Skip to content

City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age – P. D. Smith

July 21, 2018

TCIt contains main sections on ‘History’, ‘Customs and Language’, ‘Districts’, ‘Transport’, ‘Money’, ‘Work’, ‘Tourist Sites’, ‘Shops and markets’, ‘Nightlife’, etc., and mini-essays on anything and everything from Babel, Tenochtitlán and Ellis Island to Beijing, Mumbai and New York, and from boulevards, suburbs, shanty towns and favelas, to skylines, urban legends and the sacred; essays on downtowns, suburbs, shantytowns and favelas, graffiti, skylines, crime, the theatre, street food, sport, eco-cities, and sacred sites, as well as mini essays on the Tower of Babel, flash mobs, ghettos, skateboarding, and SimCity

They say that the Bible starts in a garden but ends in a city and Harvey Cox lauded The Secular City.

City is divided into eight sections – Arrival, History, Customs, Where To Stay, Getting Around, Money, Time Out, and Beyond the City. Each section contains between three and five essays. In Customs, for example, you will find essays on writing, street language, graffiti, demonstrations and carnivals. Each of these also contains a mini essay exploring one aspect in more detail, such as the momentous events in Tahrir Square, which is part of the essay on demonstrations.

After each section there is a longer essay on a more concrete feature of the urban landscape, typically a structure or space common to most, if not all, cities. They explore the Central Station, the City Wall, the House of God, the Hotel, the Skyscraper, the Department Store, the Park, and the Ruins. All the essays are illustrated.

Many details will linger with the reader: that oysters were a cheap and popular street snack in 16th century London, or that a million dwellers of Mumbai’s slums are crammed onto an area less than one square mile, with a dozen family members sharing in a single room the size of an American parking space.

A chilling thought at the end – cities rely on so much infrastructure that disasters like nuclear war or global warming could erase them in a few years, leaving foliage and little else – he quotes the Book of Lamentations to great effect.

I had to look up epergnes = an ornamental centrepiece for a dining table, typically used for holding fruit or flowers.

 The  author:

you can read the story of a city in the names of its districts and streets. Though street names, like the façades of shops, occasionally change with the times. In the Middle Ages, many English cities had a “Gropecunt Lane,” which was the local red-light district. Sadly they have now been renamed to reflect current tastes and sensibilities. I suppose in this sense our streets are also a palimpsest, with old maps holding the key to their history.

But the idea of detecting layers of history in the names and spaces of a city is deeply evocative for me. Of course, the ground beneath old cities really is like an archaeological layer cake. The tells, or ruin heaps, that now litter the arid landscape of Iraq contain as many as eighteen layers of buildings, one on top of another. The earliest date back some seven thousand years.

Many of our modern cities are built on top of earlier ones. Roman London lies about six metres below today’s street level. While I was researching my book City, I visited the twelfth-century basilica of San Clemente in Rome, near the Colosseum. In the gift shop is a staircase that takes you back through time, down through the rich strata of Roman history.

Beneath the medieval church is an earlier one dating from AD 385, still full of beautiful frescos. But there’s another staircase which takes you even further down, until you reach the streets of first-century Rome. Here, the noise of the cars above is gone and all you can hear is the sound of an underground river rushing past, as if it were time itself. In the subterranean darkness stands a pagan shrine—a temple to Mithras, the ancient god of wisdom and light. Its smooth stone benches are now empty, waiting for worshippers who have been dead more than two thousand years.

It’s a remarkable place, one where the layers of urban history suddenly came alive for me. The proto-Situationist Ivan Chtcheglov said, “All cities are geological and three steps cannot be taken without encountering ghosts.” He’s right. The ghosts of the past are all around us in cities. And yes, I agree with you, that the best way to experience the city is through a form of “walking archaeology.” For me, understanding the city is a cumulative process, like turning the pages of a book (a paper book!). And that means through the soles of my feet—by walking.

