Urban Revolution - Cities Are the Engines of Change

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Urban Revolution - Cities Are the Engines of Change
By: Ilse Helbrecht, Aingeal Flanagan
11 November 2013

Modern-day cities no longer have walls to keep out strangers, separating those inside from the vagabonds lurking without. On the contrary, they have thrown open the gates and embraced not only people, but also countries and the entire world. Whether Los Angeles, Cairo, or Johannesburg, the extent to which a city opens up and becomes a world in its own right is evidence of its function as an economic, political and cultural survival strategy for humankind. One could say that the city has become a global `instruction manual` for human co-existence. Unlike the French Revolution or the American Declaration of Independence, however, the urban revolution is a protracted, ongoing process that needs to be shaped.

Writing in the early twentieth century, Oswald Spengler described the character of world cities as follows: `Spirit is non-existent in these cities. They are land in petrified form.` Cities play a particularly tragic role in Spengler`s Doomsday scenario entitled The Decline of the West. For Spengler, cities were places where life ossified because the bodies, souls, and spirits of their inhabitants grew barren there. For this philosopher of history, the rise of the city heralded the start of the decline, not only of the West, but of all civilisations.

Spengler gave two reasons for his belief that the proliferation and growth of cities is an indication of the impending downfall of society. Firstly, he believed that by settling in cities, societies would enfeeble themselves both spiritually and culturally. He considered cities to be petrified, static structures in which social life could not flourish nor cultural renewal take place, let alone that they could be a source from which spiritual greatness could emanate. For Spengler, cities would cause humankind to ossify; the birth of a world city was the death knell of a culture. Secondly, the Munich-based private scholar was of the opinion that it was virtually unavoidable for civilisations not to become imperialistic with the emergence of cities. World cities, he believed, were both the end and the means of civilisations acting as world powers. He also felt that the term `province` would, as in the case of the Romans, only ever be used in those places where an empire held sway over other regions (such as the Mediterranean) and where the capital of that empire declared these regions to be the province.

For Spengler, the province was the imperial expression of the existence of a world city. He also felt that the colonisation and oppression of economically, politically, or militarily weaker regional cultures was the quasi-inevitable consequence of a highly-developed city structure. If Oswald Spengler`s theories about cities and the philosophy of history were in any way correct, humanity would currently be in dire straits. We would only exist as zombies, those unappetisingly semi-decomposed beings who show themselves in the daylight after crawling out of their graves under cover of darkness. Had Spengler been right, this would be an apt description of our current fate, not only because he predicted the decline of the West in the year 2000 - which means this fate would, in fact, be overdue - but because `we`, the inhabitants of all continents, have been disregarding Spengler`s warnings regarding the causes of this decline for over half a century by allowing cities to proliferate.

Translated by Aingeal Flanagan

Ilse Helbrecht, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the Geographic Institute of the Technical University of Munich.

First published in Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch, 3/02

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Fikrun wa Fann

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