Since its 2009 opening, hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed a saunter along New York’s High Line, the reclaimed stretch of elevated rail in Manhattan that, like its precursor in Paris, has been turned into a well-appointed park. British writer Leo Hollis’s reflections about the High Line color the beginning and ending of “Cities Are Good for You,” his effusive tour of the 21st-century metropolis.
“It is places like the High Line that allow us to think again about the city and how it can make us happy,” writes Hollis, adding that “the metropolis is perhaps our greatest achievement.” Guiding a general audience from Manhattan to Mumbai and Marseilles, among other places, Hollis does not precisely list why urban life benefits us as much as explore various social and creative possibilities it offers; thus he also emphasizes that in planning cities “it is the people that matter, the way that they are allowed to interact, intermingle, and connect.” As such, we should address “sustainability, trust, and inequality” in urban life, he says, whether tackling housing, traffic, or climate change.
The notion that cities are good for us would have been more provocative a quarter-century ago, when the typical metropolis — certainly in the United States — appeared mired in crime and poverty. Then the 1990s happened: The economy boomed, cities gentrified, violent crime dropped, and the public perception of urban life shifted.
Indeed, Hollis provides no recent examples when he writes that the “city has long been considered the destroyer of men and, worse, their souls.” Instead he presents, as anti-urban curmudgeons, the wildly unlikely trio of Dante, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Henry Ford, surely enlisted as allies for the first time in intellectual history.
However, if most people today enjoy cities, they do not all enjoy them for the same reasons. And here Hollis’s work gains some bite. He firmly aligns himself with the ideas of Jane Jacobs, the famed activist and writer whose description of the “Ballet of Hudson Street” in Greenwich Village convinced Hollis that “the street is the essential, energetic measure of the life of the city.” Against this, Hollis is retrospectively appalled by the automobile-friendly agenda of Robert Moses and the large-scale planning visions of the modernist architect and planner Le Courbusier, in which, as Hollis sees it, “theory superseded life itself.”
Moving rapidly between cities, renewal schemes, and ideas merchants, Hollis sketches out a bottom-up, friendly urban future. London’s attempts to become a tech center, he thinks, will not occur due to “large corporate behemoths” but start-up firms; meanwhile he urges neighborhood-level engagement with climate change. In his most deeply reported chapter, Hollis visits Dharavi, a slum outside Mumbai, finds it bustling with economic life, and argues that the vitality of such places merits more support, not the “wholesale removal and redevelopment” sometimes mooted.
Hollis’s aims are laudable enough. But “Cities Are Good for You” has an underdeveloped sense of how cities actually evolve. To this end, Hollis should have spent less time citing glossy futurist proposals and more time simply following the money.
Consider the High Line, which, as Hollis fails to discuss, was funded by a public-private partnership allowing donors to develop adjacent property, and gain directly from their support. That may have been the best way of building that park, and similar partnerships in New York have revitalized Central Park and created the superb Hudson River Park. Even so, there are opponents within the city who argue that such quasi-private funding concentrates resources too heavily in a few parks — minimizing the needs of those who do not live nearby — may not be fiscally sustainable, and involves apparent quid pro quos, like the High Line partnership’s recent support for a contested development that yielded more funding for the group.
At issue is who pays for and possesses urban space — who the city belongs to. Beyond the Ballet of Hudson Street, then, there is the dance of politics, money, and neighborhood interests. This dance produces those changes we see from the street — or from above it, on the High Line. In this regard, cities are no different than anywhere else.
Peter Dizikes can be reached at email@example.com.