While we’re on the subject of walking (one that’s close to my heart), Paul Auster described New York as a “labyrinth of endless steps.” I’ve often thought that the idea of the city as a labyrinth, as a maze of streets and alleys in which you can lose yourself—or perhaps even discover yourself—is a powerful one. Do you agree?

The idea of the city as a labyrinth brings to mind one of the crucial conditions, in my view, for a city to remain a living rather than an inert thing: the ability to get lost. I don’t completely subscribe to Situationist rhetoric but they had a real point with the dérive idea; of breaking out of deadening routines and plans and rediscovering the city through chance. One of the lessons I’ve learned with cities is not to get too familiar with the ones you love. As a child, I visited Edinburgh and was completely transfixed. I had no idea that such a place, this Gothic “mad god’s dream” as Hugh MacDiarmid put it, could exist outside the pages of a book. Eventually I moved there and spent many years exploring its wynds, courtyards, graveyards, and pubs. And very gradually, the magic I had felt diminished with experience. What I had taken as eerie and otherworldly, for all the city’s undoubted strengths, was actually austere and Calvinist. And the territory I was interested in, once I’d walked seemingly every street, shrank to the pristine wildness of the river that runs through the city, the water of Leith. That area retained something of the initial wonder and mystery. It remained poetry and the rest of the city, through routine, work, politics, and religion, fossilised into prose. I’m always conscious now of retaining my love for many cities I’m interested in by explicitly not living in them. I see little shame in admitting to being a tourist and, given I’ve lived the past few years in the woods by the North Sea, I’m a tourist everywhere I travel now. Given we’re guests on the planet for an absurdly finite period of time, perhaps we all are.

I think this reflects a much larger problem for cities. I don’t discredit urban planning by any means (it’s a multitude of things) but there is always a danger of planning away the poetry of existence, often through commercial concerns but sometimes by trying for a well-meaning “human” environment. Some of the worst examples of liminal spaces in cities I’ve seen have come through the best intentions but they’ve lost any of the intriguing accidents, idiosyncrasies, and varieties that people can attach memories to and build personal mythologies around. I see many dangers in the unquestioned advance of Smart Cities (as there are with planned cities), one of which is the side effect of removing inefficiencies—when we very often live and thrive within these blind spots. There has been a backlash against this process; you see it in rewilding, in urban exploration, even in the reminders of the rooftop world in parkour, but I think it’s vital to think in much more everyday terms. We could be more conscious of how difficult it will be to have any kind of resonance to place or narrative in your life, a crucial component of mental health and fulfilment, when we’re all living in shopping mall-type junkspace.

Can cities slip from being living, breathing places to being what we might call living-dead, however exquisite the corpse is? Alongside climatic changes or catastrophes, do you think there’s a danger of cities being perfected out of existence? And in contrast, what do you think makes the heart of living cities tick?

…. getting lost in a city and the value of aimless, touristic wandering. But yes, “planning away the poetry”— what a great phrase—is an important subject. In Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo says that cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears.” Humankind has been dreaming of the perfect city for millennia. For some four thousand years, right up until the twentieth century, China built its imperial cities as a celebration and reflection of the sublime perfection of the celestial realm. Their deeply symbolic cities were designed by the courtly geomancers to create an ideal equilibrium between nature, the state, and the cosmos. What an incredible idea!

Heaven on Earth in the form of a city: from Plato to Leonardo da Vinci, many great visionaries have dreamed this seductive dream of an urban eutopia—or to use Thomas More’s sly subversion of the word—utopia: not “good place”, but a “nowhere place.”

Ideal cities are pure blue-sky thinking. They are urban fantasies, like Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun from the early seventeenth century—a Babel-like megastructure that was designed to shape the minds of its inhabitants throughout the course of their lives, guiding them to intellectual and ethical enlightenment. The idea of living in a city designed for such a purpose appals me. It would be the dream capital of a dictator but a nightmare for his or her subjects.

