Great Antidote Extra: Chelsea Follett on Cities that Changed the World

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October 25, 2023

Some of the most important progress in human history comes through the solutions to lowly problems: Clean water. Clean air. Clean laundry. Light to see by. Access to fresh food. Humble progress is progress. 
When progress feels uncertain, it can be useful to take stock and see how far we’ve come. Juliette Sellgren interviewed Chelsea Follett, managing editor of the Cato Institute’s and author of the book Centers of Progress: 40 Cities that Changed the World to talk about the places where leaps in progress have happened. Listen to the episode here

Follett stumbled upon the fact that leaps forward for humanity tend to happen where people are concentrated—she notes that many settlements in her book wouldn’t be considered large enough to qualify as a city today. But historically, with far fewer people, cities were smaller, too.

I wish I could give a copy of the book to Jane Jacobs, who practically defined cities as the places where progress would happen. In her 1969 The Economy of Cities, Jacobs defines a city as “A settlement that consistently generates its economic growth from its own local economy.”  

The places where people gather and are free to interact with each other are crucial to the history of humanity. It may even have been the gathering of people and their economic activity that allowed people to settle in large communities. 

Like Follett, Jacobs sees a large role played by cities (productive economic settlements) in the birth of agriculture. Jacobs believes that the economies of the first cities sprung from the activity of traders meeting in the same spot repeatedly. The location of settlements might be determined by other things, but the locations of cities were determined by whether they were good places to trade. 

Jacobs theorized that traders bringing in grains could have provided the biological diversity that allowed for domestication over and above what could have been achieved by natural selection via seeds’ natural dispersal by wind, water, and animals. The surplus grain from far-flung locations that could have been planted would have been available to store and sow because of the increased production through trading rather than subsistence hunting and gathering of edible seeds. 

Follett, in her chapter on Jericho, also tells the story of a city to give us insight into the birth of agriculture. Jericho was a place where hunter-gatherers would have settled because of its freshwater springs, and it could have been where people first started trying to cultivate edible plants around the oasis. The details are lost to history (we’re talking something like 7000BC (says Jacobs) or 9000BC (says Follett), but settlements in the Fertile Crescent are generally thought to be where agriculture first appeared. 

Follet offers stories of 40 cities, covering a range of what she calls “non-controversial” progress: “Whatever empirically seems to be bettering human wellbeing, whether that's more people gaining access to electricity, poverty falling, people living longer, infants being less likely to die, prosperity, increasing literacy, increasing education rates, increasing better legal equality, women being allowed to vote” (time stamp 5:00).

Sellgren also asks about other fun facts Follett might have come across in her research, and here we also find insight that Jacobs would have appreciated. 

Follett appreciated learning that steam power was discovered in ancient Athens but never applied to work. It was instead a novelty, used for what Adam Smith might have called a “trinket of frivolous utility”. Despite this phrasing, Smith thought that our love for artful but frivolous objects was economically crucial. Sellgren and Follett suggest why this might be: “When you have more people gathered together, able to freely engage in the exchange of ideas and debate one another and collaborate and compete and exchange knowledge, you are more likely to make those sorts of realization that you just hit upon something that could change the world.” (time stamp 20:15)

More people means more chances to interact and experiment, more chances to see economic or innovative potential in whatever neat trick someone comes up with next. And cities were most often where there was freedom to allow that experimentation in the first place. 

But not always. Jacobs talks about the disparity between how water was brought to Rome and how it was brought to Romans. Ingenious and continuously improved aqueducts brought water to Rome. Fountains and hydrants brought water to Roman neighbourhoods. 

And then slaves brought water to Roman households. 

It wasn’t a matter of technology. Public baths had indoor plumbing that heated and circulated water. Some wealthy households had indoor plumbing on their ground floors. Rome also boasted plenty of trinkets of frivolous utility powered by water.

It was a matter of what Follett tries to draw attention to in her book: freedom in the city. 

Indoor plumbing would have saved the labour of Roman water slaves. Slaves also carried out wastewater and sewage, so Roman ingenuity was not applied to this problem of public sanitation. “The slaves themselves were not free to develop their work by building plumbing systems nor could they even experiment with such possibilities.” 

In one of her most beautiful observations, Jacobs puts it best: “When humble people, doing lowly work, are not solving problems, nobody is apt to solve humble problems…When some people in an economy are forestalled from solving practical problems, but others doing other work are not, the solutions to practical problems become strangely lopsided and problems accumulate.”

Some of the most important, non-controversial progress in the history of humanity has come through the solutions to, instead of the accumulation of, lowly problems: Clean water. Clean air. Clean laundry. Light to see by. Access to fresh food. Humble progress is progress. And so freedom matters to everybody.

Want to Read More?
Ryan Muldoon's Freedom is Different People: Cities & Inclusive Freedom
Gerald Gaus’s book The Open Society and its Complexities
Kyle Swan’s Three Cheers for Adam Smith's Cities
Sarah Skwire's Adam Smith on the Country-City Debate
Andrew Smith's On the Development of Communities