We’ve heard many people claim that city life is congested, while rural life is green and meaningful. We’ve assumed that WH Davis, in his poem, Leisure, is hinting at the city life in the line: “What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.”
But is it really so? Why then does one crave to resume the routine after a holiday? This is because, says author Leo Hollis, cities are good for us. In fact, “cities are a social experiment in human history.”
As the writer stands on the High Line Park in Manhattan, he writes: “There is something thrilling about being able to look down on the city, no longer part of the throng, above the bustle and the fug of the traffic…”
The book plucks out reasons based on anatomical, historical, architectural, social and cultural philosophies and theorems by experts that cities are, in fact, the only way to be in the future. Compared to a beehive, the identity of the metropolis is the pursuit of happiness. Hollis also visits Mumbai, and makes a trip to Dharavi, the densest slum in Asia, home to a million people in just over 2.4 sq km. His conclusion, “the slum is not to separate people from the city, but to render them invisible.”
The book cites examples from other books, such as The Death and Life of Great Amercian Cities, published in 1961 by Jane Jacobs, an American-Canadian journalist and activist best known for her influence on urban studies. Jacobs called a rallying cry for complex spaces. Contradictory to traditional views, she sees “ballet” on the Hudson street, calling the chaotic streetscape the genome of the metropolis. Another interesting, and a relatable story of French author Stendhal, who on his visit to Florence, suffered from a bout of inexplicable dizziness. Stendhal was overcome by the artistic wonder of the city, defined as a case of ‘urban vertigo’. Yes, the city can overwhelm, but, there is a pattern in the chaos and we only have to fall in step with it.
When David Cameron launches Tech City in London’s Silicon Roundabout, in 2010, the author makes a connection between the coffee houses of the 1600 and Silicon Roundabout, as centres of information and trade, the first coffee houses established a forum for the new kind of modern, creative economy. In the last couple of decades, numerous cities have rebranded themselves as ‘Creative Cities’. With 60 world cities initiating creativity policies, for example, Liverpool One has attempted to revive the fortunes of its abandoned Albert Docks area with a collection of artistic attractions and museums.
The book even delves into the human behaviour and connects it to the city life. “We are hardwired together,” says the author, explaining that how much ever independent we may feel, we cannot do without people, and the city is the most natural place to be.
Hollis believes we are now an urban species, in the midst of the last great human migration, as studies predict that in the years, cities are only going to grow — be it Jinjiang, London, Tokyo or Mumbai. The book is a memoir of the rise and fall of cities, with interesting facts such as the archeological evidence of the first cities of the Harappan civilisation in the Indus Valley, Pakistan, where the rural community was first transformed into an urban power.
The book reminded me of a friend, who is a self-proclaimed city girl. While Mumbai, she says, will always be her home, it is her dream to live in different cities for each of its unique vibe. Currently a Parisian, she has embraced, over the years, Florence, London, Turkey and, of course, Mumbai as her residence. “The country is not for me,” I have often heard her say. This book, I believe, tells her story, in a practical format. A place always speaks to you, through its canals, skywalks, tube stations, but most importantly, through the people who live in it.
Cities Are Good For You -- The Genius of the Metropolis Leo Hollis Rs 650 Published by Bloomsbury