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On cities, hives and human clusters

Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel

Cities live and breathe. As I wrote in a post last week on Social Media, cities are no more artificial [technological] than the hives of bees. As we go about our daily lives [mostly unconsciously,] we psycho-drift from block to block through neighborhoods that we know well, in amongst communities that have been drawn together by like-minded people. Think East Village in Manhattan, Venice Beach in Los Angeles, Camden Town in London, Pigalle in Paris - and here in Portland, the Pearl District. Where we tend to live and work is often amongst communities of like-minded people, unless, as in the USA, one lives in a far-flung exurb and commutes for hours to work. Over centuries we have moved as a species from the rural countryside into large urban centres. As we have done so the 'idea' of the city sprang up. Throughout different periods in history, planners and architects have had differing ideas about how to cultivate urban living arrangements. There has been some success and much failure.

As James Kunstler writes in his book, The City in Mind, - "[the] nation's massive suburban build-out was an orgy of misspent energy and material resources that squandered our national wealth and left us with an infrastructure of daily life that, left as is, has poor prospects in the new century." Kunstler points out that as global warming, oil depletion and other epochal disorders are upon us, we must reconsider what is a 'city.'

He argues that one of the chief side effects of the move to suburbanism is "the cultural destruction...especially the loss of knowledge, tradition, skill, custom and vernacular wisdom in the art of city-making that was thrown in the dumpster of history...."

A city is not just a series of streets and avenues with buildings on either side, a city is people, culture, society and the networks that form to bind those societies together into communities. The suburbs were literally a dream, an idea that General Motors had of a drive-in utopia in its plan for a World of Tomorrow. Kunstler goes on to point out the folly of the "Edge City," a term coined by the writer Joel Garreau. Kunstler says "I essay to show how Atlanta took the urban model of car-crazy Los Angeles to its most ludicrous, and in my view, terminal stage. With Atlanta, you can forego agonizing over the future, because the present doesn't even work there." As he points out "our human ecologies - namely our towns and cities - remain devalued, depopulated and decivilized."

In America we prefer landscape over urbanism. What then now as our dependence upon oil, refined as gasoline for cars that transport one person at a time from these suburbs to the cities, proves the folly of these far-flung suburbs? Will we see a move toward urban vitality? A migration back to the city?

Government spending at any level, state or local, does little to help. We need to "nurture the unplanned civic engagements that make mixed-use city life so appealing" - writes Douglas Rae, the Richard Ely Professor of Management and Professor of Political Science at Yale University, in his book, City; Urbanism and Its End. "Small scale retailing, neighborhood clubs, informal enforcement of sidewalk civility and new urbanist design may be the keys to the future."

I agree with Rae on the idea of "nurturing unplanned civic engagements" as he puts it but that's as far as I would go. The rest of his thought sounds like the issue of we humans being in control of our destinies again, trying to have the answer that is beyond nature, beyond what we actually do when we congregate in cities. Our desire for urban centres always seem to be about 'order' or 'cleanliness' and 'organization.' So on one hand we have the thinkers - the planners and the architects, and on the other - the citizens who actually inhabit the space that we call city. What we might call the 'Few and the Many.'

Alongside a piece by the New York Times film critic, A.O.Scott, called Metropolis Now, where he writes about the idea of how yesterday's film sets became today's cities, there is a sidebar that takes some lines from Fritz Lang's 1927 film "Metropolis" - "The minds that had conceived the Tower of Babel could not build it. So they hired hands for wages. But the hands that built the Tower of Babel knew nothing of the dream of the brain that had conceived it. One man's hymns of praise became other men's curses." There's that word again, dream.

We humans dream. We dream of controlling nature, we dream of saving the earth, we dream of organizing our cities. Those dreaming deny the fact that cities live and breathe. Not the concrete architecture, not the buildings - the people that inhabit them. When someone talks of Rome having a 'soul, a feeling' they are misinterpreting the difference between the city and its cultural makeup; people can be said to have souls and feelings, we 'know' this - buildings don't have soul and feelings.

As Fernando Pessoa writes - "Only if you don't know what flowers, stones and rivers are can you talk about their feelings. To talk about the soul of flowers, stones and rivers, is to talk about yourself, about your delusions. Thank God stones are just stones, and rivers just rivers, and flowers just flowers." We dream and we delude ourselves.

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class dreams of organizing urban centres [which he correctly identifies as 'place'] around the idea of a mythical "creative class" who are bound by the idea of the "three T's," Technology, Talent and Tolerance. This dream involves cities having a strong technology base, a "creative" class as he calls it, and a strong gay community. And of course the idea he spins is that to grow a city's economic base it should invest in nurturing the "three T's." Once again - The Few and the Many. Planners and architects can no more decide what a city's culture will be than we know that a stone has feeling.

The fabric of a city is its population. Like a bee hive [architecture] or an ant colony [social network], natural rules of engagement spring up through the daily interaction of those who inhabit a city. They commune. They gather in tribes in their 'places.' They share information, ideas, things they like. They become less 'selfish.' They are city.

As John Gray writes in Straw Dogs - "Anyone who wants to escape human solipsism should not seek out empty places. Instead of fleeing to the desert, where they will be thrown back into their own thoughts, they will do better to seek the company of other animals. A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery."

Most large cities have a zoo.

Listen to and download Psycho Drift. Shriekback - Psycho Drift

For references - References:

James Howard Kunstler - The City in Mind. Published 2001 by The Free Press. Joel Garreau - Edge City Douglas W. Rae - City; Urbanism and Its End. Published 2003 by Yale University Press. Richard Florida - The Rise of the Creative Class. Published 2002 by Basic Books. A.O.Scott - Metropolis Now. Published in the New York Times magazine June 6th 2008. Fritz Lang - Metropolis Enrique Peñalosa - Man With a Plan. Published in the New York Times magazine June 6th 2008. Fernando Pessoa John Gray - Straw Dogs. Published 2002 by Granta Books. Solipsism Shriekback - Sacred City [Compact Disc]. Released by World Domination Records 1992. Barry Andrews - Lyrics to Psycho Drift. Peter Carey - 30 Days in Sydney.

The everlasting genius of Mark E Smith and the Fall

The evolution of a building into a home for NORTH