Chelsea Follett joins Jordan McGillis to discuss cities as centers of intellectual and economic progress.

Audio Transcript

Jordan McGillis: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. I’m Jordan McGillis, economics editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Chelsea Follett. Chelsea is the managing editor of, a project of the Cato Institute that seeks to educate readers on global improvements in human wellbeing. She’s also the author of the recently published book, Centers of Progress: 40 Cities that Changed the World.

Chelsea, it’s my distinct pleasure to host you on our show today. Thank you.

Chelsea Follett: Thank you so much for having me on.

Jordan McGillis: Obviously, City Journal and the Manhattan Institute more broadly share your basic thesis that cities are the drivers of prosperity, but what led you to focus on this topic of cities, and how did you land on your main idea?

Chelsea Follett: Well, as managing editor of, I spend a lot of time thinking about the causes of progress and prosperity. When I made a list of some of the different aspects of the modern world that we take for granted, everything from sanitation, a stable food supply, to writing, I found that many of these different innovations could be traced to particular places, and those places all tended to be cities or, in the era before cities as we know them today existed, the closest thing that did exist at the time. And that became the idea for this book of the answer to a simple question of where does progress come from focusing on 40 different cities throughout history.

Jordan McGillis: What about the idea of a city itself? You mentioned the closest thing that approximates a city. How do you think of cities as entities, and how does it compare with the modern concept of town or village? Are you thinking about just human clusters, or is there something that’s distinct about a city?

Chelsea Follett: What I think of as distinct about a city is an unusual gathering of people concentrated in one place, where they can engage in exchange and debate and discussion and so forth. The earliest city featured in the book, it would be Neolithic-era Jericho, or rather the settlement where Jericho is today. And at the time, the entire population of the world was only about equivalent to the current population of Portugal. The population of Jericho at that time was only a few thousand people, so it’s not what we would think of as a city, but at the time, it was actually an unprecedented concentration of people in one place. We must have felt relatively like a bustling metropolis, and it’s referred to by many scholars as the earliest city for that reason.

So it’s not about a particular threshold of people, but relative to the population of the world at the time, any unusual amassing of people in one place, I counted as a city for the purposes of this book.

Jordan McGillis: So you scoped through a few thousand years of human history. Obviously, that led you to make some tough choices on what was in and what was out. How did you make those determinations, and were you trying to balance this over the centuries? Did you weight more toward the modern era in the era of industrialization and urbanization, or what were some of your considerations?

Chelsea Follett: The cities were really reverse-engineered for the most part. Again, this all began with a list of different aspects of the modern world, but then as I got going and began putting out a series of online articles that eventually became this book in expanded form, I was also inundated with suggestions for readers on different cities that were notable for contributing to human progress in different eras, and that made it very easy to come up with for these cities. And so even without trying to attempt any particular balances that you say, I think the book ended up being very diverse in the cities that were selected. So many of the things that are fundamental to our daily lives were created quite long ago, but also some of the more recent cities I think may hold even more valuable lessons that are applicable today.

Jordan McGillis: Well, given that we’re the Manhattan Institute, I would love for you to talk about New York a little bit. How do you see the Big Apple fitting into the grand scope of urban history?

Chelsea Follett: New York City could have been featured for so many different things, but I chose to focus on its role as the capital of global finance and its postwar rise to become such, and it really exemplifies the three common themes that the cities in the book mostly share despite being so diverse in different time periods and different parts of the world and being featured for so many different forms of progress, whether that’s technological and scientific innovation or artistic achievement or human rights or economic development. During the case of New York finance, so many of the cities feature three common themes, one of which would be just people, an unusual concentration of people, hence cities.

New York as one of the most populous cities in the world definitely fits that. The other one would be freedom, relative freedom, especially economic freedom. You can see how that plays out with the incredible creativity as New Yorkers in creating modern finance itself really. And of course, all of that prosperity led to innovations in other areas as well with New York also then becoming a capital of art and fashion and many other things as the prosperity from their economic success allowed them or the people there to experiment in all sorts of different areas.

