Images: Tina Tiller
Images: Tina Tiller

The Sunday EssayMarch 17, 2024

The Sunday Essay: How we make great cities, and how cities make us great

Images: Tina Tiller
Images: Tina Tiller

Seven thousand years ago, the world’s first city was born. New Zealand is still learning its lessons.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

The anchor splashed through the waves, sinking deep into the great harbour of Tara. Wind and rain hammered the sides of the ship. Its hull creaked from the brunt of 126 days at sea. 

On January 20, 1840, the Aurora set anchor just off Matiu/Somes Island, carrying 148 British settlers, the first organised European immigration by the New Zealand Company. The storm continued to rage for two days before they could make it to shore. When the conditions finally turned, there was a mad scramble for Petone beach. Row boats ferried passengers aboard, frantically tossing possessions onto the land. Māori from Pito-one Pā, led by Te Puni, helped get people ashore and built makeshift houses. 

It was a brief moment of harmony; two peoples supporting each other. It wouldn’t last. Te Puni eventually realised the New Zealand Company lied to him about the nature of land sales and just how many Pākehā were on their way. The British settlers also felt betrayed by the company: the land they were sold was in the floodplains of the Hutt River. After the waters wiped out most of the original settlement, the settlers picked up sticks and moved to the other side of the harbour, to the current site of Wellington.

That chaotic day on Petone beach was the start of an ambitious project, a rag-tag group of people trying to do something that had never before been done on New Zealand shores: build a city. New Zealand was the last significant landmass ever populated by humans. It had never played host to a city. The largest human settlement before then was probably the pā on Maungakiekie in Tāmaki Makaurau, which housed about 5,000 people in the 17th century. 

Most of the British settlers had never lived in a city either. The majority were picked because they had experience as rural labourers and knew how to work the land. Creating a city from scratch was a huge task, and none of them really knew what they were doing. 

Even 184 years later, Wellington is still in the very early stages of this immense, continually evolving project. Compared to the century- and millennia-old cities which dominate the world’s economy and culture today like London, Beijing and New York, Wellington (like all New Zealand cities) is a mere toddler, taking its first shaky steps towards urbanisation. 

Wellington’s new District Plan marks the next step for a city that is slowly growing into its ambition to be a global city of impact. The evolution from large provincial towns to truly urban, high-functioning cities is New Zealand’s greatest economic challenge of the 21st century. It’s the step that will take us from an economy based on agriculture and natural resources to one based on productive high tech and creative industries. To help chart our way forward, it’s worth looking back to the birth of cities. 

Seven thousand years ago, on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq, humans were grappling with the promises and challenges of cities for the very first time. The world’s first city (depending how you define it) was named Uruk. 

Archaeologists are still uncovering Uruk’s stories, but we know it was the centre of a vast, prosperous trade network, with enormous central markets. There was a large class of bureaucratic officials who managed city business. There is evidence of mass production, with an industry manufacturing thousands of clay bowls. It was an agricultural juggernaut, with huge canals and irrigation projects, capable of growing a food surplus to feed the entire city population, and keep stockpiles for bad seasons. 

Uruk generated more resources than its residents could have accumulated individually. It was a world of new possibilities: novel foods and clothes, new forms of entertainment and different kinds of jobs. Even people who lived outside Uruk’s walls benefited from its manufacturing, markets, ports and agricultural systems. 

Cities, according to Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, are “man’s greatest invention”. They are the most powerful engine of trade, production, collaboration and social mobility ever created. “There is a near-perfect correlation between urbanisation and prosperity across nations,” he wrote in his book, Triumph of the City. 

After Uruk was born, other cities started popping up with increasing speed across Mesopotamia. Great cities also developed independently in India, China and the Americas. Humans are social animals. We are more likely to survive in the wild as part of a tribe than alone. The larger the tribe or community, the more support it provides. Cities are just the natural extension of that. When we create systems that allow as many humans as possible to collaborate in relative harmony, people tend to thrive. In the same way that bees create hives, humans create cities. They are the human habitat. 