The road to hell is, of course, paved with good intentions. The dreams that inspire today’s planned cities, such as Masdar City or Songdo City, are admirable. They want to be sustainable, smart, and safe. But do they work for people—for everyone, not just an affluent elite? To quote Shakespeare: what is the city but the people? It’s city dwellers themselves who determine whether a city is a success. And if it isn’t then people will just rewrite the plans. People show immense creativity in hacking, subverting, and re-engineering spaces to create environments where they want to live, play, fall in love, and eventually grow old and die in—spaces where they can have dreams of their own, not ones predetermined by utopian theorists like Campanella.

So yes, the danger of over-planning a city is always there. But my answer to your question lies with people, with the citizens – they are the beating heart of any great city. For if a city’s streets are a riddle in search of a solution, then that solution is its inhabitants. From Tenochtitlán, the great Aztec capital, to the Walled City of Kowloon—that anarchic community that grew up in Hong Kong thanks to a legal loophole in the 1898 convention with Britain—people make a city great. And great cities are always complex, edgy, disorderly—qualities that are not part of most urban plans. And yet they should be at the very heart of them.

One thing that struck me while writing City was the continuity running through urban history. The idea that cities are expressions of timeless human needs—to trade, to socialise, to be creative—reflected in spaces like marketplaces and stores, restaurants and theatres that are present in all urban communities.

But what does the future hold for cities and urban life? Will we live in streetless vertical cities? Or will climate change force us into defensive structures: underground bunkers or floating cities? Will the future cause us to radically rethink what a city is?

It seems to me our visions of the future tell us more about the present than they do the future. The clean open marble piazzas of Renaissance Ideal Cities were dreamt up amidst narrow alleyways and unhygienic squalor. Bruno Taut was dreaming up visions of crystal palaces on top of the Alps, dedicated to universal brotherhood, at the time when millions were living like troglodytes and killing each other in the trenches of the First World War. The age of optimistic futuristic Googie architecture was also the age of “Duck and Cover” and imminent nuclear holocaust. I believe the futurists of today keep producing dazzling visions despite or because subconsciously they know how screwed we actually are. When times are threatening, we dream of utopia. When times are stable, we can indulge ourselves with apocalyptic visions.

Our visions of the future seem to me to be still determined by imperial dominance and cultural hegemonies. So, in this part of the world at least, when asked to think of a future city, our default tends to be to think of future New York or Tokyo or London. These are fine, fascinating cities but they overshadow others. The future will be nothing if not a plurality. Reading Kevin Barry’s vision of a future Ireland in City of Bohane or listening to Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism or looking at Simon Stalenhag’s paintings of future Sweden, I’m increasingly fascinated by what the future will resemble in the overlooked regions of the world, and indeed, their pasts and presents. Are there particular cities that interest you? If you could travel in a time machine forwards or backwards in time, what cities would you visit?

Nothing dates more quickly than our visions of the future—something I realised when writing my book Doomsday Men. Thankfully, the future often turns out to be more mundane than our dreams and nightmares. Of course there will be technological revolutions, but it will probably be the ones that are most unexpected that cause the most changes to urban life. Those cities affected by rising temperatures and sea levels will certainly be forced to make dramatic changes. City dwellers are tenacious, though: they will cling to the places they know. Storm walls will be built around affluent coastal cities, as they once were to keep out bandits. Urbanites will become extremophiles, adapting their lives to withstand heat and storms. Their cities will become life-support systems shielding them from an increasingly hostile environment.

Not all cities will be able to afford high-tech defences. But people won’t just sit there and wait for the tide to rise. They’ll move. The current mass migrations are just the beginning. Advances in technology, such as 3D printing coupled with downloadable house plans, may well mean temporary, even nomadic, cities will grow up within the span of a few weeks. New geopolitical realities will create new cities in unexpected places. And they will not be the gleaming steel and glass towers imagined by today’s Smart City planners. They’ll look more like the first, densely packed urban communities than the futuristic cities touted by architectural studios. They’ll grow and evolve like biological structures, driven by basic and timeless human needs.