And the final one would be peace. Again, the post-war rise of New York can be explained in part by the fact that a devastating war had just made it so that many of the great cities of Europe were no longer quite what they were, they were in recovery. New York thankfully was spared. No bombings or invasions happened during World War II of New York. And so the city was very well positioned to rise up and play its place among the great cities of the world.

Jordan McGillis: Something that I’ve long found interesting is that New York has a very vertical urban form, but it also has a cultural and historic tie to a city with a rather horizontal form, Amsterdam. Talk to me about how Amsterdam’s unique openness as a cultural center then influenced the early Dutch colony of New Netherland and New Amsterdam and what became New York.

Chelsea Follett: Yeah. The connection between New York and Amsterdam really is appropriate, with New York originally being called New Amsterdam, because the chapter on Amsterdam in the book has a lot of parallels to the chapter on New York. I feature Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age, when that city had so many great achievements in different areas from art in the Northern Renaissance to creating the first modern stock exchange that I ended up making the subtitle for that chapter simply “Openness,” because it was an underlying attitude of openness that really allowed them to make so many great achievements in different areas. This was a city that was so devoted to free speech and the free exchange and debate of different ideas that thinkers as different from one another as John Locke, the father of liberalism and Thomas Hobbs, who was, of course, an absolute monarchist of both, found that this city was able to tolerate their ideas, how to arrange to have books published in Amsterdam that no other press in Europe would touch. John Locke took refuge in the city for a time.

So many different refugees—intellectual refugees, religious refugees—were able to find a safe haven in Amsterdam because of this city’s unusual open-mindedness, and by welcoming so many different kinds of people and tolerating the discussion of such a great diversity of ideas, it makes sense that they just happened upon more ideas that happen to create incredible positive change.

Jordan McGillis: This idea of openness has a lot of salience in modern American politics around the idea of the density divide. I’m not sure exactly where this concept of the density divide originated, but I think I was first introduced to it by Will Wilkinson, formerly of Niskanen Center and formerly of Cato as well. He talks about how selection leads people who are interested in ideas or are more open in terms of personality to move to cities and vice versa, which can be good for people, but also leads to some political tensions between cities and more outlying areas. Do you have any thoughts on that broad discourse?

Chelsea Follett: I think that even among cities, there is a great diversity in the level of openness that you find. It is true that just because cities have more people in them, there tends to be greater diversity of thought. In a rural area, in a small community, you can have a uni-culture and very little possibility of change, which also then makes it harder to achieve positive change. Thus, progress tends to flow from cities, but some cities become major innovation centers and not others. Why is that? And I think that if you look at the different policies and institutions found in the cities that do rise to take the world by storm and invent or create incredible new innovations or achievements that improve human wellbeing in different ways, you see that it is the cities that are the freest and the most open that are the most likely to become centers of progress.

Jordan McGillis: This all makes sense to wonky people like you and me, but I’m thinking about my friends from where I grew up, southern Indiana, and they certainly wouldn’t look at cities as being centers of freedom. They would think probably about political control from a Democratic Party that they don’t think aligns with their economic values or cultural values, and they feel more free living in smaller towns, or in the middle of America away from our big metropolises. What about that dynamic of an average American opinion being that cities are sort of stifling in a way?

Chelsea Follett: Well, the book obviously is not just about American cities, and it is a very broad, sweeping view of history going all the way from the beginnings of permanent settlement and the neolithic revolution to the modern day and the digital revolution. So, I don’t think that one dynamic can be applied throughout history, but it is true that when you have a more authoritarian state, it can be harder to enforce laws in remote areas. And so there are cases where the more remote areas can be freer, but when you do have a city that has actual freedom of speech and where controversial ideas are something that you can discuss as opposed to what your friends worry about, this sort of monolithic way of thinking where everyone is forced to conform to one particular mode of thought and many things cannot even be discussed, that’s really what allows a city to make progress.

So, I think that your friends, even though this is not a political book, really would still actually enjoy the underlying message.

Jordan McGillis: What do you think about the future of cities, particularly amid the work-from-home revolution, to the extent that that has occurred, and the internet proliferating to connect people better even when they’re not in person together?

