Derek Thompson: What will happen to cities in 2021
Having witnessed a decline in U.S. cities’ fortunes over the past year, many American commentators are predicting the dissolution of entire communities too eagerly. Having spent the past several years researching a book about ancient abandoned cities, I’ve come to realize that urban collapse is a modern-day version of an apocalypse prophecy: It’s always lurking just around the corner, seductive and terrifying, but it never quite happens. Lost-city anxieties, like the ones aroused by the pandemic, result from a misunderstanding of what causes cities to decline. Pandemics, invasions, and other major calamities are not the usual culprits in urban abandonment. Instead, what kills cities is a long period in which their leaders fail to reckon honestly with ongoing, everyday problems—how workers are treated, whether infrastructure is repaired. Unsustainable, unresponsive governance in the face of long-term challenges may not look like a world-historical problem, but it’s the real threat that cities face.
In recent decades, archaeologists and geologists have reanalyzed the evidence about what happened at Angkor. What they found is the truth behind the lost-city myth: Great cities are rarely snuffed out in an instant, nor do they “collapse.” Instead, they transform.
For centuries, Angkor was the capital of the powerful Khmer empire, which spanned today’s Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and parts of China. The empire’s boundaries grew and shrank dramatically from the 800s to the 1600s, and Angkor’s residents changed as successive waves of immigrants came to settle there after new conquests. At the nexus of two fierce monsoon weather patterns, it wasn’t an easy place to live. But Khmer kings ordered their laborers—many of them enslaved—to build enormous reservoirs and canals to prevent Angkor from flooding in the rainy season and desiccating in the dry one. Angkor was a marvel of hydrological engineering, and renowned across Asia for its beautiful architecture.
Then, according to what became the dominant story, Angkor fell abruptly in 1431 after it was sacked by the neighboring Ayutthaya kingdom, in today’s Thailand. Many historical accounts represent this date as a hard end to the great city, giving the misimpression that hundreds of thousands of people dropped everything and fled by 1432, leaving the temples to be consumed by trees.
In reality, as the archaeologists Alison Carter, Piphal Heng, and their colleagues argued in a recent paper, the city continued to thrive. What happened in 1431 was that the Khmer royal family fled south to Phnom Penh, where it remains today. As for all the nonroyals? They continued to live at Angkor, repaired its ailing water infrastructure, recycled stones from temples into new structures, and planted farms where high-density housing once was. Life probably improved for many people who otherwise would have spent part of the year as debt slaves in the service of nobles. In the 16th century, King Ang Chan even tried to revitalize what remained of the city’s downtown with new wall paintings and a luxurious stupa, or family shrine. Eventually the population trickled away, but that took centuries.