Cities

The per­fect ur­ban space was in­vented thou­sands of years ago

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Taras Grescoe

T al­ready ex­ists. It’s not Mas­dar City, the walled “clean­tech” hub be­ing built in Abu Dhabi, where sheikhs, work­ers, and tech­nocrats will com­mute to cor­po­rate o ces in so­lar-pow­ered per­sonal trans­port pods. Nor is it Chengdu’s Great City, a low-car­bon eco-dis­trict to be com­pleted by 2020, which will house 80,000 city dwellers in “su­per­tall” tow­ers. The city of the fu­ture is con­tained in the cities we al­ready in­habit. As Ital­ian au­thor Italo Calvino ob­served in his clas­sic novel In­vis­i­ble Cities, any one city can har­bour a mul­ti­tude of oth­ers. Sprawl­ing Cal­gary will soon in­cor­po­rate swaths of Man­hat­tan-style den­sity near its core, Tokyo’s pub­lic parks shel­ter home­less vil­lages straight out of Mum­bai, and the out­skirts of Guangzhou are dot­ted with Mc­man­sions that evoke the ex­urbs of Hous­ton. Metropoli­tan ar­eas can, and must, plan for the fu­ture by look­ing into our col­lec­tive past for bet­ter ways to man­age space in the here and now. “Cities,” Ed­ward Glaeser pro­poses in Tri­umph of the City (2011), “are the ab­sence of phys­i­cal space be­tween peo­ple and com­pa­nies.” It’s the kind of re­duc­tion­ist de ni­tion you might ex­pect from a Har­vard econ­o­mist, but Glaeser hits on a deep truth. Lives, pas­sions, strug­gles, and ideas brought into close prox­im­ity cre­ate the ferment that, in turn, fos­ters civ­i­liza­tion. With­out Rome, there would be no Bernini or Fellini; with­out Tokyo, no kabuki or Mu­rakami; with­out New York, no Ge­orge Gersh­win or The Great Gatsby. Cities not only fos­ter civ­i­liza­tion, they are also one of the great­est prod­ucts of civ­i­liza­tion. Stand­ing along­side ex­pres­sion­ist cin­ema, the plays of Shake­speare, and im­pro­vised jazz are the arch­ing bridges of Zhouzhuang and the ser­pen­tine hill­top streets of Siena. Cities, done well, count among hu­man­ity’s great­est mas­ter­pieces. If we are cur­rently do­ing a poor job of build­ing them, it’s be­cause we in­sist on cater­ing not to the needs of city dwellers but to the de­mands of cars. The mod­ernist ide­ol­ogy that di­vided our cities into zones of com­merce and em­ploy­ment — malls, sub­di­vi­sions, and o ce parks con­nected by ex­panses of asphalt — abet­ted the spread of suburbs and ex­urbs. The dam­age, in the form of wilder­ness-gob­bling sprawl, can seem ir­repara­ble. But it is well to re­mem­ber that the au­to­mo­bile city (which ur­ban­ist Lewis Mum­ford called the “anti-city which an­ni­hi­lates the city wher­ever it col­lides with it”) is a largely post­war phe­nom­e­non. Ur­ban his­tory goes back to at least 7,400 BC, when ne­olithic ar­ti­sans gath­ered to­gether in the set­tle­ment of Çatal­höyük in what is now Tur­key. That is why I re­main op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of cities: the walk­ing city pre­dates the au­to­mo­bile city by a good nine mil­len­nia. Time is on its side. Al­low me a con­ser­va­tive pre­dic­tion. In the next quar­ter cen­tury, as con­ges­tion and pol­lu­tion over­take more cities — among them Lagos, with its twenty-four-hour tra c jams, and Bei­jing, with its ever-ex­pand­ing web of or­bital roads — ur­ban ar­eas that limit tra c will reap the re­wards. Lon­don has poured rev­enue from its con­ges­tion charge into im­prov­ing its bus net­work, turn­ing the city cen­tre into a place where get­ting around on bi­cy­cle and foot is a plea­sure. Paris is aug­ment­ing its ur­ban rail net­work with an au­to­mated metro, which will, by 2024, al­low rapid travel be­tween in­ner-ring suburbs, rather than just to the cen­tre. Bo­gotá, once a by­word for ur­ban vi­o­lence, kicked cars o its side­walks and in­tro­duced a bus rapid-tran­sit sys­tem that op­er­ates like a sub­way on the street. The payo comes from not only bet­ter pub­lic-health out­comes (fewer tra c deaths, res­pi­ra­tory ill­nesses, less obe­sity) but also higher re­ported lev­els of sat­is­fac­tion. A city that pri­or­i­tizes ac­tive trans­port, tran­sit, and in­tel­li­gently planned den­sity is a happy city. Half­way through In­vis­i­ble Cities, Kublai Khan re­marks to Marco Polo that he has de­scribed many cities but never his home town. Marco Polo replies: “Ev­ery time I de­scribe a city I am say­ing some­thing about Venice.” In the same way, when I think about the fu­ture of the world’s cities, I am think­ing most in­tently about the fu­ture of one city in par­tic­u­lar: Mon­treal, where my wife and I are rais­ing a young fam­ily. In the years to come, I’m look­ing for­ward to ex­plor­ing the great cities of the world with my sons — by foot, by bi­cy­cle, and, if cur­rent plans for Mon­treal come true, by el­e­vated and au­to­matic elec­tric metro. The places we’ll en­joy the most, I sus­pect, won’t look that fu­tur­is­tic at all. The best of them will be what cities have been since hu­mans started gath­er­ing in them, over 9,000 years ago: places dense with hu­man­ity, con­nec­tion, ci­vil­ity, and hope. e

TARAS GRESCOE has writ­ten for the New York Times, the Guardian, and The New Yorker. His next book, on the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s, will be pub­lished in 2019 by Bi­b­lioa­sis.

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