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Was God a Good Urban Planner?

Men who found cities tend not to be very humble. Please note, I mean ‘found’ as in ‘establish’, not ‘find’. Finding lost cities is far too exciting for this more humdrum blog. It is usually men who found cities. For an exception, see the legendary Phoenician queen Dido, who founded Carthage in 814 BCE. After founding a city, there is not much to be humble about. The reader will not be unduly surprised that such men tend to name the city after themselves.

The legendary founding of Rome was a staple of storytelling among the ancient Romans. The most famous was the tale of wolf-suckled twins Romulus and Remus. Alexandria was founded in BCE 331 by Alexander (later ‘the Great’) and later became the capital of Egypt and home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The legendary founder of London, was King Lud, though the historically verifiable founders (now Londinium) were Roman invaders under Emperor Claudius in 43CE. Constantinople was not strictly speaking a completely new city, it had a prior existence as Byzantium. The transfer to Byzantium the capital of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine I in 330CE, the construction of the massive walls, and the inevitable bestowal of a royal name gave the city a sparkling new grandeur. St Petersburg was founded by Tsar Peter (also later ‘the Great’) in 1703 on the site of a captured Swedish fortress and became the Russian capital for two centuries. In 1919, Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Indian Tata Group, founded Tatanagar, also known as Jamshedpur. The city was the first planned industrial city in India and was constructed around India’s first steel plant. In 1928, Henry Ford established the town of Fordlandia in the Brazilian state of Para. The town was intended to house 10,000 people to cultivate rubber for the Ford manufacturing plants in the US. The project failed and was abandoned in 1934, though a population of around 90 lingered on into the 2000s.

Image of Romulus and Remus
Capitoline Wolf suckles the infant twins Romulus and Remus (Image source:

Much like this roster of prominent male warrior-business leaders, the God of the Biblical Old and New Testaments (hereafter just ‘God’) founded and planned various new cities. Despite the obvious prestige attached to having created the world, writing a bestselling book (including prominent film adaptations The Ten Commandments, The Life of Brian), AND in leading two major world religions (Christianity and Judaism), God was evidently humbler than Alexander, Tsar Peter, and Co. God refrained from naming those cities after himself.

A report by UN Habitat published in 2014 entitled Urban Planning for City Leaders defined urban planning as being “an important tool for city leaders to achieve sustainable development.” Planning should help “formulate medium- and long-term objectives that reconcile a collective vision with the rational organization of the resources to achieve it.” As an omniscient and omnipotent deity, it is interesting to examine how well planned were those cities founded by God. Unlike the production line publication emporium of the World Bank, OECD, and UN-Habitat, God only wrote one guide for urban planners. This bible for urban planners is conveniently entitled, The Bible.

Though not strictly a new Russian city, Magnitogorsk (founded in 1743) was one of only two ‘socialist realist’ settlements ever built, along with Nowa Huta in Poland. The city was (re)founded by Stalin in the 1930s as a steel producing town modeled after Gary, Indiana (US). Stalin saw urbanization as a means to promote break-neck industrialization and modernization. God took more of an evolutionary (ironically) approach to economic development and urbanization. God was less socialist, but definitely a practical realist, and began with agriculture “And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:7). God’s initial emphasis was on diversification within agriculture “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground” (Genesis 4:2).

black and white image of the Russian city of Magnitogorsk
The Russian city of Magnitogorsk, founded in 1743 (Image source: The Guardian, Photograph: Sputnik/Alamy)

Dictators like to build monumental skyscrapers. In 1983, President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Cote D’Ivoire moved the capital from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro. Yamoussoukro was his home village, so it was not really a completely new city. The newness was in the grandeur of the construction. In Yamoussoukro, Houphouët-Boigny built a university, a conference center, an international airport, and the 320,000 square foot Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, in 1990 the largest church in the world. God did not build skyscrapers or lavish hotels in the desert, more evidence of his practical humility. Biblical city builders did succumb to this aspiration for grandeur. “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4). God was not happy with this uneconomic vertical aspiration. “And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.” (Genesis 11:6-8). God resolutely preferred appropriate, pro-poor, low-cost accommodation, “God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27).

The recent fashion in urbanism is the 15-minute city, whereby everyone lives within 15 minutes of work, recreation, retail, healthcare, and education. This is sometimes known as the urban village. More practically minded scholars have criticized the 15-minute model. Alain Bertaud said “This model does not exist in the real world because it contradicts the economic justification of large cities: the efficiency of large labor markets. Employers do not select their employees based on their places of residence; neither do specialized workers select their jobs based on proximity from their residences. The “urban village model” implies a systematic fragmentation of labor markets within a large metropolis and does not make economic sense in the real world.” God is with Bertaud in this debate. God planned cities around a single center, surrounded by suburbs. “And the suburbs of the cities, which ye shall give unto the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city and outward a thousand cubits round about. And ye shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits; and the city shall be in the midst: this shall be to them the suburbs of the cities.” (Numbers, 35:4-5). The cities of God were for traditional commuters, not 15-minute strollers.

There are some mega-cities today (such as Kinshasa, Lagos, and Karachi) where urbanization has outpaced the provision of infrastructure, public services, and housing. In such cities, the negative externalities of density (crime, congestion, and disease) threaten to overwhelm the benefits of urbanization (agglomeration externalities, knowledge spillovers). Much thinking on public policy revolves around efforts to rehabilitate slums and provide transport and housing infrastructure at low cost. In crime-ridden Sodom and Gomorrah, God demonstrated a more extreme response to those negative externalities of urbanization. “Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.” (Genesis 18:24-25).