Yes, if I had a time machine I’d love to travel into the future to glimpse tomorrow’s cities and see how they compare with those of the past. If nothing else, it would provide wonderful material for a book! Perhaps the great cities of today will be crumbling, deserted ruins by then. London may be engulfed by a tropical swamp: the towers of Canary Wharf and the City of London reduced to broken fingers of concrete and glass marooned in vast lagoons created by the swollen River Thames. The Shard will no longer house the mega-rich but will provide roosts-with-a-view for cliff-nesting birds and lodgings for aquatic mammals. Luxury skyscrapers will become vertical gardens, as nature colonises these man-made landscapes. The only humans in the city will be roof-top survivalists or tour groups of visiting students ferried from a new metropolis, built on high ground in the north of England: “See—these are the urban ruins of the Anthropocene, a civilization that plundered the Earth and poisoned its air and water. Two thousand years of urban culture down the drain…”

Will these future tourists learn from our bad example? Have we learned from our urban past? The first cities which emerged in what today is Iraq, some six thousand years ago, destroyed their environment through intensive farming and irrigation which led to salinization of the soil. Eventually they couldn’t grow the food they needed to survive. The first cities are now dusty ruin heaps in a desert. When HG Wells first saw Manhattan’s skyline he said: “What a ruin it will make!” The destiny of all cities is to become a ruin heap, picked over by future archaeologists and visited by tourists hunting photo opportunities. Perhaps that is the only certainty in our urban future…

But back to your question—with the benefit of your technological largesse, I’d love to go back in time too. I’ve always been fascinated by Berlin in the interwar years. It was an extraordinarily dynamic city, torn politically between the Nazis and the Communists fighting for dominance on the streets, but also attracting artists, writers, and scientists to its creative heart. Physicists like Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, the remarkable Hungarian émigré who would eventually dream up the nightmare of the atomic bomb. In Berlin’s cafés and cabarets you might also bump into poets like Stephen Spender and WH Auden, the playwright Bertolt Brecht, or Alfred Döblin, whose novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) brilliantly captures the sights and sounds of this incredible city, from the rhythmic thud of the steam pile-driver in front of Aschinger’s bar on Rosenthaler Strasse (“rumm, rumm”) to the squeals of dying animals in Berlin’s new slaughterhouse.

This chaotic, vibrant ‘Babylon of the world’ (Stefan Zweig) was also Fritz Lang’s city. His film Metropolis came out in 1927 and it set the standard for all subsequent celluloid visions of the urban future. Lang imagined the metropolis of the future as a dystopia. He wasn’t alone, of course. Artists, writers and film-makers in the twentieth century were nearly all pessimists when it came to how we would live in tomorrow’s cities: HG Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, JG Ballard’s “The Concentration City”, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner… the list is endless. And they are in stark contrast to the optimistic visions of architects and planners. Why do you think that is?

When City was published, I was struck that one subject kept coming up in interviews: what will the cities of the future look like? Of course, a part of the book deals with future trends, but for me the book was always about the city as an idea running like a red thread through human life and culture, an idea stretching back several thousand years. But I suppose at the heart of our restless creativity as a species is an insatiable, Faustian desire to know what will be the next twist in the human narrative.

So yes—the future of cities! As we’ve both already said, climate change is going to be one of the key factors that will shape tomorrow’s cities. For coastal cities that means rising sea levels; for others it will be rising temperatures. It also means new diseases—like the Zika virus spread by mosquitoes—and mass movements of people displaced by new weather patterns or water shortages. The current wave of isolationism in Europe and the US is the first sign of the political instability that challenges like this are going to stir up. But just as city mayors have joined forces to tackle climate change by promoting greener cities, perhaps they can also challenge the rise of nationalism. I certainly hope so. Because even the most perfect city is a hollow achievement if we lose our humanity—that’s the whole point of Zamyatin’s and Wells’s fictional dystopias.

