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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

Aaron M. Renn
Is the City Where You Should Be?
A new book tries to make the case.
15 November 2013

Cities Are Good For You: The Genius of the Metropolis, by Leo Hollis (Bloomsbury Press, 416 pp., $28)

From the High Line in New York to London’s Silicon Roundabout to the Dharavi slums in Mumbai to bicycling in Copenhagen, British writer and urban historian Leo Hollis offers a broad and sumptuous survey of contemporary urban life in his new book, Cities Are Good For You. Unfortunately, his claim doesn’t quite stick, as Hollis never fully explains what the vignettes and case studies he has assembled add up to—while his scrupulous reporting uncovers plenty of unflattering urban details. The reader comes away with only a vaguely positive impression of cities’ potential to increase prosperity and improve lives.

This much is clear: the world is urbanizing fast. A century ago, just 10 percent of people lived in cities. That total has climbed to over 50 percent today. By the middle of this century, 75 percent of the world’s population may live in urban areas. Hollis provides readers with an overview of the radical changes urbanization and other large-scale forces are generating, particularly in the developing world. It’s a phenomenon that the average American, living in a long-urbanized society, may take for granted.

Hollis relies too heavily, though, on an orthodox left-wing view of urbanism’s virtues and often falls back on simplified distillations, as when he rehashes the now well-known city-planning battles between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. While his approach works at times, in a few cases Hollis actually misleads. For example, he suggests that Geoffrey West’s research on the super-linear scaling of cities proves Jacobs’s views of urbanism correct. West’s work describes how increasing urban population affects wide-ranging metrics—whether wealth attainment or susceptibility to violent crime—at rates of greater than one-to-one. But the research only speaks to size, not urban form, and it applies to positive and negative phenomena. Tellingly, Hollis neglects to discuss crime.

Hollis’s repeated references to Jacobs tip his hand. He puts a greater premium on “sustainability,” for example, than would most of the world’s city-dwellers, whose concerns tend to be more immediate. Reality also intrudes on his thesis. In explaining his own move to the London suburbs, Hollis attempts to convince readers that he is, in fact, swimming against a powerful tide, noting how writers like Alan Ehrenhalt speak of a “great inversion” of people streaming back into the city. Hollis would have us think he’s an outlier, when in reality he’s closer to the norm. Ehrenhalt himself doesn’t deny that urban populations are decentralizing. He highlights a real but limited phenomenon: relatively wealthier people are moving into city centers even as relatively poorer people are moving to the suburbs.

Hollis’s left-wing urbanism reveals itself in other ways. He blames London’s 2011 riots on society, for instance, not on those who perpetrated the unrest, and he calls his visit to Occupy London an “exhilarating experience.” Yet, he appears to be no great fan of centralized decision-making, recognizing that cities’ complex problems don’t lend themselves to top-down solutions. He favorably highlights several examples of direct citizen mobilization, including neighborhood cleanups organized after the London riots and the Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo. He describes an organization in Mumbai called “Ugly Indian,” a group of upscale professionals who work together to make neighborhood improvements because city government is too inept to perform basic tasks like picking up garbage or repairing sidewalks. He looks at highly managed and planned “smart cities,” such as Songdo, Korea (including their potential downsides), but also at market-driven solutions, such as the rapid spread of cell phones and mobile-money transfers in Africa. He’s not afraid to question whether any of the various schemes to create the “next Silicon Valley,” from London to Bangalore, can really work.

For all of his orthodox-left views of urbanism, Hollis is scrupulously fair and demonstrates an admirable willingness to report on what he sees, not just on what he wishes to see. His integrity sinks his book title, though. Readers get enough of the downsides of city life here—riots, life in the slums, traffic jams, corruption, urban decay, and more—that they may come away thinking: “Actually, it doesn’t sound like the city is all that good for me.” Hollis’s book works better as a paean to the vaguely utopian hope of what the city could become than what it really is.

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