Changing the story. The rise of the small city

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Christian Benne


University of Copenhagen


DKK 923,268




Monograph Fellowships


Small cities have played a central role as a third space between the metropolis and the provinces. Despite their vast influence on the development of the Western world, be it as an arbiter of social change, as the cradle of technological innovation or as a home to thinkers, dreamers, universities or avant-garde movements, there exists hardly any research that specifically explores their contributions to modernity in general or to the urban imagination in particular. Studies concerned with urbanism invariably privilege the metropolis, those concerned with depictions of provincial life highlight the backwardness of the village, small town or fictional community. This project will make a case for the enormous impact of minor cities on modernisation both in history and in the present.


According to the standard account, deeply ingrained in Western identity, the acceleration of modernity is synonymous with progressive urbanization. This presents a problem. Many former industrial or cultural centres in the West have experienced decline, while some smaller cities have been successful at turning themselves into 'liveable' cities, where cultural consumption and quality of life are supposed to beat size and economic or political clout. Meanwhile, even the most successful cities in the West are shrinking in relative terms compared to the exponentially growing megalopolises on the Pacific Rim, in parts of Latin America, Africa or South Asia. Unless we can convincingly change the standard account, we have to surrender to the doomsayers who predict the West's inevitable decay.


The strength of the identification of modernity with the metropolis does not primarily rest on quantifiable facts, but is to a large extent grounded in the cultural imagination. From the realist novel of the 19th century to celebrations of metropolitan life in popular TV-Shows habitually set in New York, the big city has traditionally stood for the promise of liberation from small-town narrow-mindedness, from bigots and crackpots - and for the opportunity of the central hero(s) or heroine(s) to accumulate symbolic capital and forge their own destiny. Changing the standard narrative therefore means to present and to analyse conclusive material from literary and intellectual history that contradicts this story and indeed forms a counter narrative with the minor city at its centre.

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