The future world will not be a global village but a global city. Our wired, connected planet is becoming smaller by the day. Rapid flows of people and ideas will increasingly make borders irrelevant. One of the downsides to this is the increasing homogenization of cities. Regardless of the local political brand, neoliberalism is the global economic religion everyone kowtows to. In every downtown, the same starchitect-designed glass and steel boxes are soaring skywards, built by the rich for the rich. Globalization is leveling out the differences between cities. Soon every shopping street or mall will be identical. Even the street food will taste the same. If that happens then we’ve lost something incredibly precious. The difference between cities is like biodiversity in nature. The world needs a variety of urban cultures, not a corporate monoculture. Think of Beijing bulldozing its traditional hutong neighbourhoods to make way for generic malls and high-rises. Terrible! There has to be a way of modernizing without destroying what makes a city unique.

Predicting the technologies that will change cities is a fun game, but one that is about as accurate as a sci-fi novel. But for what it’s worth, I think autonomous transport will really change the way we use cities—hopefully for the better. A city-wide system of self-driving vehicles, summoned by smartphone, could transform the urban environment. It would be safer, cleaner, and quieter. It might mean the end of the “parasitical existence of personal cars,” as Guy Debord put it. People will be able to reclaim the streets.

Cars have changed our cities for the worse. For thousands of years, cities were designed for pedestrians. Then in the last century cars became the city’s most important inhabitants. But Motopia became a dystopia for cyclists and pedestrians. In 2004 there were 1.2 million deaths on the roads. Sao Paulo needs an area larger than Manhattan just to park all its cars. So it would be truly revolutionary if we could move towards a transport system that made owning a car redundant, as has already happened in Vauban in south-western Germany, where 70% of families don’t own a car. I think in the future people will be astonished that we tolerated the infernal combustion engine in our cities for so long.

But as you say, our views of future cities reflect today’s problems. So let’s shift the discussion back to the here and now—what trends in today’s cities do you find most exciting or alarming?

What we do now dictates so much of what will follow. We’re creating the future as we speak. “For whom?” is the question.

 Quotations:

“Cities are our greatest creation.Today, for the first time in the history of the planet, more than half the population – 3.3 billion people – are city dwellers … by 2050, 75% will be urbanites.”

“As in a real city, you can follow any number of pathways through this book. And don’t worry about getting lost. Some say it’s the only way really to experience a city.”

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desire and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

“In this dynamic, cosmopolitan space lies the wellspring of our creativity as a species. The greatest cities nurture and stimulate ideas in science and the arts that are the very heart of human civilisation. For this reason, sustainable, humane and well-governed cities are our best hope for the future.”

“For at least four thousand years, Chinese imperial cities were consistently designed as four-sided walled enclosures with twelve gates, three in each side” because “as the earthy residence of the Son of Heaven, the imperial city was seen as a microcosm of the celestial realm: the universe was believed to be square, and therefore the emperor’s city had to reiterate that cosmological fact.”

Today, for the first time in history more than half the population of the planet live in cities. Two hundred years ago, just three per cent were city dwellers, but by 2050, 75 per cent will be urbanites. My new book City is a guidebook to our urban age, taking the reader on a journey through the past, present and future of the world’s cities.

“In 2006, each Londoner produced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 6.18 tons of carbon dioxide, just over the half the national average.”

`Train journeys are about possibilities,’ says Ram, the Mumbai `Slumdog Millionaire’ of Vikras Swarup’s novel. ‘They denote a change in state. When you arrive, you are no longer the same person who departed.’ There is no better way to arrive in a city than by train. As soon as the door of the train opens, you step out into the heart of the metropolis and become part of the urban crowd.

A city terminus is where countless journeys begin or end. Its plat­forms are the stage on which many personal dramas unfold every day — tearful separations, joyful reunions and brief encounters. Loved ones departing to fight in wars, perhaps never to return; families laden with luggage off to a seaside holiday; newly-wed couples — confetti still in their hair — with a honeymoon and the rest of their lives ahead of them; lovers hurrying to a rendezvous under the station clock; migrant workers arriving for the first time in an unfamiliar city, trying not to think of their distant home and family; parents waving goodbye to children about to start a new term at boarding school; travellers catching the Orient Express or with a passage booked on a slow boat to China. The central station is a place of constant motion and emotion: The grief and pain of separation, the hopes, the fears, the loving care, the prayers, the joys, the trust!’