So, when exploring the foundations of cities and how to build a great one, it makes sense to ask: what is a city? It’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. There is no consistent definition other than a human settlement of some notable size. Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin each claim to be New Zealand’s “first city” for different technical reasons. 

There are few geographical or physical rules that are true across all cities. They exist on coastlines and inland, on rivers and in deserts, on the flat and in mountains. Cities don’t even need to be built on land: Venice is in a lagoon, and Tenochtitlan, the centre of the Aztec empire, was built in a lake. 

Even in terms of their economic functions, cities don’t have much in common. They can be centred around ports, manufacturing, government or tourism. But when you compare a city to a town or village, they all have one advantage: more people. 

Cities aren’t made of roads and buildings, they’re made of people. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. People come to cities for connection, they want to find partners, attend mass entertainment events and do business. In pure economic terms, a city is a labour market. In a large labour market, there are more workers available for big, complex projects. Businesses can find highly skilled workers to fill specialist roles. Workers are more likely to find the job that best uses their skills. Companies looking to open a new factory or office will choose to do so in cities with strong labour markets. People from outside a city will move there to access the jobs, making the labour market even larger and more appealing.

Even in the world of Zoom calls and international flights, this hasn’t changed. The most powerful cities are built on large, skilled labour forces. 

Uruk developed a large class of skilled bureaucrats, scribes and accountants who were responsible for Uruk’s most important contribution to human civilization: writing. Refining pictograms into a complex system of words and letters would have taken a huge amount of shared knowledge to develop, codify and spread the new system of communication. It’s the kind of innovation that could only be made possible in a city. It was also something that only a city would require. 

In a village, you could get by on your word. Disagreements could be hashed out in person, in front of a local leader. Uruk’s trade, farming and public works were far too complex to run on memory. Writing was a necessity. This is the natural problem of a city. Large cities are more productive and more powerful, but they are also far more complex and difficult to manage.

The earliest known codes of laws started to be developed during the Uruk period, the archaeological term for the period when Uruk was the dominant city in Mesopotamia. The code of Urukagina, the oldest known code of laws, was developed in the nearby city of Lagash, about 50km away from Uruk. 

The actual text hasn’t been discovered, but archaeologists have managed to piece it together from references in other documents. It was an effort to manage the risks of corruption and inequality that inevitably arise in a large city. It restricted the powers of priests and large property owners. It outlawed unfair loans, established welfare payments and set rules for fair trading: the rich had to use silver when purchasing from the poor, and couldn’t force a poor person to sell something they didn’t want to sell. 

The code also dealt with some of the more mundane details of city life: setting the price for tolls on the city gate and determining how much city officials would be paid and who was exempt from paying taxes. 

The code of Urukagina was complex because cities are complex. They need streets, pipes and some form of funding. A small town can be run by a part-time council, a large city requires a massive machine of public servants. All of these complexities come from people. The greatest complexity of all is this: where should all these people live, and how should they move around? 

Uruk was surrounded by 9.5km of brick walls five metres high, containing an area of 450 hectares. The walls protected the people from invaders and demarcated the city’s expansion. By coincidence, the original town plan for Wellington was almost the exact same size: 1,100 residential blocks of one acre each (445 hectares). 

For most of human history, the maximum size of a city was pretty static: it was determined by how far someone could conveniently walk. The only way to grow a city’s population within those constraints was to increase density by subdividing lots or building taller homes.

That’s roughly the plan Wellington followed. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, those one-acre blocks became smaller and smaller to cater to the growing population. Te Aro became a slum, filled with tiny shacks and choked by the smoke of industrial furnaces and garbage incinerators. There were outbreaks of typhoid and other water-borne diseases. People who were wealthy enough bought large homes in the city fringe suburbs to escape the destitution. 

The same problem would have been faced by Uruk and every other major city in history. When the population is growing but the city doesn’t have the right systems in place to deal with it, quality of life plummets, especially for the poorest residents. Even ancient cities eventually realised the only way to keep growing was to build up. Large apartment buildings called insulae were common in ancient Rome. There is evidence of multi-storey homes dating back to Jericho in 7000BC. But apartments are difficult, both architecturally and politically. They’re expensive and complicated to build, and often draw backlash from angry locals afraid of being crowded out of their own neighbourhoods.

