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Urbanism and Peace

Cities are essential for pacifying bitter enemies abroad. But also for bringing together polarized compatriots at home.

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
6 min read
Urbanism and Peace

🎧 An audio version of this article is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and beyond.

"Peace is an urban thing," says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan. It's no surprise that the author of a best-selling book about unpleasant surprises is Lebanese. Those of us who grew up in the Middle East are conditioned to expect things to get real bad, real quick.

Peace, says Taleb, is not reached through "signatures at the top" but through "non-zero-sum commercial interactions." Taleb tweeted the above a few days after the October 7 massacre, but the point came up in his earlier work. In The Black Swan, he describes the long bouts of peace in the area surrounding present-day Israel:

For more than a millennium the eastern Mediterranean seaboard... had been able to accommodate at least a dozen different sects, ethnicities, and beliefs—it worked like magic... The Levantine cities were mercantile in nature; people dealt with one another according to a clear protocol, preserving a peace conducive to commerce, and they socialized quite a bit across communities. This millennium of peace was interrupted only by small occasional friction...

In Antifragile, Taleb credits the Levant's long peace to the preeminence of cities:

The entire area had been until then part of the Ottoman Empire, but functioned as somewhat autonomous regions — Ottomans, like the Romans before them, let local elites run the place so long as sufficient tax was paid... The Ottoman type of imperial peace, the pax Ottomana, like its predecessor the pax Romana, was good for commerce. Contracts were enforced, and that is what governments are needed for the most... the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean operated as city-states separated from the hinterland.

In other words, the levant was made of cities rather than countries, and those cities were driven by the stuff that drives cities: Trade, services, popular amusements, and a division of labor that makes people dependent on their neighbors.

Taleb is idealizing the good old days. In reality, the Ottoman era was marked by periods of conflict and unrest. The region experienced a range of violent rebellions, revolts, and sectarian clashes, with involvement from diverse groups, including Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Jews. These conflicts were often driven by political, social, and religious factors, leading to tragic events such as massacres and widespread violence. Minority communities, including Christians and Jews, faced significant persecution in certain instances, as did different Muslim sects.

Still, Taleb brings up an important point: To the extent that there was peace in the Middle East, it was underpinned by positive-sum commercial interactions in diverse, vibrant cities. Commerce enables people to tolerate each other without embracing each other's beliefs — even without liking or caring about each other. As Adam Smith famously observed in The Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

While people's "own interest" compels them to interact with others, such interactions often breed a broader understanding or appreciation. Research shows that "all that's needed for greater understanding between groups is contact." When people live near each other, they tend to — at the least — see each other as human beings.

To be clear, it's not enough to put people next to each other. They have to live in an environment that enables them to interact freely and on an equal footing. Commercial imperatives, on their own, are not always enough to create and sustain such an environment, but they go a long way. Tolerance and commercial activity reinforce one another — in ancient times and even more so in the post-industrial era. In Rise of the Creative Class, my friend Richard Florida showed that tolerance is a key pillar of 21st-century urban success, alongside the other two "Ts" — technology and talent.

Evidence of this fact is everywhere. A couple of weeks ago, two Halal food vendors were accosted on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The vendors uploaded a video of the interaction to social media. The next day, the food cart saw a swarm of customers who came to show their support. As they told local media, most of the customers were Jewish. And even before the incident, a Jewish owner of a nearby store made them coffee every morning. Mohamed, one of the vendors, describes how one of his regular customers, an Israeli, offered to make him a birthday cake.

Last month, I spoke to local government officials and investors in Dubai about what needs to be done to maintain and enhance the city's attractiveness to global talent. It was surreal for this New York Jew to speak in front of local Muslim dignitaries, and I appreciate their desire to hear my insights. If nothing else, I got a beautiful photo out of it (see above).

Beyond all my advice about zoning, transportation, and other policies, I highlighted the importance of peace and of meaning. What I said in Riyadh earlier this year is equally valid in Dubai: In a world in which people can live anywhere, cities must think like consumer brands; the best brands invite their customers to be part of a bigger story — to feel like their choices matter and help make the world better.

New York is the ultimate example of a city that tells a good story. Emma Lazarus's poem, engraved at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, spells it out: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Dubai is not New York. Nor does it offer a model that could be replicated across the Arab world. It has a tiny local population and relies on millions of foreign workers and unsustainable resources. Still, it enables people of all faiths and backgrounds to live together safely — and its leaders strive to improve constantly. It is a tiny but important example of the Middle East's potential. At the end of the two-day workshop, I was asked what is the one thing that will determine Dubai's fortunes in the coming decades. "Peace," I answered. As long as there is so much trouble elsewhere in the region, no one can truly prosper.

Like Dubai, Tel Aviv also offers a model of the region's potential. It is more free and welcoming in some ways and much less so in others. And it, too, is an imperfect but important example of how people of all faiths and backgrounds can do business. I hope that one day, it could be a symbol that appeals to a broader audience — a symbol of justice and peace and not just of commerce and innovation. It may sound utopian and farfetched, but the city's founders expected nothing less.

Tel Aviv is the only major city on earth named after a science fiction novel. Old New Land, published by Theodor Herzl in 1902, envisioned a Jewish state where Arabs and Christians enjoy equal freedoms and rights, trains zip through the sky, and sophisticated urban planning implements best practices from the world's greatest cities. It's incredible how much of Herzl's vision is now a reality, and how much more is left to do to bring it about.

With all the violence and hate of the past few weeks, it's important to remember that things can be different. This is my way of coping with these horrors, and I hope you won't begrudge me for doing so.

Curiously, some of the most disturbing events have happened away from the Middle East — in streets and university campuses across the U.S., U.K., and Europe. There is so much hate and resentment and misguided passion, putting Jews and non-Jews at risk.

This highlights the importance of cities not just for pacifying bitter enemies but for bringing together compatriots in increasingly polarized countries. In the West, many of our failures have at least partly to do with failed urban policy: Our failure to provide enough affordable housing, our failure to provide environments conducive to healthy lifestyles, our failure to provide universal access to world-class education and healthcare facilities, our failure to provide basic safety for individuals and businesses.

These failures contribute to the general feeling we're in a zero-sum game, that one's success is necessarily at the expense of everyone else, and that whatever innovations and wealth cities create is not beneficial to most people in and around them. We can do so much better.

P.S. — If you haven't done so already, please check out the Old New Fellowship, my new initiative to accelerate peace in the Middle East. 🕊️