The coming of the railways in the first half of the nineteenth cen­tury allowed people from all over the country to visit the city with relative ease. In 1850, The Times claimed: ‘Thirty years ago not one countryman in one hundred had seen the metropolis. There is now scarcely one in the same number who has not spent the day there.’ Railway termini became the modern gateways into the city, echo­ing the ancient gates of the earliest cities. Euston, built 1835-9, was the first inter-city station in London. An inter-city line had run from Liverpool to Manchester since 1830 but it was mainly used for freight. Architect Philip Hardwick worked with Robert Stephenson to build Euston Station. Unlike previous stations, it had platforms for both arrivals and departures. As if to express the idea of the station as city gate, in front of Euston they erected an imposing propylaeum a seventy-two-foot high monumental gateway like Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate. Inspired by the ancient entrance to the Acropolis in Athens…. stations also have a shadowy underclass, a shifting pop-those at the fringes of society, beggars as well as ‘dossers, drifters, drug addicts, the homeless and the friendless’. A underworld preys on these vulnerable people, as do pick-on the unsuspecting travellers. In the impoverished years fol­the First World War, Fritz Haarmann picked up teenage boys around Hanover Station. He would sexually abuse and then them. He sold their clothes and it is rumoured he even sold flesh to butchers unable to obtain meat. Haarmann was caught and confessed to at least twenty-four murders. Fritz Lang’s about a serial killer, M (1931), starring Peter Lorre, was inspired by Haarmann’s crimes. The film Christiane F.: We Children the Zoo Station (Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo, 1981), based on actual experiences of Christiane Felscherinow, a fourteen-year-old drug addict, vividly depicted this dark underside to the life of city railway station. With a soundtrack by David Bowie, the film ked audiences with its bleak depiction of the lives of the teen-prostitutes and addicts at West Berlin’s largest station, the Berlin logical Garden Station, known locally as Bahnhof Zoo. The film is a stark reminder that, for some, the city’s central station can indeed become a terminal station.

Eridu was part of an urban revolution that swept across what was then the fertile land of southern Mesopotamia, through which flowed the ancient rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates. The first cities were built by a people we now know as the Sumerians. Their language was unique and their origins remain shrouded in mystery. According to archaeologist Charles Gates, ‘the Sumerians stand alone in human history. Their language has no known relatives and their architec­ture and artifacts do not indicate ethnic ties with cultures of other regions.’ The name Sumer comes from the ancient Akkadian name for this region: `Shumer’. They described themselves as ‘the black-headed ones’. Nobody knows where these people came from, but they and their gods created the world’s first urban civilisation.

At the heart of their distinctive civilisation were independent, self-governing cities, beginning with the first city: Eridu. The Sumerians believed that each city had been built by a god or goddess as their own dwelling. The temple was therefore at the centre of city life, a focus of ritual and economic activity. The god entrusted each city to the care of a king, or lugar in Sumerian. For Sumerians, civilised life was city life. They did not pine for some lost idyllic Garden of Eden, a perfect realm from which (according to the Judaeo-Christian tradition) man­kind was expelled by a wrathful God. Instead the Sumerians believed their gods had given them the city — a place of plentiful food and water, a place of society, of family and friendship, and a centre of civi­lisation. They were at home in the city. It was where they believed all their dreams would be realised.

Plato’s `Kallipolis’ (in Greek, beautiful or noble city) is rigidly hierarchical state governed by philosopher-kings, the Rulers. e population was strictly policed and controlled. There was censor­ship: writers and artists were only allowed to portray noble characters, and there was no place for poets in the ideal city. Doctors practised eugenics and euthanasia, removing from society those judged not to be of sound mind or body. In this communistic state, private property and even families were banned. Admittedly Plato had a noble aim in devising this authoritarian state, namely to eliminate greed and self-interest. But the cure was worse than the disease and Plato’s city seems far from ideal today. What is valuable, however, in this urban thought experiment is the realisation that cities bring together a wide range of different people, who have diverse needs and desires, and that for everyone to live in harmony a framework of law and tradi­tions is essential.

