In 305 BCE, Demetrius, the eventual king of Macedonia, laid siege to the city of Rhodes. Rhodes was an important sea port, gateway to the Aegean Sea, and significantly for Demetrius, a friend of Ptolemy I and his Egyptian dynasty. The Macedonians saw the conquest of Rhodes as an opportunity to plunder a wealthy center of trade while simultaneously cutting off a potential supplier of ships and arms to their Egyptian rivals.
After a year of sustained efforts to overtake the city failed, Demetrius and his forces turned back to Macedonia. The Rhodians celebrated their victory by gathering the supplies and materials left by the Macedonians to turn into The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
The Colossus was an ancient marvel — a statue roughly the size of the Statue of Liberty. It was constructed by building earthworks around the lower parts as higher parts were built. Once completed, the earth was dug away to reveal the giant figure gazing out over the harbor of Rhodes. The Colossus stood sentry over the Port of Rhodes for little over 50 years before being felled by an earthquake; the spoils of war and a generation’s labor reduced to rubble, never to be remade.
The ancient world was filled with grand schemes that have all failed in some form or another. The Roman Empire once stretched across Europe, North Africa, and into the modern Middle East, only to collapse as its ossified society could no longer maintain power over distant lands. The same fate befell the Egyptians. Our human history is a story of boom and bust, expansion and contraction.
At Strong Towns we often talk about the hubris of our modern development pattern. We have vastly overbuilt our infrastructure. Our policies for managing urban growth actively promote unprofitable development and undermine profitable development, relying on a ponzi scheme to stay afloat. When you do the math it’s no surprise many of our cities are functionally insolvent.
The history of urban development in the last century or two is far too complex to boil down to a single isolated dynamic that bears the blame for our current predicament. One of the causes we focus on here is the departure from traditional city-building principles of incremental improvements driven by local actors in favor of ever-larger investments made by outside actors, coupled with top-down, orderly-but-dumb forces that drive most development today — an industrial approach to city building that sees our neighborhoods as factory widgets to be standardized for mass production, not as complex ecosystems to be nurtured.
While this approach is markedly different in scale from the way we have built successful cities for millennia around the world, I think it’s important to recognize that the impulses that have led us here are human impulses. It’s the same drive that took the Romans into Persia and Spain, the same appetites that brought the Spanish into South and Central America, and yes, the same celebration of plenty that drove the Rhodians to erect a giant metal sculpture on the banks of the sea.