Don’t allow that seductive 99p (NT$45) deceive you — with Leo Hollis’s Cities Are Good for You you’re definitely getting seventeen pounds’ worth of book because this is a hefty tome, not quite lavishly tooled enough for the coffee table, but nor entirely a comfortable proposition when lying abed. Which rather raises the question, who exactly is it aimed at? People who see the city as a backdrop of fashion plates against which they can strike physical and intellectual attitudes, or those for whom urbanism is just another wanky trend? Two years ago the world reached a tipping point, with more urban than rural inhabitants, and this is being reflected in the cultural superstructure: there are increasing numbers of books, films and TV and radio programs about the city.
Hollis’s is a reasonably efficient addition to the genre — a comprehensive overview of the state of the city and contemporary thinking in urbanism. He begins and ends his tale — which takes the form of an extended multi-city-break — with musings occasioned by Manhattan’s High Line park, the curiously luminal green space established on the derelict elevated railway line that runs down the Lower West Side. In between, Hollis travels through time, giving a highly partisan and select history of urban theory and town planning; and through space, hopping from the US to Bangalore and Mumbai, to Shanghai, to Songdo in South Korea, Santiago in Chile and Bogota in Colombia, then back home to his own Metroland on the outskirts of London for a little rest and reflection.
At its best Cities Are Good for You resembles a collection of readable feature articles on contemporary cities. Hollis is informative about public transport in South America and the economics of Mumbai’s infamous Dharavi — a slum that, once penetrated, is exposed as not just a colorful backdrop for fictional slumdog millionaires, but a complex and curiously efficient human anthill. He also covers Chinese urbanization well, carefully describing the punitive Hukou system of residential registration that allows for the ever-accelerating migration from rural areas, while simultaneously ensuring that these former peasants can be maintained in a state of perpetual peonage. Hollis is at pains to retain a global perspective, writing more about the cities of the emergent BRICK economies than he does about the boring old bricks-and-mortar town I live in. He rightly sees the future of the city as being shaped by developments to the east and the south, where the megalopolises of the 21st century will — or so late capitalism’s flag-wavers believe — arise, replete with gleaming towers worthy of Oz.
But at its worst Cities Are Good for You is a pretty vulgar garment; an applique of Panglossian optimism and theoretical banality stitched together by stylistic cliche. Does it matter that in a book about cities the author uses such expressions — quite without irony — as “vibrant art scene?” Well, yes, I think it does, just as writing the sentence: “For centuries the city has been the perfect place to develop the killer app” should’ve at least given Hollis’s editor cause for thoughts of the form: what was I put on earth for, if not to excise anachronistic drivel like this? But then this is a writer who will never use the expression “low tax” when he can reach for that providential euphemism “light touch fiscal policy.” To seriously tackle his infelicities and solecisms would’ve placed someone in the unenviable position of a barber shaving a dog: where do you stop?
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.
Then there’s the built environment; for someone prepared to spend 400 pages telling us how great cities are, Hollis seems remarkably untouched by the aesthetics of buildings. Say what you will about Le Corbusier, he did know how to design a beautiful building; and modernism was a genuine response to the technological zeitgeist, and often an attempt to remake the city as a haptic phenomenon. (Think of the wood grain impressed into the brutalist concrete beams of the Hayward Gallery.) I tend to think of cities first and foremost in this sensual way, and to register my response to them by my transit of the urban scape; whereas for Hollis the flaneur is, presumably, a rather recondite — if not irrelevant — figure, although he professes to be a great urban walker himself.
In place of this shifting, evanescent and endlessly creative perspective of the city, we are offered a lot of wittering about Twitter. During Hollis’s extended paean to the delights of Call-me-Dave’s “silicon roundabout” in London’s hipper-than-thou Shoreditch, I kept being reminded of that YouTube sensation The Dickhead Song, which mercilessly satirizes the “creatives” of east London, and in particular of its rousing chorus: “I love my life as a dickhead / All my friends are dickheads too …” Because all sorts of dickheads meet with Hollis’s approval — including the mayor of London — while he’s never happier than when extolling the virtues of the latest killer app.
In truth, the real killer app in the city where Hollis and I are both domiciled is the light fiscal touch — insignificant local tax-raising powers — and the sham it makes of a true local democracy. It’s a killer app that’s murdered the municipal socialism that once made London a livable city for people of all classes, and has left the way open for the city to increasingly resemble Mayor Bloomberg’s zero-tolerance-for-the-poor Manhattan. I don’t imagine these developments — taking place in cities all over Britain — will be good for you, no matter the gloss this handsomely produced book puts on them.