Walls create the spaces in which we live, separating the public from the private, protecting us from the elements and other people. The walls of buildings guide our route — sometimes straight, sometimes meandering — through the city, shaping the pattern of our urban lives…..As we pass through cities we are travelling between the walls of other people’s lives. Between four walls you can be whatever you want to be: your apartment becomes the theatre of your dreams. From Beijing to Berlin, in our seven-thousand-year love affair with cities, walls have ­at different times and different places — imprisoned people and helped set them free.

Whether they are made of glass, brick or concrete, walls are the defining structures in cities. The wall is, probably, the greatest of all inventions,’ says the narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (1924). `Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he had built his first wall.’ For D-5o3 (numbers have replaced names in Zamyatin’s future society), the crystalline Green Wall that surrounds his city is the guar­antor of civilisation. Like butterflies under a bell jar, he and his fellow Numbers live in an artificial bubble of rationality and mathematical order protected from the chaos of nature by the Green Wall. But, like all inventions, walls can be used for good or evil. Their beloved wall, the bulwark of D-5o3’s utopia, cuts people off from the world and from reality. Ultimately, the Green Wall does not protect Zamyatin’s ideal city from a hostile world, but traps people in a ruthless authori­tarian state.

More than any other structure, the fortified city wall has shaped urban communities around the world. `Polis the ancient Greek word for city, originally meant a citadel, such as the crown of a hill sur­rounded by a ring wall. From the earliest times up until the eight­eenth century, the defensive wall was the city’s most prominent and visible feature. The first city dwellers felt the presence of their defen­sive wall even when they could not see it. It became a wall in th mind. Subtly and gradually, the city wall changed the way people sa the world. Although it protected populations against real or imagine threats from outside, it also united the enclosed community, binding them with a common sense of identity and shared purpose. The wall made people into citizens.

Graffiti embraces a wide range of mostly urban markings — lovers’ names cut into brick or wood, symbols chalked on walls by hoboes or tramps for one another indicating whether a town was safe or dan­gerous, the names of gangs marking the bounds of their territory, slogans (Brahms not Bombs), obscene or obscure words scrawled drunkenly on walls overnight, ‘Kilroy was here’ (a graffito that prob­ably originated in the chalk marks of an American shipyard inspector named James J. Kilroy during the Second World War), the names of the famous, such as Lord Byron, who carved his mark into a pillar at Château de Chillon on Lake Geneva, and cryptic tags (a graffiti writer’s signature), as well as the dynamic designs of wildstyle graffiti and street art.

Graffiti is certainly not a new kid on the urban block. In ancient Pompeii, houses were brightly painted in reds, yellow and blue, ideal surfaces for everything from electoral slogans and advertisements to spontaneous graffiti. One popular piece of doggerel, found on at least three walls in Pompeii, indicates the popularity of graffiti writ­ing among city dwellers: ‘I am amazed that you haven’t fallen dow O wall / Loaded as you are with all this scrawl ‘ Walking throug the streets of Pompeii, you would have seen syrupy lover’s rhym such as this: ‘I wish I could be a ring on your finger for an hour, more …’ While on another wall, you could spot the kind of obsce boasts familiar to all city dwellers throughout history: ‘Here I fuck loads of girls.’ And, inevitably, the natural results of such behaviour also appeared: Atimetus got me pregnant’

In 2003, the French prime minister angrily dismissed public pro­test, asserting confidently, ‘the street does not rule’. History reveals a somewhat different story, particularly in France, where the rue has long played a role in toppling regimes. Indeed, if any city can claim to be the capital of protest, it is Paris. Over the centuries, the blood of Parisians has regularly been spilt on its streets. From at least the Sixteenth Century,  French kings lived in fear of the rebellious their worst fears were realised as the city was con-revolution. In that year, aristocrats and politicians -wondered if their cities would be next to be engulfed fervour. On 5 October 1789, three months after the hated Bastille fortress and prison in the city (the event the beginning of the Revolution), working women from of Les Halles marched through Paris to the palace at a protest about the shortage of bread.

