Of urban realities

Last Updated 21 September 2013, 14:32 IST

Analysing the birth and rise of cities, British writer Leo Hollis’s ‘Cities Are Good For You’ gives a rare glimpse into the lesser-known facts about human history, writes A V S Namboodiri

British writer Leo Hollis’s Cities are Good for You is a tour de force of the 21st century metropolis and studies their evolution, nature and impact on human life. Cities are not exclusively modern phenomena. They developed with the changing lifestyles and habitation modes of human beings, and the first villages and settlements of people who left the nomadic stage were the archetypes of present day cities.

There was an organic and qualitative change when towns separated themselves from the villages, and later when cities grew from towns and big metropolises moved further forward. Needs, compulsions and aspirations moved the urban idea forward into more and more complex human agglomerations. Responses were also mixed. While many in the later stages of urban life looked back on previous ones with nostalgia, others saw the villages and simpler urban habitats as primitive and lacking in comforts and civilised life.

Hollis believes that “the metropolis is perhaps our greatest achievement”. He tries to find out the various social and creative possibilities that it offers and looks at them as an important stage in human history. He sticks to the essential human element in their development and accordingly maintains that in planning them “it is the people that matter, the way they are allowed to interact, intermingle and connect”. This is important because the experience of living in cities, which were planned and created from scratch, has not been great in many parts of the world. Even in India, Chandigarh, with its straight roads and separated spaces for residential, commercial and official activities, has been criticised as going against human nature. It was planned and created by one of the greatest architects and urban planners of the last century. Life never takes the straight and broad avenues laid out between geometrical grids, but expects surprises waiting beyond the turnings on narrow bylanes.

Human nature of course reshapes even the pre-planned and orderly structures and finds short-cuts to disorder, which it enjoys. But this also creates tension and stress in behaviour. So Hollis’s emphasis on the human dimension of cities should be a guiding idea for all planners, especially when the impersonal nature of urban life is its most widely accepted shortcoming.

Hollis has travelled to all big and great cities of the world, like New York, London and Mumbai, and lived there to experience at first hand the conveniences, the comforts and the problems that they present. He saw and recorded the variety of life that the slum city of Dharavi has, and has reflected on the High Line life in New York, from where he starts and where he ends his travel through the urban landscape. Dharavi, with all its problems and ills, created community and fulfilled the needs and aspirations of many. He is alive to the debate whether slums should be redeveloped. They are easily judged as “outmoded, pre-industrial and un-modern”, and Hollis wonders if this is the reason why governments want to demolish  them. But he concludes that they need not be redeveloped in order to integrate the informal economy into the mainstream. Rather, the city needs to make itself open to other ways of working and living, and “the idea of the city — what it was, how it worked, who was there — had to change”. The conclusion, however, may not put an end to the debate on slums.

The urban reality has many faces and cities will evolve in different ways in future. But he feels that we should address “sustainability, trust and inequality” in urban life, in tackling the major challenges they pose in the form of housing, traffic and even climate change, so that they will meet the human needs best and make themselves good for their inhabitants. Over 50 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities now, and by 2050 they will be home to 75 per cent of the population. Growth of cities in the developing world will be exponentially higher than in the developed world. There is no going back on cities and development will mean more and more urbanisation. So the state of the city is crucial for our survival and happiness.

Hollis feels we have not understood the city correctly till now, and this misreading has distorted our planning, design and management of the city. This wrong idea of the city has discouraged community, complexity and creativity and therefore he wants to “develop a new argument for urbanism, to rewrite the story of the past, and provide new hope for the future”. It is a persuasive defence of the city and, as there is no escape from it, a call to make it good for us.

Hollis is not a trained architect or urban planner, but is a historian of the city. That makes his ideas and perspective more refreshing than many other studies of the urban idea and reality.

(Published 21 September 2013, 14:32 IST)

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