Why cities are good for you: Interview with Leo Hollis


This article appeared in Issue Nine of Umbrella

This magazine makes no secret of its devotion to the concept of the city. Elliott Lewis-George sits down with writer and historian, Leo Hollis, author of Cities Are Good for You: The Genius of The Metropolis, to try and understand why we love them so much.

Umbrella: What inspired you to write Cities Are Good For You?
Leo Hollis: We’re now an urban species. In the developed world, we’re aware of this reality but elsewhere, in Africa, Asia, Latin America, these quakes are being felt for the first time. 2007 was the first time 50 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities, and this percentage will only increase. I wanted to look at this growth positively by taking a slightly utopian view to understand what makes our cities so special.

U: How do most people view cities?
LH: Throughout history, critics have warned against the city’s destructive power. UK city dwellers, in particular, have this impression that cities are unsafe, polluted, ghastly places but the fact of the matter is that they’ve changed.

U: So if the perception of cities remains negative, why do so many people migrate to them?
LH: Every single day, 180,000 people turn up to a city somewhere in the world and want to make a home. A city is vast enough to offer its own image for every user: it’s a place that attracts the super-rich who want to consume the finest things the metropolis can offer, and to the poor it offers a hope of getting a foot on the ladder of life.

U: Is this migration a strain on our cities?
LH: No, it’s an opportunity. It’s happening whether we like it or not, therefore we need to deal with it as a reality rather than something we can push into the long grass until a crisis occurs.

U: So why are cities so great?
LH: The people. We’re absolutely key. The city is a place where strangers come together. We have to start looking at cities generating their power from the bottom up, in the sense that it’s actually the people who are important and not the architecture.

U: Cities always seem to divided into quarters or districts. Can cities really be organised?
LH: The way that we try to organise our cities is the single biggest problem we have. As we’ve decided that cities are bad, we’ve tried to look at ways to control the space and, as a result, control the people. This completely misunderstands the real power of the way cities work. This misreading of the city has informed the way we have designed, planned and policed it.

U: How do they work then?
LH: Despite the fact that they’re built by humans, cities don’t work like them – they’re complex systems that have many things in common with beehives. If one actually looks at the city as a complex place, one then starts to see certain laws, powers and  characteristics that could overturn the normal way that we think about how a society is structured. We have to reassess the city as an environment, and as a creative place. As the city becomes more complex it becomes more creative.

U: Does the creativity of a city flourish as a reaction to the growth and sprawl?
LH: Not necessarily, it’s to do with the fact that you can make connections in the city. Think about the fact that the city is made out of people, so the closer we interact and rub together, the more creative and forward-thinking we’ll become.

U: Was there one city that stood out during your research as being truly great? Has any city got its head around this complexity?
LH: No, everyone’s got it wrong. But each city has got something going for it, and every city seems to be working on improving itself in certain ways. If there’s one particular area I’m most excited about, I would say it’s Latin America. They’re really pushing the envelope and it looks like that’s where the big ideas are going to come from.

U: So are you completely utopian in your view of cities? Is there nothing wrong with them?
LH: The book looks at some of the problems and difficulties one faces in the city; inequality for example. I’m not a blind utopian. We must acknowledge that the city is a place of extremes, inequality and injustice. But cities don’t have to be places of disparity, they’re places that could be incredibly equal and shared.

U: How do you think we can achieve this?
LH: We have to change our behaviour; we have to start caring about our fellow man. Currently we don’t. As soon as we realise that the city is the people walking down the street rather than the buildings either side of them, I think we’ll start to see the welfare of the city flourish.

 Cities Are Good for You: The Genius of The Metropolis by Leo Hollis is published by Bloomsbury and out now in hardback and eBook. Follow Leo Hollis on twitter @LeoHollis


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