2005 Balzan Prize for The Social and Cultural History of Cities since the Beginning of the 16th Century
Acceptance Speech – Bern, 11.11.2005
Mr. Federal Councillor,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Please allow me a personal recollection. When I first heard the news, I have to confess that my reaction was complete incredulity. What was I doing in the company of Pope John XXIII or Mother Teresa, not to mention academic luminaries like Jean Piaget, Edward Shils, Ernst Gombrich or Carlo Maria Cipolla? Perhaps I had been too busy writing to notice that the results might be worth noticing. My wife, who describes herself as an academic divorcee, likes to quote the remark of an 18th century English aristocrat to Edward Gibbon, who had the temerity to present to him the first two volumes of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The great duke was not pleased. “Another damned, thick, square book!” Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon!
Well, I have been scribbling away these last forty years, wasting a number of the world’s forests in the process. Perhaps Mr. Gates will help us all in future, by making our academic output electronically weightless. But meanwhile, you will expect me to tell you what I might have done to deserve this prestigious award, and how I might now take my work further.
Sigmund Freud famously said that he had spent his life asking “What do women want?” but had never found out. I’ve spent my academic life asking “How do cities work?” and I don’t think that I’ve yet cracked my mystery either. I have found that successful cities, like London and Paris and New York, can go on being successful for a very long time – about 2,000 years, in the case of London or Paris. But they only manage this by constantly renewing themselves. Or rather, cities don’t do that: their people do. But they only do so in a particular context, which I call a creative or innovative milieu. A century ago the great English economist, Alfred Marshall, referred to particular parts of cities as having that quality, which he said was “in the air”. Trying to identify the quality of that air is the question that still intrigues me.
But what I’m particularly interested in, and want to investigate with new doctoral researchers, is what you might call the air movements. In my recent research, with colleagues in seven other European research teams, including Zürich, we’ve been looking at the development of what we call polycentric mega-city-regions, like this northern part of Switzerland or South East England. In these regions, the creative dynamic of a central city like Zürich or London seems to blow like a gale, scattering innovative seeds in other neighbouring places – while around Paris, for instance, it doesn’t seem to happen.
In my research programme, I want to follow that up. I plan to extend my geographical framework from the South East corner to the rest of England, to try to understand a question plaguing our British government: why, in our country, is economic dynamism so unequally distributed? Why are London and the South East region dominating our economy? Why are there so few points of light in northern England, in just a few of our great northern cities, like Manchester and Leeds? Is our only hope to expand the dynamic South East into our midlands – or alternatively, to try to extend the creativity of those few northern cities into their economically depressed hinterlands?
I want to investigate this by analysing just how local economic growth has been occurring, locality by locality, through the shift from contracting factory and goods-handling jobs into the expanding producer and consumer service economies. I will try to investigate a few of the successful places in more detail, asking how they were propelled into a virtuous circle of growth, in order to suggest how many other places might do the same.
I won’t promise that I shall finally solve the mystery that has been worrying me these past four decades. But perhaps, through the generous award of this prize, you may help me get a little nearer to the answer. Thank you.