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The urban age: an interview with P.D. Smith

By Karl Whitney.

P.D. Smith

P.D. Smith is author of the new City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, (Bloomsbury, 2012), which is published this month. He has previously written Doomsday Men, ‘a cultural history of science, superweapons and other strangeloves’. He is a regular reviewer of non-fiction for the Guardian Review and many other publications.

3:AM: Why is it important to focus on cities and urban space at this point in history?

P.D. Smith: In 1950 there was just one megacity. By 2030 there will be nearly forty. We’re living at a time when the planet is urbanizing at an unprecedented rate. Half of China’s population is expected to leave the countryside for the cities by mid-century. By then three quarters of the world’s population will be city dwellers. The twenty-first century will be a truly urban age.

3:AM: Did you have any particular cities in mind when you began to write the book?

PDS: I suppose our ideas about cities are always framed by those we know best. For me that would be European cities, such as London and Munich. But also ones with which I have had relatively brief though intense encounters, like Shanghai or New York.

3:AM: What was the thinking behind structuring your book as a guidebook?

PDS: It seemed like an intriguing way into what is a dauntingly vast subject. If you’re visiting a city for the first time what do you do? You buy a guidebook. The genre is centuries old, so it’s a tried and trusted formula for describing the urban environment. I have tried to write a guidebook to ‘Anycity’. Wherever you open it you’ll find entries that explore aspects of urban life that can be found in virtually any city. Just as a guidebook introduces Paris or Bangkok to someone who has never been there before, my book lets you wander through the past, present and future of the city. It opens up the city both as an idea and as a physical reality.

3:AM: Why is the focus on cities as a global phenomenon, rather than on just, say, one single city? Did you find this focus liberating or constraining?

PDS: There have been quite a few excellent biographies of individual cities, such as Peter Ackroyd’s London. I wanted to do something different. Of course, every city is unique, but there are certain features shared by cities. It was fascinating trying to identify these and then exploring them through time and space. It was like writing a natural history of cities and urbanism. The global view was always central to the project. Certainly, having to absorb so much material was a challenge, but it was also immensely rewarding. It brought home to me the astonishing continuity that runs through city life around the world, from the first cities to today’s megacities.

3:AM: Your book contains a series of thematic chapters on concepts such as ‘downtown’, ‘graffiti’, ‘markets’, ‘Chinatown’. Are manifestations of these concepts found in every city, or did you have to pick and choose cities which illustrated these terms? (I’m thinking particularly, of the reputed lack of graffiti in certain cities in Canada)

PDS: I looked for characteristics that are found in many cities, not just now but throughout history. Perhaps not every city today has graffiti, but it’s a common feature of urban life – from Pompeii 2,000 years ago to modern Hong Kong. I think graffiti says something important about cities and city life, that’s why there is an essay on it. The same with Chinatown or markets. Not all cities might have a Chinatown but I use it as a way to explore the migrant experience and the idea of diversity, subjects that have been fundamental to the urban experience since the earliest cities.

3:AM: How different would human history be without the city?

PDS: Human history would be vastly different without cities. The move from village life, where one is surrounded by family and kin, to urban life among strangers – this has fundamentally shaped us as a species. Cities, as Lewis Mumford has said, are ‘the molds in which men’s lifetimes have cooled and congealed.’ Writing begins in cities, and cities are where the first libraries and museums are built. These dense centres of humanity have nurtured trade, science, religion, philosophy and theatre. The story of cities is also the story of human civilization.

3:AM: Where does the city end and the countryside begin?

PDS: The city doesn’t stop at the city wall any more. Cities are spreading out, forming ever larger urban regions. But that’s not to say there isn’t any countryside left. Cities currently occupy less than 2% of the earth’s surface. But today urban culture is pervasive, shaping the suburbs and shanty towns and even rural communities. Decisions made in cities change lives for better or worse in places far from urban centres.

