Putting people back at the heart of cities

A new collection of essays challenges both pessimists who see urbanisation as a human disaster and eco-footprint obsessives who want to corral as many people into towns as possible.

Rob Lyons

Topics Books

‘A great city is, to be sure, the school for studying life.’

So said Samuel Johnson, at least according to his biographer James Boswell. Johnson is perhaps unusual in his enthusiasm for the city. Many images of London down the centuries have depicted large parts of it as dens of iniquity (as in Hogarth’s ‘Beer Street’ and ‘Gin Lane’), a collection of miserable insanitary slums or as a breeding ground for crime (as in Oliver Twist). The same could be said of the new cities of the twenty-first century, where millions of new dwellers pour in to repeat the experience of life in miserable, insanitary slums that Britain’s new city folk enjoyed in the nineteenth century.

As Mike Davis notes in his cheery tome, Planet of Slums, there are now a billion people living in the slums of the South. The expansion of the world’s cities is staggering. ‘In 1950, there were 86 cities in the world with a population of more than one million’, he writes, but ‘today there are 400, and by 2015 there will be at least 550. Cities, indeed, have absorbed nearly two-thirds of the global population explosion since 1950 and are currently growing by a million babies and migrants per week.’ For Davis, the result will be devastating inequality because the new cities simply cannot provide the jobs and resources to provide for so many new people so quickly: ‘Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement and decay.’

If cities seem a disaster area in Davis’s view, they are the saviours of the planet according to veteran eco-activist Stewart Brand. He rightly notes that village life is dreadful, particularly for women, which is why cities have become such magnets. ‘The villages of the world are emptying out, everywhere’, he writes in Whole Earth Discipline, rightly noting that the city promises the possibility of something better. But more than being merely better places to live, Brand believes the city is also an environmentally friendly place to live. City dwellers take up less land; they can travel more often by foot, bicycle or public transport; the provision of healthcare and utilities like water and electricity are easier if people are concentrated together. While Brand often writes evangelically about cities, underpinning his enthusiasm is a desire to reduce humanity’s ‘ecological footprint’. Cities are like eco-pens, where people can be herded to stop them doing quite so much damage everywhere else.

Into this schizophrenic debate about urbanisation comes The Lure of the City, a collection of essays that both critically examines the reality of city life today, challenging the gloomy prognostications of the likes of Davis, while suggesting the city can be far more than simply a means to reduce our impact on the planet. But the book is not mere cheerleading for the city, either. As co-editor Alastair Donald notes in his introduction, it is the ‘contestation at the heart of urban life’ that is real theme of the book. While there are no guarantees, life is often better in the city for those ‘swapping a village for a tower block and work in the fields for a job as a cleaner’, he writes. But this is a complicated and fluid process, and life can often be very hard indeed for the new urbanites.

In the chapter on The Paradoxical City, Donald describes why people move to the slums of Nairobi in Kenya: ‘Families in slums, like millions before them, move to cities because doing so represents the best hope of changing their lives. Not surprisingly, a slum seems like a fair prospect when a single meal of porridge and a bed in a grass hut is the return for an exhausting day farming maize and potatoes.’ But this is not merely about being better off. Cities are also places that open up the possibility of changing who you are, ‘places where identities are shed’.

Not that you would find much of that positive sentiment in many discussions of the city. As Patrick Hayes notes in a chapter on The Crowded City, there are plenty of commentators for whom the city merely concentrates misery. He quotes the executive director of the UN agency for human settlements, who argues that ‘as cities sprawl, turning into unmanageable megalopolises, their expanding footprints can be seen from space. These hotbeds of pollution are a major contributor to climate change.’ As Hayes notes, anti-city sentiments have been around as long as cities themselves, whether it is the ‘garden city’ campaigner Ebeneezer Howard describing them in 1898 as ‘ulcers on the very face of our beautiful island’ or, more recently, Peter Ackroyd writing of Victorian London as ‘packed to blackness’.

The flipside of disgust and horror at the slums, however, is ‘slum tourism’, with wealthy Westerners coming to look and admire the sense of community or the resilience of the inhabitants – or worse, setting up shop like missionaries in the latest game of Save the Natives. But while slum dwellers can be remarkably innovative and hardworking, the real aim is to get out of the slum. Indeed, Donald asks why the slum should be seen as an inevitable step to something better. Those who move in from the countryside in modern-day London or New York would expect to live in a home with all the modern conveniences, transport links, schooling, healthcare, and so on. Why should people in the developing world automatically put up with less?

The answer, in the past, would be assumed to lie with planning. Yet planning, as Michael Owens discusses in The Planned City, is now out of fashion, despite the fact that many planned settlements have been successes, from James Craig’s rational layout for Edinburgh’s New Town in the eighteenth century, through Haussmann’s Paris in the nineteenth century to Robert Moses’s New York in the twentieth century. Where planning has failed, all too often there has been a failure of democracy, argues Owens. Not mere consultation, but representative democracy, where elected politicians can bring to bear the combined resources of society to achieve goals that go beyond the needs of just one district at one time. Instead, the obsession with ‘organic’ growth has denied societies the possibility of genuine transformation.

This theme of transformation is explored more fully by Austin Williams and Karl Sharro in The Visionary City. From the Futurist architect Antonio Sant’Elia, whose nearly century-old plans are still – perhaps sadly – regarded as futuristic through Le Corbusier’s willingness to see the city in three dimensions to modern-day Dubai, there have been thinkers and planners prepared to experiment with the notion of the city. Unfortunately, for the most part, architects who claim to be Modernists tend to end up appealing to classical ideas. Dubai, which could be a focus for genuine innovation, is dismissed for its ‘artificiality’ or ignored altogether.

The focus of architectural excitement today, notes Williams, is in The Eco-City. Yet the obsession with green living has produced few concrete results, as it were. Western enthusiasm for a proposed eco-city at Dongtan, the first plans for which appeared in 2003, has been in inverse proportion to the amount of building that has actually gone on there. The spate of eco-cities echo the problems of democratic involvement in failed projects of the past. Williams even compares plans for one Chinese eco-city – at Wanzhuang – to Mao’s forced collectivisation. But it is clear that Chinese people want development, not the oxymoronic ‘sustainable development’.

The real problem of the city today is posed by Alan Hudson in The Dynamic City: ‘the relationship between, on the one hand, technical expertise and the activity of experts and, on the other, the active understanding, involvement and participatory collaboration of citizens, both as individuals and as groups, is out of joint’. While we need whizzkid architects and planners who can synthesise the newest technologies, materials and thinking, that skill must be put at the disposal of the people who will live in those cities and moulded to their needs and desires.

What is refreshing about The Lure of the City is that it puts people – not the planet or the expert – centre stage. From this, the ambition – the urgent demand – to transform the world to meet the aspirations of billions of new city dwellers rightly flows.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His new book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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