A sermon from an urban missionary

Cities Are Good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis, by Leo Hollis, Bloomsbury; RRP£16.99, RRP$28

Leo Hollis is nothing if not ambitious. The London-born “urbanist” wants to force us to reassess the way that we think about the cities and conurbations in which we live. His book is a ramble through the ailing relationship between humanity and the metropolis. This is an extremely timely exercise: in 2007, for the first time, more than half of the world’s 7bn people were city-dwellers. We are, Hollis says, “at a tipping point between disaster and survival and the city is the fulcrum upon which our future balances”.

Heady stuff. But, for Hollis’ money, we have drifted dangerously out of touch with what cities are and what we can learn from them. Instead of embracing urban life, we fear it. We tend to see our towns not as a fountain of opportunity but as the great “drain of our humanity”. His mission is to elicit a change of heart, to get us to “rethink these basic assumptions, before it is too late”.

He argues that we have been taught to fear and loathe our cities, to see them as destroyers of our traditional virtues that offer in return little but “disorder, dirt and noise”. But this premise – that his readers hate urban life and need convincing to do otherwise – is the book’s critical flaw and dooms the volume to grate.

People across the world move to cities – and stay there – for any number of reasons. It might be a simple wish to be near the action or a desperate bid for survival. Mostly, though, it is a choice. As technology has progressed and humanity’s aspirations have advanced, so the ability of the rural experience to meet them has declined. Indeed, as Hollis observes, the defining trend of the 21st century is likely to be urbanisation: three-quarters of the world’s population will probably live in cities by 2050.

In spite of this, Hollis addresses his reader as though trying to enlighten an overzealous planning officer. “To judge the city by its physical fabric alone is a mistake,” we are told. Well, yes. But then so is crossing a busy street backwards. Fortunately, most people manage to avoid doing both. “Perhaps we need to seek something that offers a dynamic interpretation of the urban experience.” Perhaps we do. Surely, though, if the “urban experience” is anything, it is already dynamic.

Hollis begins his chapters with meditative journeys through various cities before launching into his academic arguments. He rolls us approvingly along Manhattan’s High Line, a stretch of decommissioned railway revived as an aerial garden. We circumnavigate ambitiously named Silicon Roundabout – a traffic interchange on the edge of the City that has become the focal point of London’s technology industry. In Mumbai, we gaze up with slightly sickened wonder at the $1bn, 27-storey mansion of Indian tycoon Anil Ambani.

But these sections are undermined by the book’s jarring changes of direction; the colourful sections lack any discernible relationship with the ensuing treatises. The chapter “Inside the Beehive”, for instance, begins with a description of the riots that swept though London in 2011 then shoots off on a whistle-stop tour of world cities – Berlin, Dubai, Singapore, Tallinn and Newark – to which Hollis applies theories of urban cohesion and disintegration. If there is a connection between the points, readers would benefit from a little more help to appreciate it. Sections of the book can be rather heavy going.

There are, though, some fascinating and thoroughly researched passages. Hollis’ eludication on the garden city movement is a beautifully crafted study of the purpose-built, self-sufficient towns that sprung up in the 20th century as a riposte to unchecked urban sprawl. He demonstrates how a phenomenon readily dismissed today as bourgeois was in fact a revolution in planned living. “Reborn on such bare ground,” he writes, “there was no need to take the past into consideration and the city could be planned from the first brick to the final form.”

Hollis also deftly evaluates the different approaches local governments take to public transport, property prices, overcrowding and sanitation. He warns, however, that all too often city planning is responsive rather than proactive – think New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. “Perhaps,” he ponders” “we should start again and build our cities from scratch?”

It is in his introspective navigations through the city, where he is recorder of the sensory strain of metropolitan experience, that Hollis is at his most comfortable. He is besotted with the irreducible humanity of city life; the confluence of harmony and violence, struggle and unrestrained success, and he is desperate for us, too, to embrace it. The point he seems to have missed, though, is that most of humanity already does.

The writer is the FT’s property correspondent

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