3:AM: Has the notion of something like telecommuting the potential to disperse city populations, or will we always have cities?

PDS: Bill Gates thought the PC and the internet would mean the end of cities. He was wrong. Even in the developed world, cities remain popular. But the new information and communication technologies, as well as globalization, are undoubtedly contributing to the increasing importance of urban megaregions – vast sprawling agglomerations made up of many centres, focal points for flows of data and goods. But I believe we will always have cities because we have become an urban species: even in the age of social media we still need face-to-face contact and we thrive on the dynamism and the sheer unexpectedness of city life. It is the well-spring of our creativity.

3:AM: There is a certain, largely religious, strand of thought that connects cities with evil, and the pastoral or rural with innocence and morality. One can see it now in the idea of middle America, opposed to the coastal cities, and one can also see it in Victorian proponents of city reform. Why do you think this strand of thought exists, and how does it affect cities?

PDS: The idea of the ‘sin city’, of Sodom and Gomorrah, is certainly a strand in Judeo-Christian thought. It’s interesting to note that the first city builders in Mesopotamia did not long for some lost Garden of Eden, a bucolic Golden Age. Instead they believed their gods gave them the city. It was their home and where they were meant to be. But, yes, Augustine condemned the City of Man and directed people’s gaze towards the City of God. These ideas have been very influential. In the US, long before gangsta rap the city was associated with crime, violence and moral corruption. The city, with all its attendant social problems, was seen as a reminder of the Old World. The New World was meant to be a land of opportunity, of wilderness and far horizons, not Dickensian slums and urban crime. These ideas feed a deep distrust of cities in America. It surfaces in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), where Travis Bickle condemns New York’s crime: ‘This city here is like an open sewer, you know, it’s full of filth and scum.’ It’s a rich subject both in the US and in Britain. In fact, it’s something I would like to explore in another book.

3:AM: When we think of a city, we often picture the concentrated historical urban centre, rather than the suburbs. Do you think the suburbs are neglected in terms of how we visualise the city? Are they worthy of attention?

PDS: Yes, suburbs have existed since the earliest cities, when settlements appeared outside the city wall as populations grew. Suburbs are part of the city, but suburban life is distinct from life in the big city. In the US, suburban living has become part of the American Dream and it is in many ways a suburban nation. Unsurprisingly, Frederick Law Olmsted thought there was a natural symbiosis between city and suburbs. ‘No great town can long exist without great suburbs’, he said in the 1860s. Of course, Richard Sennett has famously criticised the desire of people to leave ‘dense, disorderly, overwhelming cities’ for more homogeneous but less stimulating communities in the suburbs. In The Uses of Disorder, he said that ‘suburbanites are people who are afraid to live in a world they cannot control’. But in America most of the metropolitan growth is still in the suburbs. In Britain, too, there is a constant flow of people – mostly the middle classes – from the cities to the suburbs. But in a sense they take the city with them, for we live now in an age of ‘suburban urbanization’. Suburbs are becoming denser, ‘boomburbs’ are developing in successful suburbs, and many social problems once associated with the inner city are now found in suburbs.

3:AM: In terms of environmental impact, is it better to live in a city, or in the countryside?

PDS: Rural areas do generally have higher carbon dioxide emissions per person than urban ones, due to the fact that people outside cities live in larger, detached or semi-detached houses (which require more energy to heat), drive multiple cars and commute longer distances. Cars are responsible for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe and as much as 50% in some parts of the United States. The per capita emissions of the Big Smoke – London – are the lowest of any part of the United Kingdom. Similarly, the carbon footprint of city dwellers in the United States is smaller than the average American citizen. But there are big differences between cities, and the most energy efficient ones are usually the larger metropolitan areas. Cities need to do a lot more though. For instance, they should begin generating their own energy to become self-sufficient. We need to start seeing cities not as the problem, but as part of the solution to climate change.