Chelsea Follett: While I would hesitate to predict the future, it would certainly represent a big departure from what we’ve seen up until now. The history of humanity up until now has been a history of increasing urbanization. As people move to cities away from rural areas, could we reach a point where that reverses, possibly maybe with some of the incredible technologies that we now have that allow people to work together productively, even while thousands of miles apart? We will reach a point where the long-standing trend of urbanization actually reverses. Maybe it’ll be possible one day to look out on your vast rural lands and then put on a VR headset or something similar and join a meeting, and it will be just like you’re in a room with all of your colleagues. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s entirely possible that even though until now cities have been huge contributors to progress, we won’t need increasing urbanization to continue to achieve progress. That’s totally possible. Even so, the role that cities have played historically is worth celebrating, and it’s worth studying.

Jordan McGillis: And there’s certainly still a lot of potential for continued urbanization, especially in some of the lesser developed parts of the world. So many more great cities certainly are being expanded, built upon right now. We’ve talked about a couple of my favorites, New York, Amsterdam. Offline you and I talked about one of your perhaps lesser-known favorite cities. Do you want to tell us about that now?

Chelsea Follett: Certainly. So this book has all of the cities that I think your listeners will have heard of: Renaissance-era Florence, Enlightenment-era Paris, Classical Athens, and so forth. But no matter how much of a history buff you are, I can guarantee that this book has at least a few cities that you will have not have heard of or, that will surprise you. One of the ones that surprised me that I didn’t know a lot about before researching it for this book would be Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is a city in modern-day Croatia, but it’s a very old city and at one point was actually an independent city-state called the Republic of Ragusa, and it was a sort of medieval Hong Kong, free-trading, seafaring supernova of economic activity. And they were unusually devoted to freedom for their era. Their flag was actually just the word libertas, liberty.

Their motto was: “Freedom is not sold for all the gold in the world,” and if you count them as a country being a city state, then they were among the first countries to ban the slave trade. So they were unusually devoted to freedom for their time. And when the Black Death pandemic struck Europe, absolutely devastating, often killing a third to half the residents of so many of Europe’s major cities, Dubrovnik, or Ragusa at the time, was among the first cities to formulate a coherent public-health response, including limited quarantine waiting periods for entry to their ports. And this actually allowed them to keep their ports open and to continue to trade and even achieve significant mercantile expansion during the Black Death pandemic. You can contrast that to Venice, which actually had to completely close its walls for a time due to continued outbreaks of the Black Death pandemic. So, I think that there are some very valuable lessons that we can learn today from the example of Dubrovnik.

Jordan McGillis: And it’s interesting that you point out its parallels to Hong Kong. I think there are several. Another would be—Dubrovnik is situated on, of course, the broader Mediterranean Sea, the Adriatic region, and that’s a center of trade. And Hong Kong, of course, is a free port that really helped to accelerate Pacific trade once that became possible technologically. So the parallels are many between those two. I like that you bring that up.

Chelsea, what should our listeners do if they want to follow your work?

Chelsea Follett: Well, hopefully, they will pick up a copy of Centers of Progress: 40 Cities That Changed the World, sold wherever books are sold, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Target, and so forth. They can follow, and they can follow me on X @chellivia, as well as my colleague Marian Tupy. Also, if you happen to know any teachers, or if you have any listeners who are teachers, something that might be of interest to them would be to look at the free lesson plans available online to accompany the different chapters of Centers of Progress. Those are created by the Cato Sphere Education Initiative because even though this is a very enjoyable and accessible read, and it’s not dumbed down, it still as a sort of accessible crash course in world history is something that we especially hope young people will read, and that will inspire many conversations and debates about the causes of progress.

Jordan McGillis: It’s a great crash course, and it is a world historical tour of the globe. The book, again, is Centers of Progress.

Chelsea, thank you so much for joining us today on 10 Blocks.

Chelsea Follett: Thank you so much for having me.

Jordan McGillis: As always, listeners, you can follow City Journal on X @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_mi. Of course, if you listened today and enjoyed it, please like, rate, and subscribe. Thank you.

Photo: filadendron/iStock

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