of presence in the trade across the Bay of Gdansk, one of those two big neighbours (sometimes both) would send an armed expedition in order to explain the delicate nuances of trade in a small market. It was like trying to start a small electronic business in a market, where you have just Tesla and General Electric. Doomed to fail. Never been much of a city, Frombork. Ambitions are not enough. The final ‘and yet’ of the story, though, is that despite all the false starts and adversities, Frombork has kept being a city, and it technically still is a city, although it looks like a village with a big church in the middle.

When cities grow and give birth to new social roles, some of those social roles are ugly. This is the dark side of urbanisation: the growth of crime. Here comes an interesting book, written by William Howe and Abraham Hummel, and equipped with arguably one of the longest titles in the history of literature: ‘Danger! A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations. The Veil Lifted, and Light Thrown on Crime and its Causes, and Criminals and their Haunts. Facts and Disclosures’ (Howe & Hummel 1886). The book focuses on the city of New York – which can be safely deemed as the Incredible Hulk of urban expansion – and shows, in a casual and completely non-scientific way, how cities allow the burgeoning of social pathologies in many ways. Cities provide good shelter against weather, and thus allow the phenomenon of slumming: people living technically indoors, but not quite, some of them just sometimes, some of them homeless and yet not as much exposed to the dangers of sleeping outdoors as they would be in the countryside. You need to be tough like boot to be homeless in Siberia, but all you need in order to be homeless in Paris is a bad divorce or depression.

Cities give shelter to people who could hardly survive, and certainly not thrive in the countryside. Cities give opportunities to sociopaths and psychopaths, too, and this is another thread explored by Howe and Hummel. The abnormally high density of population in cities offers unusual opportunities to people with deranged personalities, prone to violence and manipulation. They can grow as kingpins, or seconds thereto. In the countryside they would much more likely expect the local community to put an end to their vile life through a completely accidental fire in their house.      

An interesting, recent article by Kostas Mouratidis (Mouratidis 2019[4]) suggests that cities develop and change through a cyclical sinewave in the density of urban population. As density grows, in the presence of relatively constant technological base, subjective well-being of city dwellers decreases, and they sprawl around. As they radiate towards comfortable suburbs, said suburbs lose much of their charm, and, with time, living in those suburbs boils down to spending more time in traffic jams. The phenomenon, known as urban sprawl, creates potential energy for a reverse movement, from peripheries back to the city centre, and that movement comes along with significant technological change, mostly in technologies accessible to the average city slicker in the form of urban infrastructure.   

I found at least one author who develops a path of research similar to mine: I am talking about Sir Peter Hall (Hall 2000[5]; Hall 2003[6]). He argues that cities give peculiar incentives to the emergence of cultural industries, i.e. industries marked by quick race for dominant position, based on creativity and innovation. Emergence is different from continuous development: Peter Hall observes, with the example of selected British cities, that creative industries tend to be an economic fringe in cities, rather than the mainstream of business. There seems to exist a threshold of 5% share in the city’s GDP, which creative industries can grow within. Anything over and above those 5% is apparently doomed to disappear shortly. Interestingly, that creative fringe of economic life in cities tends to specialize. Peter Hall names three big, typical vectors thereof: art (e.g. Paris, Florence), industry (e.g. Silicon Valley or Manchester), and finally urban creativity in itself (once again, Paris comes as an example, although places like Vienna or Prague seem to fit the same mould).

New social roles emerge in cities due to the phenomenon of emergent fringes. Cities allow significant growth at the tails of statistical distribution. Fringe patterns of behaviour can thrive, both as creative industries, and as social pathologies. This is how cities adapt and stay resilient to exogenous disturbances, epidemic risk included. I intuitively feel that cities of today will be adapting to the pandemic of COVID-19 in a similar way: fringe behaviours will emerge, both at the desirable creative end of the spectrum spread over the scale of ethical values, and at the undesirable end of social pathologies. The latter seem to be attached to the former, like the price of progress. Probably, we will temporarily spread in space: urban sprawl will advance for a certain time. We will be seeking more space around us, so as to reduce epidemic risk, and a new generation of technologies, such as vaccines, testing and decontamination, is likely to counter that sprawling propensity, bringing city dwellers a bit more densely together, one more time. 

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[1] Attia, S., Shafik, Z., & Ibrahim, A. (2019). New Cities and Community Extensions in Egypt and the Middle East. Springer Berlin Heidelberg,.

[2] Smith, A. (1896). Lectures on justice, police, revenue and arms: Delivered in the University of Glasgow. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[3] Metzger, A. (1883). La république de Mulhouse, son histoire, ses anciennes familles bourgeoises et admises à résidence, depuis les origines jusqu’à 1798. Henri Georg.

[4] Mouratidis, K. (2019). Compact city, urban sprawl, and subjective well-being. Cities, 92, 261-272,

[5] Hall, P. (2000). Creative cities and economic development. Urban studies, 37(4), 639-649.

[6] Hall, P. (2003). Cities in civilization: culture, innovation and urban order. Journal of Irish Urban Studies, 2, 1-14.

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