3:AM: Why are people drawn to cities, and, also, why are people drawn away from cities to the countryside?

PDS: One of the key reasons why people have been drawn to the city is the belief that the streets of the city are paved with gold. Economics – the search for work, the need to trade, to buy and sell goods. Cities have been, and still are, very effective at raising people’s standards of living, even in an era of urban mega-slums. Cities have always been places of opportunity. They offer freedom, especially from the restrictions that exist in rural communities ruled by tradition and clan loyalties. The city liberates people. Over the gates of the cities of the Hanseatic League were the words: Stadtluft macht frei – city air sets you free. In a city you are free to become an individual. But of course there are many reasons why people are drawn to cities. Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic’s Living in the Endless City (2011) has some fascinating research about what people like about their cities. Surprisingly, Londoners placed the capital’s shops top of their list of the best things about the city. By contrast, in Istanbul, jobs and health services topped the rankings, whereas in Mumbai it was schools.

Why do people leave the city for the countryside? Again there are many reasons. In the developed world, especially Britain and the US, there is a cultural suspicion of the cities. Despite having led the world in urbanization in the nineteenth century, the British have never felt comfortable in their cities. In the 1860s, Hippolyte Taine noted that in Britain ‘the townsman does everything in his power to cease being a townsman, and tries to fit a country house and a bit of country into a corner of the town.’ I think many people here still have an idealised view of country life. This attitude coupled with the terribly high cost of housing in cities like London means that people tend to move out of the cities, either into suburbia or into the countryside.

3:AM: The city is frequently construed as a hectic, bustling, noisy place. Is it possible to live a quiet, reflective life in an urban centre?

PDS: Well, I’m a writer and I’ve always lived in or around cities! Writers can’t work without peace and quiet. It’s true that big cities are full of distractions and I guess that can be a problem. But those distractions are also the source of inspiration. If it gets too much you can always escape the noise of the city in an urban park – like the Englischer Garten in Munich or Central Park in New York. Both are wonderfully reflective spaces…

3:AM: Would it be true to say that higher density cities function more effectively than those with a lower density of population? Does density have any impact on the culture of a city?

PDS: I’m not sure it’s true to say that cities with a higher density function more effectively. Some areas of Mumbai have the highest population densities in the world. Apparently, the densest part of the city is the red-light district of Kamathipura with 121,312 people per square kilometre. London’s densest area is Notting Hill with a mere 17,324 people per square kilometre. But a city like Mumbai has immense problems. However, high-density living is undoubtedly more environmentally sustainable. There is also a unique quality to life in a big dense city. You feel it in cities like Hong Kong or New York. There’s an intensity and a vitality that you find nowhere else. It can be scary to those not used to it, but it’s always stimulating.

3:AM: Are there any innovations, in terms of transportation, planning, housing or anything else, that you discovered while researching your book, and would like to see put in place in the city where you live?

PDS: I think Britain has a lot to learn about building houses and apartment blocks in cities, especially as regards making them sustainable. Cities should be leading the way in installing solar panels on public buildings and in spaces like car parks. They should also make it easier for people to use vacant land for allotments or community gardens. I have had an allotment for a couple of years now and manage to grow most of the vegetables I eat on it. I’d like more city dwellers to have this opportunity. Public transport has a vital role to play in making cities more liveable. We need to encourage people to stop relying on the infernal combustion engine by increasing the range of public transport options in cities and making them more affordable. I’m also impressed by Dutch engineer Hans Monderman’s idea of creating ‘naked streets’ by removing the barriers and signs. This makes drivers more aware of pedestrians, forces them to cut their speed and makes urban streets more people-friendly spaces, which is how they should be. As Henri Lefebvre has said, ‘the street is more than just a place for movement and circulation.’ Because in the end, the city is not about architecture or infrastructure. It’s about people – about you and me.


Karl Whitney is a writer and 3:AM editor based in Paris. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 15th, 2012.