One trick for urban planners is to manage the transition from pancake cities into pyramid cities. The typical city in the Global South is a ‘pancake’ where urbanization sprawls horizontally at low-levels in crowded slums. As the World Bank writes with hope, “Cities with higher productivity may evolve from pancakes into pyramids – their horizontal expansion persists, yet is accompanied by infill development and vertical layering.” Pyramids are more likely to evolve in cities where “property rights are clear, land values are transparent, land use and zoning are compatible with local preferences, and the enabling environment encourages durable investment in infrastructure”. God was centuries ahead of the World Bank here and emphasized the creation of a good legal system as being a prerequisite of good urbanization. Good laws – “Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall ye have.” (Leviticus, 19:36). And good judges – “And I charged your judges at that time, saying, Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great” (Deuteronomy, 1:16-17).

pancake cities vs pyramid cities

An important aspect of a good legal system is the creation, registration, and protection of property rights. This will facilitate the identification of owners and the purchase and re-registration by new owners. Here God does differ from conventional contemporary wisdom. There is a certain extra-legal vigor in his injunctions for property acquisition “And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein: for I have given you the land to possess it.” (Numbers, 33:53). And also “we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain. Only the cattle we took for a prey unto ourselves, and the spoil of the cities which we took.” (Deuteronomy, 2:34-35). Vigorous certainly, but there is a practical wisdom here. In India  property is typically subject to multiple and overlapping property rights. These rights often emerge through inheritance, where inheritance rights encompass an unclear and expansive roster of close and distant relatives. Inheritance rights can also be claimed in rights over housing or farming land that is rented from the legal owner. Legal cases often appear years after a property sale and have completely overwhelmed the legal system (and much urbanization) in India. God offers a definitive solution. “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell. (Numbers, 33:55).

The protection of property rights for some commentators should be less about facilitating an efficient market in property (in order to allocate assets to those able to use them most productively) and be rather about protecting the livelihoods of incumbent owners. In 2013, India passed a Land Acquisition Act. The purpose of the Act was to increase protections for incumbent owners. The Act prevented agricultural land being acquired for re-development as golf courses or luxury hotels. The Act emphasized compensation, re-settlement, and mass consent of all those selling land. When it comes to protecting property rights, God takes a similar ‘equity over efficiency’ emphasis. God mandates that land sold should be returned to its original owners after fifty years. “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.” (Leviticus, 25:10). Land and other property can often be sold in a debt-induced ‘distress sale’ as a consequence of a temporary bad harvest. God protects such poor by allowing for a change of heart or financial circumstances “And if a man sell a dwelling house in a walled city, then he may redeem it within a whole year after it is sold; within a full year may he redeem it.” (Leviticus, 25:29). The Levites were the descendants of Jacob’s son Levi, as per Biblical injunctions they were tasked with serving God in the Holy Temple, by providing guard duty, playing music, and manning the temple gates. Deprived of any opportunity to earn a non-Temple income, the Levites were granted land to provide a guaranteed income. “But the field of the suburbs of their cities may not be sold; for it is their perpetual possession.” (Leviticus, 25:34). The provisions of reclaiming sold property applied with more vigor to the Levites. “Notwithstanding the cities of the Levites, and the houses of the cities of their possession, may the Levites redeem at any time.” (Leviticus, 25:32).

In returning land to original owners after fifty years, the jubile would discourage long-term investment by the new, but temporary, owners. Any original class of landowners will be locked in as owners, regardless of their proclivity to become urbane professionals. The jubile will remorselessly return them to a rural olive grove every half century. Any Levite with a skill set in software programming will be unable to sell their land, pay for a university degree, and get a job with Google with an accompanying stylish city-center apartment. Get thee back to the suburbs indeed! As the jubile nears the every more precarious owners will have an incentive to plunder rather than nurture their assets.

So the answer? Yes! God was a good urban planner. God doesn’t plan many cities anymore, but there is good reason to learn from God’s city planning principles.

In some ways, God was a gradualist and a pragmatist. God saw cities as the culmination of an evolutionary process of economic structural change, from nomads, to settled agriculture, to diversified agriculture, to cities. God was no Stalin and had no interest in building cathedrals in the desert to force the pace of urban-industrial development. God was also a revolutionary planner. In Europe, cities tend to evolve, be patched, and become a heritage to be retained and integrated into modern construction. The US has a greater tendency to ‘rip-em up and re-build’, think of the robber-baron mansions in early nineteenth century New York that were bulldozed and replaced by skyscrapers. In Europe, they would have been preserved. God was more inclined to American than European planning. When Sodom and Gomorrah went bad, they went the way of the Vanderbilt and Astor mansions. God was a forerunner of a dominant big idea in development economics – that good institutions are the key to promoting sustainable long run economic growth. For God, good institutions were not something to painfully apply to sprawling dysfunctional mega-cities like Kinshasa or Lagos, but were a pre-requisite for efficient and inclusive urbanization. Perhaps then God has more use for thinking about new city construction than reforming existing cities? Good city planning is not just about technocratic rules. We have to think about politics. India faced this problem in the 2010s when land acquisition led to massive and debilitating mobilization among those losing their land. In response, the government under democratic compulsions emphasized compensation, consent, and due process in land acquisition. The greater cost and longer process then hindered property developers and industrialists from acquiring land. In deference to political realities, the economy stalled. God faced the same concerns; the perceived need to protect the poor and to provide the Levites with a guaranteed income. The evolutionary structural change and strong legal framework created by God to assist a more efficient process of urbanization could easily be undermined by these strictures on property markets.

If God was caught between the delicate balancing act of efficiency and equity, we can hardly expect to resolve the issue with any definitive ease today.

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