We’re reading CITIES ARE GOOD FOR YOU by Leo Hollis

17 Jun

Nan Craig hobnobs with the global cosmopolitan elite.

Cities Are Good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis
Leo Hollis
Bloomsbury, HB £16.99

The central premises of Leo Hollis’s Cities Are Good For You are that cities are complex, and that the fabric of a city is primarily social rather than physical or architectural. Hollis, a literary editor by day, urbanist by night, makes much of the work of 1960s activist and urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and champions the ideas of complexity theorist Geoffrey West.

A physicist and mathematician, West wanted to discover the recipe for cities; now he claims that, having measured as many variables as possible about as many cities as possible, he can tell you all about a city based on, for instance, its population. The thematic chapters that follow use the idea of complexity and Jacobs’s ideas around “the ballet of the street” to talk about a wide range of aspects of cities, including their politics, economics, culture, trust, urban planning and technology. The discussion shifts glancingly from New York to Mumbai, London, Beijing and Bogota. Most of the cities he discusses are already well-known case studies – even people with no interest in cities have probably heard about Detroit’s empty centre and Mumbai’s slums – which makes the book feel like a collection or an overview. Indeed, as an overview it works quite well.

Out of the various city stories comes the lesson that in fact we don’t know what will or won’t work. The complexity of cities means that interventions and schemes either succeed spectacularly or fail spectacularly, which is perhaps why large-scale interventions tend to be less effective for the price than small, grass-roots initiatives. As we already know from other fields, the best way for coming up with effective innovation is often to try out a bunch of ideas, quickly prototyping and scrapping projects that don’t work, and expanding the ones that do. It doesn’t come as a huge surprise that this might be the best way to deal with complex systems, where we often can’t predict effects (especially unintended consequences). Hollis’s chapter on culture in cities looks at the use of iconic buildings to spearhead regeneration, and contrasts the Guggenheim in Bilbao with the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield. The fact that you probably haven’t heard of the latter – it’s now been converted into the student’s union building for Sheffield Hallam – is proof that using big architectural projects to regenerate an area is a hit-and-miss enterprise. But we knew that, didn’t we?

The perspective of the Cities Are Good For You is often that of the global cosmopolitan elite, those people who can shift from city to city to find work that suits them. Indeed, one of the more jarring sections comes in the section on how globalisation increases specialisation among cities. Hollis says that “This inequality among cities gives people more choice about where they want to live”. From the perspective of Hollis’s ‘young Indian entrepreneurs’ and tech workers, that might be true (though even then the logic seems off; if all thejobs in the industry you work in are centred in, say, Bangalore or California, then in what sense do you have more choice about where to live?) But for everyone else, Hollis has rather overestimated the extent to which we have free movement of labour across the world. Similarly, when Hollis starts off a section about ‘community’ by discussing a famous Parisian supper club, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes slightly. As much as supper clubs sound like fun, is a party full of friendly strangers really a good example of community within cities?

I kept thinking, as I read through Cities Are Good For You, “Yes. Okay, yes. Well, yes.” Except for the moments when I thought, “Really? Are you really going to say that?” So much of what it covers is uncontentious: city planning should be considerate of people, rather than trying to force them to fit the model; top-down regeneration occasionally works well, but often it doesn’t. On top of that, the writing is surprisingly personality-free, despite the obligatory anecdotes scattered throughout. The prose style is standard journalese, full of buzz-words and catchphrases. It feels like it ought to be easy to read but in large doses it has a deadening effect. If you can live with that, Hollis’s book certainly covers a lot of ground and is clearly well-intentioned. It’s hard to resist the image of the author skipping joyfully around Silicon roundabout, feeling plugged into the global zeitgeist. Now and again, his book makes you want to join him.

Read Nan Craig’s story Scrapmetal in Arc 1.3: Afterparty overdrive, out now for screens, tablets, phones and in a collectible print edition.

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