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Book review: Cities are good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis

Leo Hollis’ book, a comprehensive overview of the state of the city and contemporary thinking about urbanism, is a partisan, clap-happy study that fails to reflect reality

By Will Self  /  The Guardian, LONDON

I think the problem with Cities Are Good for You derives from its title. It doesn’t matter whether the emphasis is placed on “are” or not, the end result is that I — or indeed you — feel hectored. Try telling the single mother with children who has just had to leave London because of the new benefit cap that cities are good for her; or why not convey the advantages of a vibrant art scene to the urbanites who live in the shanty towns of Lagos and Johannesburg, or the slums of Jakarta and Dhaka? Even at the level of what objectively are high-class problems, there are still those of us who experience on a daily basis profound alienation from the city — from its moiling crowds and roiling psychic miasmas, from its chilly depersonalization and its fervid marketization — an alienation that we yet feel perversely ambivalent about, loving and hating it as we love the cities that produce such powerful feelings.

For clap-happy Hollis there can be no such ambivalence, nor are there any ambiguities. He may begin his excursus with a view of the city as an organic phenomenon, perhaps one not best understood by rationalist thought, but by concepts derived from the sociobiology of EO Wilson et al, yet his daft title pulls him back time and again to a simplistic meliorism of the form: cities are good for you — and you had better work really hard to ensure that they are (and by extension to validate the title of my book).

It’s not that Hollis doesn’t acknowledge the downside of cities — he includes a section on the 2011 London riots, and is not unsympathetic to the malcontents. Nor does he ignore the implications of the Gini coefficient, which indicates that widening inequality may be an ineluctable aspect of larger and larger conurbations. Yet behind all this apparent balance lies a curious kind of neoliberal civic virtuousness — Hollis says that for the city to remain good for us it must address three primary problems: sustainability, trust and inequality. He acknowledges that the balm for the festering urban sores so painfully anatomized by Mike Davis in his Planet of Slums cannot be found in the market, and yet what he offers is no real alternative, but rather a hotchpotch of bike-hire schemes and superannuated hippies growing tomatoes on Brooklyn rooftops. In part this has to be attributable to his Manichean and partial view of urbanism and urban development. For Hollis the mantra is: Jane Jacobs and “soft modernist” Patrick Geddes good; Le Corbusier and Robert Moses (who are seen crudely as counterparts) bad, bad, bad!

It’s true enough that the legacy of the pioneering urban activist and theorist Jacobs is due for a re-evaluation. Her key work The Life and Death of Great American Cities eloquently makes the case for communitarianism trumping dirigisme long before “stakeholder” was a twinkle in Tony Blair’s eye. Jacobs viewed the “eyes on the street,” and the sidewalk “ballet” of her Greenwich Village neighborhood as key to an understanding of how cities can happily and safely function, and she took up the cudgels against the New York city planner Robert Moses, who was intent on driving an expressway through this happily cosmopolitan district. But to condemn Moses out of hand as a proponent of autogeddon is facile in the extreme, as is Hollis’s determination to demonize Le Corbusier as a modernist Moloch intent on feeding the children of the proletariat into high-rise sarcophaguses. Ultimately, all these people were seeking solutions to particular problems at given stages of cities’ development — Moses zoned for parks and public housing because these were what New Yorkers needed; initially he was a hero of the people. As for Le Corbusier, by his works shall you know him, and frankly I’d rather read a single paragraph of his pellucid and revolutionary prose than a whole chapter of Hollis’s bumf, no matter how packed the latter is with useful information.

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