Review: Cities Are Good For You, By Leo Hollis

Why urban planners should just get lost once in a while

When the ashes cooled after the Great Fire of London, the question was: how do we rebuild? An area from the Tower of London to Fleet Street had been destroyed. Sir Christopher Wren submitted plans for a city with clean avenues running between St Paul's Cathedral to the east and a new Fleet Street piazza to the west. But aesthetics were defeated by capital; the central planners were defeated by the human urge to get on with it. Other than a few minor stipulations – buildings should be made of stone or brick, warehouses should be set back from the river – it was left to the property owners to build according to their needs. Did London suffer from having crooked roads? Hardly.

Leo Hollis's book picks away at this long running tension between top-down organisation and the tendency to let a city grow organically, even if it is not to everyone's tastes. He doesn't do Wren, with most of his examples coming from the 20th century. In pride of place is the great planning argument played out in New York in the 1960s, when Jane Jacobs, a journalist with a distaste for city planning and, as Hollis notes, "chunky bohemian jewellery", took on Robert Moses, the Baron Haussmann of his day, over his plans to run a 10-lane raised expressway connecting Brooklyn to Jersey City by carving through the dilapidated districts of lower Manhattan.

Over in Paris in 1967, the radical taxi-driving philosopher Henri Lefebvre was writing The Rights of the City, about rebuilding a city according to the people on the street. Jacobs, with her sensitivity to the intricacies of human relationships, won her battle, though Lefebvre ended up on a library shelf.

There are counter examples of top-down planning that worked, Singapore being the most successful among them: an island supercharged by education, the free market, and low tax. The citizens of this pent-up city state may not all agree, but we are hardly seeing an exodus from the island.

This is a problem that Hollis comes up against time and again. What works in one place doesn't in another. Amsterdam flourished in the 17th century owing to a confluence of maritime trade, science and the culture that produced Vermeer. Something similar could be said of Detroit, master of the factory line and the beat of a generation with Motown records. Amsterdam is still doing fine but Detroit, despite being one of the best transit cities in the world, has been hollowed out by white flight to the suburbs.

What Hollis is looking for is some magic formula that makes a successful city. He examines the trust between citizens as one mechanism; the education systems that made Bangalore boom; even the Metropolitan Police force that tweets its followers. But answers aren't easy to come by. Jacobs prevented the Expressway, but that hardly saved New York from a miserable 1970s.

The other problem is that the examples Hollis uses are tired, having already been examined countless times by other writers. I sighed as I turned the page to read yet again about the curious success of the Mumbai slum of Dharavi. An equivalent book on, say, why corporations are good for you, might raise an eyebrow. Cities are by their nature diverse, accidental, fascinating, but too complex to package together into one neat formula.