There is one way to keep your city population growing without fully embracing density: expand outwards. In order to do that, you need some form of transport that is faster than walking and which will still allow people to get to the centre of the city. In some ancient cities, that meant ferries and canal boats. In Wellington, it initially meant streetcars, the cable car, and train lines. 

Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch grew up in the post-war boom characterised by two intertwining trends: first, a huge government effort to build state homes, which accelerated the shift towards quarter-acre sections and sprawling suburbs that became New Zealand’s default way of life. Second, and more significantly, the rise of privately owned cars. Once cars became affordable for the middle class, it became more attractive to buy cheap land on the outskirts of town and drive to work in the city. New bridges and motorways, rather than trains, have been the dominant form of urban expansion in New Zealand for the past 70 or so years. 

But there are many problems with that form of growth. Car-dependent sprawl created more carbon emissions. It was more expensive, due to the cost of both petrol and parking. Suburbs hollowed out the city centres. We started using phrases like “central business district” because no one actually lived in them, they were just places to do business.

Cars are big, and keep getting bigger. We are running out of places to put them. They need big roads to drive on and carparks to store them in. There is only so much space on our public streets that we can dedicate to storing private vehicles. Commuting by bus, train or tram doesn’t require each passenger to store their own personal vehicle. Bikes and e-scooters are far smaller and more space efficient. 

Even with our current car-dependent city design, there is still a limit of how far most people are willing to drive every day. A commute of 45 minutes has such a negative impact on quality of life that economists found you have to earn 20 percent more to make the trip worth it. For a while, cars allowed us to make our city walls wider, but the walls still exist. 

After ignoring the big, thorny problem of density for a couple of generations, our cities are finally circling back to it. We can’t keep creating low-density suburbs further and further away from the city centre. Creating bigger, more powerful labour markets requires denser forms of housing and more space-efficient forms of transport. 

There is good news, though. Wellington, like most cities in New Zealand and the western world, is post-industrial. The city centre is no longer choked by smelly factories and furnaces. It’s a lot nicer now. There are glass offices, cafes and craft beer bars. There is a booming population of young people who want the opportunity to experience all that city living has to offer. 

This is the next great urban reset, and it’s already beginning. The world’s leading cities, such as London, Paris and New York, are moving towards a new future with more people living closer to town in higher quality apartments, with more energy and space-efficient transport. Those cities have all invested massively in cycling infrastructure over the last few years. They have realised you can’t have a large, dense city where everyone wants to drive through the centre of town; there simply isn’t enough room. It’s inefficient transport and it ruins the amenity of the streets. They’re ready for the next evolution of the city. 

Uruk was the birthplace of the world’s oldest surviving work of written literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of Gilgamesh, a legendary king of Uruk, who represents the luxury (and corruption) of city life. His rival, Enkidu, is a wild man who represents the freedom and chaos of nature. The two start out as enemies, but eventually become friends and allies in a quest to defeat the demon Humbaba. The themes of the story show how the people of Uruk grappled with their place in the world, trying to make sense of this new style of city living, which was such a sharp departure from how humans had existed for millennia, working the land as subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers. 

New Zealand today is still grappling with that same challenge. Our national identity has always been rural. We are the country of Footrot Flats, Fred Dagg and number eight wire. Our economy has been driven by natural resources: first moa and pounamu, then harekeke and kauri, gold and coal, and now grazing land for sheep and cows. Those resources have served us well. But natural resources won’t take us forward. The next great leap will be in information, creativity and technology; the economy of the city.

Figuring out how to design highly efficient and productive cities is New Zealand’s next great challenge. If we get it right, Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch will become powerful economic engines, capable of lifting prosperity and quality of life for everyone. If we get it wrong, we’ll squander our potential. 

Uruk’s peak of importance lasted for about 2,000 years. Since then, thousands of cities have grown up all around the world. Many of today’s greatest cities have stood for thousands of years; Paris, Constantinople, Delhi and Beijing are all far older than the countries they are in. If we learn the lessons of history, New Zealand’s cities may someday be thought of in the same breath.

Keep going!