[…] it is striking that throughout the twentieth century the idealism of architects and planners about the urban future has been – and, indeed, continues to be – opposed by the deep pessimism of most writers and filmmakers. Time and again, architects offer seductive glimpses of glittering skyscrapers full of hothouse vegetation or sentient cities that satisfy every whim of their inhabitants, while novels and films conjure up visions of alienating cities in which people are reduced to cogs in a dehumanising urban machine.

By 1890 (when lines were being electrified), nearly eight hundred companies operated more than 32,000 streetcars on six thousand miles of tracks. They carried some two billion passengers, twice as many as in the rest of the world combined. Unsurprisingly, the streetcars were all overcrowded. ‘People are packed into them like sardines in a box, with perspiration for oil,’ complained one commuter in 1864.

New Yorkers spent more than two hours each day commuting. The streets were jammed with traffic and if the sidewalks hadn’t been equally packed it would have been quicker to walk.

Downtown’s loss was suburbia’s gain. For this was the beginning of America’s love affair with suburbia, the dream of a semi-rural bourgeois utopia. For the middle classes this meant a single-family home surrounded by trees and a white picket fence.

London’s suburbs were infamous places of lawlessness, full of ‘base tenements’ and noxious industries, such as soap-making and tanning. The author of a sixteenth-century guide to the capital alluded to their sleazy reputation when he asked: ‘London, what are thy Suburbes but licensed Stewes?’

A seventeenth-century guidebook claimed that ‘filth in the streets and traffic have made it impossible to go about in Paris except in coach.’ The streets of Paris were, indeed, famously filthy and the mud that coated every street was notorious. Known as ‘la boue de Paris’, one visitor described it as ‘a black unctuous Oil’. The truth was that Parisian streets were effectively open sewers and if you wanted to keep your fine gown or shoes clean, you needed to be physically carried from door to door.

In São Paolo, where there are nearly seven million registered cars, traffic jams can stretch for 100 miles (160 kilometres) at rush hour. In China – the country that holds the record for road deaths (110,000 a year) – a traffic jam in Beijing took police three days and two nights to unblock.

Just under 1.3 million people die on the roads every year, worldwide, one of the benefits of technology and the modern world. However, humanity is fighting back, for example in Bogotá:

Thanks to the policies of mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa, who ran the city from 1995 to 2003, the number of deaths from traffic accidents in Bogotá has been almost halved, falling from 914 fatalities in 1998 to 553 in 2006. Mayor Mockus even employed mime artists to draw attention to bad driving. The sight of mime artists pretending to pull vehicles that were dangerously parked became common on Bogotá’s streets.

The German poet Heinrich Heine in 1827: ‘I have seen the greatest wonder which the world can show to the astonished spirit; I have seen it, and am more astonished than ever – and still there remains fixed in my memory that stone forest of houses, and amid them the rushing stream of faces, of living human faces, with all their motley passions, all their terrible impulses of love, of hunger, and of hate – I am speaking of London.’

‘A town is always a town, wherever it is located, in time as well as space.’

Wherever cities were built, they became centres of worship, of trade, and of power, drawing people irresistibly from the surrounding landscape.” Compared with smaller homogeneous villages, these early cities were sprawling and diverse, mixing people of various cultures and backgrounds. They became “schools of the human mind, stretching and shaping our intellect.”

“Everyone who has predicted the future in the past has failed, but I’m going to do it again anyway…”

in 1980 Shanghai had 121 buildings of more than eight storeys. By 2005 that had risen to 4,000 of 20 storeys or more.

“Today’s mega cities are the largest artificial structures ever built. They are awe-inspiring examples of humankind’s ability to control and transform its habitat.

Return to the home page

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: