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Are cities good for us?

Associate director of Future Cities Project and project director of the British Pavilion at Venice Architecture Biennale, Alastair Donald introduces his argument as we help spark the debate for the upcoming weekend of free speech, Battle of Ideas, in a City Visions inspired discussion.

‘Cities are the greatest creations of humanity’ argues the architect Daniel Liebeskind. And certainly throughout the ages, there’s been no shortage of commentators lining up to celebrate the civic qualities of Athens, Rome and Florence, revel in the modernity of Paris, London and Mumbai, and herald the economic dynamism of New York, Tokyo and Shanghai.

‘Hell is a city much like London’ Percy Shelly

Yet these assertions of greatness always co-existed with a darker view of the city. The Roman republic was famous for its congestion, corruption and social inequality. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau condemned the city for its effect of ‘intoxication’ that undermined the judgment of even the most ‘advised man’. The poet Percy Shelly put it simply: ‘Hell is a city much like London’. More recently, the American misanthrope James Howard Kunstler criticised contemporary forms of the city as ‘socially toxic, ecologically suicidal and spiritually degrading’.

The co-existence of such different views reflect the reality of the city as a place of contest and conflict, where the destitute sought to make their fortunes, where the desire to impose authority rubbed up against the popular aspirations for freedom, and holding on to traditions vied with a powerful dynamic towards change. Indeed in the age of modernity, the very essence of a city was to be found in this struggle for change. The sense of instability and flux it generated, and the desire (and fear) of experiencing life without boundaries, tended to be the heart of much of the best writing on the modern city: ‘England is a small country. The world is infinitesimal amongst planets. But London is illimitable’ wrote Ford Madox Ford of the Edwardian city.

‘the modern city stood for a positive orientation towards the future, a place of potential’

In this sense, the modern city stood for a positive orientation towards the future, a place of potential, of possibilities born of the promise of transformation, increased material wealth and more individual autonomy. Central to the city’s very being was the idea of individual and societal experimentation and taking risks, of the possibilities and benefits of navigating the new and the unknown.

Lately, the city has become something of a cause célèbre, but the cause of the city is now framed by a very different outlook. The seemingly endless recent string of books, policies and strategies celebrating the urban age and the ‘future city’ are shot through with contemporary anxieties over modernity. Where once the gains in wealth and freedom wrought by modernisation were a cause for celebration, today they illicit mounting trepidation. From concerns over population growth to ethical campaigns against consumption, from disquiet over uninhibited free speech to alarm over ‘excess’ travel, it’s the modern world itself which is often fingered as the instigator of economic inequality, social fragmentation and planetary collapse.

Consequently, where the gains of modernity were once rendered manifest in the built form of cities, today it’s the physical configuration of the city that is summoned to save us from the (assumed) problems of modernity. This is the underlying motive that informs the current idea that ‘cities are good for us’ – a sense that the city can and should be used as a means of future proofing us against a myriad of potential harms. In the contemporary survivalist mentality, it’s the means by which to pull back from the tipping point between disaster and survival.

The problem is that if we’re now so fearful of the advances of human society that the purpose of the city is reduced to merely throwing up protective barriers and staving off problems, it’s hardly a productive standpoint from which to pursue changing things for the better. The United Nations might make the entirely reasonable argument that cities are ‘dynamic centres of creativity and culture’, but if the starting point is one of risk aversion then it is necessarily hostile to a more free, imaginative and ambitious approach.

It would be wrong to entirely dismiss the claim of Harvard academic Edward Glaeser in his bestselling Triumph of the City that cities make us ‘richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier’. There are plenty potential benefits to be had from the dense concentrations of humanity – just as there may be benefits for many of us in spreading out. The problem is the now widespread acceptance that huddling together in cities is a necessary condition of survival. The result of that outlook is to further downplay our already weak sense that we can exercise human agency over creating the future. For that reason alone, it’s worth questioning the simplistic notion that cities are good for us.

Add your voice to a weekend of debate and free speech at Battle of Ideas, taking place 18 and 19 October.