Cities as Destiny

Birth-Death DistancesThis is interesting: The distribution of birth-to-death distances has changed very little during more than eight centuries. The median distance from birth to death has not even doubled between the 14th and the 21st centuries: from 214 km to 382 km, with a minimum of 135 km in the 17th century.

This result appears in a recent paper, “A network framework of cultural history”, published in Nature by Maximilian Schich and co-workers. The team collected the birth and death locations of more than 150,000 notable individuals and created a movie that starts in 600 BC and ends in 2012, where each person’s birth place appears on a map of the world as a blue dot and their death as a red dot. They think that the visualization of birth-death network dynamics provides a macroscopic perspective of the cultural history and narratives of Europe and North America.

Maximilian’s findings are consistent with Ravenstein’s laws of migration formulated in the late 19th century(1).

It is a bit disquieting to see how dominant cities along history correspond to the places where people go to die. Like those proverbial elephant’s graveyards, Rome gave way to Paris which was eventually overtaken by Los Angeles and New York.

As Lewis Mumford pointed out in “The City in History”, there are ironic overtones in how the places where people move in search of a better dwelling become our final destinations, and how the iconography of living cities is punctuated by the memory of the dead.

The first greeting of a traveller, as he approached a Greek or a Roman city, was the row of graves and tombstones that lined the road to the city.

As Mumford also suggests, perhaps the dead are the core of living cities:

Though food gathering and hunting do not encourage the permanent occupation of a single site, the dead at least claim this privilege (…) The city of the dead antedates the city of the living. In one sense, indeed, the city of the dead is the forerunner, almost the core, of every living city.



  1. The majority of migrants go only a short distance
  2. Migration proceeds step by step
  3. Migrants going long distances generally go by preference to one of the great centres of commerce or industry
  4. Each current of migration produces a compensating counter current
  5. The natives of towns are less migratory than those of rural areas
  6. Females are more migratory than males within the Kingdom of their birth, but males more frequently venture beyond
  7. Most migrants are adults: families rarely migrate out of their county of birth
  8. Large towns grow more by migration than by natural increase
  9. Migration increases in volume as industries and commerce develop and transport improve
  10. The major direction of migration is from the agricultural areas to the centres of industry and commerce
  11. The major causes of migration are economic

D. B. Grigg, “E. G. Ravenstein and the ‘laws of migration'”, Journal of Historical Geography, 3, 1 (1977) 41-54


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