City Lights

Laws of the Landscape: How Policies Shape Cities in Europe and America

Pietro S. Nivola
Brookings Institution Press, 126 pp., $14.95 (paper)


A magazine editor compiling a millennial list recently asked me which city I thought would qualify as the Best of the Millennium. This is a frivolous question that leads to serious reflection. To begin with, what exactly does “best” mean when it comes to a city? Once, the answer was easy—best simply meant biggest. When Samuel Johnson told Boswell, “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” he was describing the largest city in the world. Eighteenth-century London had one million inhabitants, not a large city by today’s standards when there are more than twenty so-called megacities whose population exceeds ten million. Yet few would suggest that such behemoths as Mexico City or São Paulo contain “all that life can afford.”

If best is taken to mean most beau-tiful architecturally, or best planned, or most admirably sited, there are many candidates. I would nominate sixteenth-century Venice (for beauty), seventeenth-century Amsterdam (for planning), and modern-day Rio de Janeiro or Hong Kong (for their sites). Best can mean most economically powerful, as Philadelphia was in the nineteenth century, or politically powerful, as London was during the British Empire, or Moscow during the cold war. Or the best place to live. The United Nations recently judged Toronto to be among the most livable cities in the world. The UN measured civic amenities, urban services, governance, and levels of pollution and crime. Yet how is one to compare Toronto, which Peter Ustinov once described as New York City run by the Swiss (actually, Chicago run by the Swedes would be more accurate), with quattrocento Florence, say, a city of sublime architecture and despotic politics, or eighteenth-century Vienna, where you could hear the music of Mozart and Haydn but there were no sewers?

Perhaps the best city is simply the one that the most people admire. At any particular time there is usually one city in the world that is seen as exemplary, whose architecture is emulated, whose institutions set the fashion, and whose manners and way of life are taken to be the international standard. London during the nineteenth century, Paris during the first half of the twentieth, and New York City today were—are—such cities. Their primacy is measured by their influence. Few cities have been as influential as Rome, a city that during the last millennium exerted a rare influence on Western culture, not once but twice. The first time, in mid-millennium, the crumbling ruins of antiquity provided Renaissance architects from Brunelleschi to Palladio with models which they used to create a great humanist architectural revolution. The second time, Rome’s Baroque architecture and the grand designs of Sixtus V combined to create a city that inspired succeeding generations of town planners: L’Enfant, Baron Haussmann, Charles McKim, Albert Speer. Hardly eternal, but it had a good long run.

It is much too early to speculate about the most influential city of the coming millennium, but what…

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