Friday, March 30, 2012

Five top books on why cities are good for you

Leo Hollis was born in London in 1972, was educated at Stoneyhurst College and studied history at university. He is the author of number books on London including London Rising: The Men Who Made Modern London and the forthcoming Why Cities are Good For You.

With Alec Ash at The Browser, Hollis discussed five top books on why cities are good for you, including:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
by Jane Jacobs

Let’s get into those books, as a way to explore just why cities are good for you. Beginning with The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Jane Jacobs was an architectural writer, not an academic, and she was in many ways an engaged member of the public. She was involved in the 1950s and early 1960s with campaigns to preserve Greenwich Village [in New York], which is where she lived. And out of this came the idea of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she creates the fulcrum on which this new urban thinking is fixed. This book sums up these new ideas of putting people first – that the city is complex but not a place that needs to be rationalised. That you should look at life on the street, rather than the motorways, as a sign of what urban life really is.

She writes very simply about Hudson Street, where she lives, and various other parts of New York, and she gives the city a human face. She looks at people right at the heart of the city, and shows that a neighbourhood can be chaotic and rundown and still have more life in it than a gated community of millionaires.

Presumably, to understand cities today we have to understand their history. When did cities begin?

We’ve been experimenting in urban forms for about 9,000 years. The first cities were created in what one historian, Ian Morris, calls the “happy latitudes”. In other words, the latitudes around the equator which were the first to come back to life after the ice age, and around which the first communities were formed.

We normally assume that the origins of cities began with a farm, then a village, then a town – that they grew incrementally. In fact, archaeologists have shown us that the very first cities were moments of extraordinary revolution. We assume that agriculture came before cities, but what has been shown is that there was a moment – lasting about 300 years – in which everything one thinks the city is was spontaneously created, and agriculture was part of that. The city created the technology to sustain it, rather than the other way around. So cities are completely different to anything that has come before.

Since those 9,000-year-old origins, we’ve been experimenting with different forms of the city depending on climate and population. Technology has always been part of the mix of how a city works. Today, two of the technologies that drive us most – the Internet and the airplane – mean that we don’t need to be physically close to each other, and that we are spending more and more time travelling from city to city, respectively.
Read about the other books Hollis discussed at The Browser.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is among Simon Jenkins's five best books about cities and Tim Harford's top 10 undercover economics books.

--Marshal Zeringue