Henry David Thoreau and his ilk notwithstanding, we humans have been running away from nature for millennia – that is, when we are not despoiling it. We much prefer the works of man. Indeed, as P.D. Smith points out in his latest book City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, many early cultures viewed the city as divinely inspired as opposed to some pastoral idyll, such as the Garden of Eden. More recently, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum termed environmentalism a “false theology” that places concern for nature above the needs of humankind.
Voting with our feet, we have become urban, if not exactly urbane. More than half of us – 3.3 billion strong, according to the author – now dwell in cities. A small mathematical point here: the United States Census Bureau pegged the world’s population in March at more than seven billion, so 47 percent would be more accurate. Nitpicking aside, that percentage is expected to rise to 75 by midcentury. Only 1 in 10 called cities home in 1900.
The bright lights clearly have gone to our heads. Many of us who were raised on country sunshine now get only fleeting glimpses of it thanks to smog, skyscrapers, subways, and the hubbub of metropolitan living (there’s no percentage in looking up when navigating a city). Many of us have forsaken the familiar in favor of the new and the different. For fledgling urbanites, the city is awash in strangers. It is a big step.
Many are lured to the lights for economic reasons, others out of sheer boredom or raw ambition. Urban life, as country singer Dottie West concedes, is without question “more excitin’.” It is a place to do and create things, to meet new people, to establish a new identity, to make one’s mark in a big pond – assuming, that is, one survives. Well into the last century, cities were notoriously unhealthy. Nowhere else was the death rate nearly as high as in places like London, and since burials exceeded births, population growth required a steady stream of immigrants from the provinces. To cite one catastrophic example, in 1348 the Black Death killed off half of London’s sixty thousand residents. Those who could, like the Royals, fled to the countryside. The Plague kept returning, and London kept growing.
Modern cities represent an improvement in many ways and are now considered “greener” than the suburban and rural alternatives, according to Smith: “New Yorkers are responsible for the emission of many times more greenhouse gases than the inhabitants of Mumbai, but those same New Yorkers produce only about a third of the carbon dioxide of the typical American.”
But all is not well with modern megalopolises: there are more and more of them and growth is often willy-nilly. Sixty years ago, New York City was the only place with more than 10 million residents. Today there are 19 such behemoths, and Smith reports that one in three urbanites lives in a slum. One reason Mumbai is “highly sustainable” is that its 30 million people are packed in like proverbial sardines. Most Indian city dwellers have 10 square feet of personal space, while their American counterpart enjoys 900.
Smith, an independent writer and researcher, has penned a thorough and often engaging account of urban life, from the Uruk in Sumer and the Aztec capitol Tenochitlán to Tokyo, currently the planet’s largest burg with 35 million people. He covers it all in his guidebook, from shopping and public transit to architecture and red light districts. While a wonderful reference source and eminently readable, the book suffers from a lack of narrative flow. It leaps from one topic to another without a fig leaf of transition, much like a textbook. The reader is left to connect the dots. While this was clearly intentional, it is somewhat disorienting.
Still, Smith’s mastery of the material and his insights overcome such issues, for example, this explanation of urban sensibilities: “You are repeatedly thrown together with unfamiliar people and you have to make snap judgments based on superficial evidence, such as how they dress and speak, or whether their smile is trustworthy or suspicious. These random encounters are at the heart of the urban drama, a performance in which we are all players.”
He concludes that the environmental and social challenges of the 21st century will be won or lost in the city. Amen to that.
David Holahan is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.