Bloomsbury, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Cities Are Good for You, By Leo Hollis

 

M ore than half the world's population live in cities, and the percentage will continue to rise. We accept our place in cities passively, whether stuck in a gridlock in Sao Paolo, or ambling across Hyde Park. But what, exactly, are we in for in the next decade or two?

French philosopher Michel de Certeau suggested in 1984 that cities are physical expressions of political and commercial strategies, but only have true meaning because they're "walked into existence" by the movements and intentions of people. Leo Hollis doesn't mention de Certeau in Cities Are Good For You, yet he takes us on inquisitive walks and journeys through cities, including Mumbai and New York, to build up this deftly detailed portrayal of city life as it is, and may become.

He slaloms the cyber-backwaters, too, and a great deal of information was culled from internet sites. It's deliberate: Hollis regards individual use of transient data about cities as critical to the way they might evolve from top-down strategic phenomena to metropolises whose changes are driven by the reactions and opinions of ordinary people who talk, tweet, blog, text and upload.

With this book, Hollis joins a small and important group of humanist writers, including Jane Jacobs, Michael Sorkin and Richard Sennett, who understand the importance of the fine-points of perception and connection in relation to metropolitan life. He writes engagingly, taking his cues from the people and scenes around him, then building up facts and speculations.

Hollis sifts out the ambiguities of metropolitan develop- ment. Songdo in South Korea is the ultimate software-driven "smart" city: but are techies determining human behaviour? "Without people living voluntarily responsible lives", Norman Foster's zero-carbon Masdar city in Abu Dhabi is "just an exercise in gadgetry and political gestures".

He argues for increased density in cities, and defends slums on the grounds they are self-organising, highly resourceful communities; his chapter on Dharavi in Mumbai is exemplary. He says higher densities induce more considerate behaviour. Hollis has reminded us the future character of our cities depends on what people make of them.

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