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July 30, 2013 / Leo Hollis

Review in

Cities Are Good for You

The idea that humanity’s future is an urban one is becoming a common theme. So is the idea that as the population grows and the climate changes, the best hope we have for a livable future is to design our cities well. Leo Hollis is not breaking new ground so much as reporting on the talk among many mayors, city planners, architects and sociologists these days.

A chapter on technological approaches to urban conundrums is titled “Maximum City,” an unspecified echo of Suketu Mehta’s 2005 book of the same name about Bombay. The phrase takes on new meaning here, as rather than the slums and criminal underworld of India’s largest city, Hollis uses it to describe the sparkling new techno-utopian city of Songdo in Korea.

He highlights the success of M-Pesa in Kenya. It’s a microfinance effort spearheaded by Vodafone, which employs mobile phones as a means to transfer money. In a place where traditional banking is an impossibility for many, M-Pesa gives people an easy, safe way to manage their money and helps stabilize the urban economy.

But Hollis reminds us that it is not gadgetry, nor design, that really makes a city. He addresses the Trayvon Martin killing in Sanford, Fla., and the gated community where Martin was shot. Did neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman see his patrols as reinforcement for those gates? The book also notes the growing trend toward surveillance cameras that stand watch over our public spaces. In the end, it is not technology but the people and, especially, trust between them, Hollis suggests, that make a city livable.

That’s a thought about our urban environs profound enough to keep the mental gears turning for the rest of the summer and far beyond.

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