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April 23, 2013 / Leo Hollis

Time to Think About the City I


In the time it takes you to read this sentence, somewhere in the world, another ten people have made their way to the edge of the city, in hope that that the urban bustle might one day become home. 180,000 people arrive at the city everyday; that is the entire population of the UK every year transferring from the countryside to the city. We are living in the last great human migration in history and it will have an impact on every of our lives. In 2007, it was widely recorded that the world’s population became 50% urban; by 2050 this will likely rise to 75%. Will the city be our ark or our concrete coffin?

The city has long been considered the destroyer of men, and worse, their souls. Literature is littered with stories of the virtuous traveler brought low by the temptations of the city. When Dante wrote of Hell, he had renaissance Florence in mind. Many might agree with Henry Ford, who believed that ‘we shall solve the city by leaving the city’. Ford may have known something about selling cars but his view on the city, like his dictum on history, is bunk. Much is often made of what is lost as one enters the city; less is spoken of what is gained or remade.

For centuries we have been taught that the city was bad for us, and as a result we have misunderstood them. The news often accuses the city of being a place of crime, dirt, pollution; a place that can drive you mad; a forcing ground for violence. However, over the last few years the accumulation of evidence is starting to prove the opposite: cities can be good for you.  As we face an uncertain future the metropolis may just be the one place that will make us richer, fitter, smarter, greener, more creative and perhaps even happier.

The city is the greatest experiment in human history; yet our urban story is all too often written by its critics. The city is irrational, chaotic, uncontrollable, they say;  people are so impolite. It is so lonely. Nevertheless, recent research in as diverse areas as sociology, complexity theory and psychology has overturned all these myths. For example, in a recent report on civility in the UK conducted by the Young Foundation, behaviour was observed in Newham, one of the poorest and most diverse boroughs in east London; Cambourne, a county town in Cambridgeshire with a growing young population; and Wiltshire, one of the least densely populated counties in the South West.

The results were unexpected; where it is often assumed that incivility was linked to disadvantage, diversity and poverty, the opposite was found to be true. The city forces people to adapt their behaviour, to be more open and civil; the diversity of the community does not have to nurture divisions but accommodation and civility. It was in Wiltshire that the evidence of incivility was most common.

In another case: a BBC news story this week reported once again that modern life made us lonely. Today at least 7.1 million people in the UK live alone, mostly in cities. Undoubtedly, city living can stretch those close ties that we have; we are often too busy, tired or rushed to visit family and friends. Statistics show that many forms of collective participation has declined; the rise of ready-made meals-for-one how we spend many evenings alone.

Yet as evolutionary psychologist John Cacioppo proposes that we are hard-wired to be together and loneliness is a warning sign rather than an existential condition. If one feels alone, the city is the best place to makes the right kind of necessary connections. Evidence of phone usage and social media show that these interactions increase trust, encourage participation and reveal that most of us remain part a geographically local network. In short, Facebook reinforces rather than replaces our relationships.

Yet it is not just websites that bring us together. A report this week showed that over-60s who travel on the London bus system show signs of improved health and a sense of wellbeing. This was a result of getting out there and using the city, offering real opportunities for ‘meaningful social interaction . . . a socially acceptable way of tackling chronic loneliness’. It is also true for teenagers who are able to explore the city. A robust public transport system breaks down barriers, and allows a sense of ownership of the city.

The city thrives on these weak ties that we create to make it through the day. It is these moments of human contact that act like electricity, making the city more powerful than the sum of its part. This has, surprisingly, been scientifically proven by the English physicist Geoffrey West who has studied the ‘metabolism’ of cities and found that as they grow in size they become increasingly more efficient, creative, prosperous, and even greener. Moving to a city that is twice the size will increase per capita income, it will also be a more creative and industrious place;  as the pace of all socio-economic activity accelerates, this leads to higher productivity while economic and social activities diversify.

But despite these natural advantages of urban living, there are still many areas of debate about what makes a good city; it is easy to become entranced by the numbers and the science. The reality on the ground is often very different: 33% of Londoner feel lonely; here, also, the richest 10% are 273 times richer than the bottom 10%. We are living in a crisis for housing, education, health; nearly 1 in 4 16-24 year old in the capital cannot find a job. In addition we face the extraordinary global challenges of rapid population growth, climate change and the fight over limited resources. Might cities be both the location of the problem and the solution?

The most significant – and most often overlooked – observation about the city is that it is made out of people, and not buildings. It has been too often assumed that the problems of the city can be answered by an engineer’s technical upgrade, brave new architecture or massive investment in infrastructure alone, without taking into consideration the human factor. This is a big mistake that we can no longer afford to make.

It is simple things, thinking about how to change people’s behaviour rather than by changing the city around them that will have a long-term impact our collective urban future. To understand the true advantages of city life we need to rethink what it is for and how the metropolis works, making it a place of opportunity for everyone.


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