Origins: The Good Life

In order to understand where anti-urban sentiment came from, we must appropriately invert one of the key principles of the natural sciences (especially geology), uniformitarianism, often summed with the statement: 'the present is the key to the past'. For our purposes, the past is the key to the present, and therefore we must acknowledge the widespread and deeply entrenched prourban sentiment of the past to grasp any anti-urban sentiment of the present.

Athens (c. 500–400 BC) was not only the birthplace of democracy, it was the birthplace of the arena in which democracy was born – the city state or the polis, captured by Aristotle as a self sufficient and self governing group of villages in a narrow and closed region lying around an urban center:

The partnership finally composed of several villages is the city state; it has at last attained the limit of virtually complete self sufficiency, and thus, while it comes into existence for the sake of life, it exists for the good life is clear that the city state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it. (P. Hall, 1998: 2)

For our purposes we are less interested in the morphology of the city than the moral geography of this statement – the city as the ''natural'' and ''good'' unit for the development of human society; indeed, Aristotle went on to say that anyone who lives outside such a unit must be ''either a god or a beast.'' He was not alone – Socrates and Plato before him had both treated Athens as the arena where 'citizens' where born and nurtured, a place where public and private life were in rhythmic interplay for the first time, and a place which supported an unprecedented flowering of art, music, intellect, politics, and love. The Athenians demonstrated for the first time the capacity, richness, and depth of the human mind in the theater of the city. It didn't matter that Athens also harbored extremes of rich and poor – the possibilities for transcending inequality were legion because of the possibilities the city offered for human innovation.

The urban concentration of indisputable genius exhibited by the Athenians had a lasting impact on how future societies throughout human history treated cities. No city in history has ever been devoid of human suffering, but that hard reality was for centuries trumped by the fact that no city that followed the Athens example has ever been starved of the same basic conditions for societal advancement brought about by the clustering of citizens with divergent thoughts, abilities, talents, and politics under a democratic model. From Imperial Rome to Renaissance Florence to Elizabethan London, pro urban sentiment was articulated and reproduced through artistic, dramatic, and musical representations. The good city for the good life, an immensely powerful Athenian invention, diffused through time and space and left a legacy of pro urbanism difficult to dislodge.