A city can die from habitability


Robert Harris, novelizing the Dreyfus affair, captures too well the great Parisian sewer smell of 1895. He describes the ugly miasma of a dense city as “infiltrating” even his mouth, so “everything has a taste of corruption.”

He didn’t corrupt the talent. That year, on Rue Laffitte, Paul Cézanne received his first solo exhibition. Across the Seine, the Lumière brothers, the purest case ever of nominal determinism, scrutinized the first film, all 50 seconds of this, to the stacked patrons. The Paris of the free race is also the Paris of Sarah Bernhardt.

There is nothing in logic to suggest that a sweeter and more orderly city would not have burst forth with such creative force. So why is it so difficult to portray?

Even before the pandemic, with its “nature is healing” smarm, cities aspired to quasi-rural. The planned reform of the Champs Elysées into a car-hostile “garden” is just one In the country scheme. An architect friend is tasked with promoting the Thames embankment at intervals from Chelsea to Blackfriars. I enjoy almost all of these good works. But I also wonder if the creative uses of a test environment are lost in the pact.

Exactly what it is about the crowded and stressed humanity that gives rise to genius is hard to pinpoint. The received vision is that density allows collaboration. Cézanne was from Provence, her gallerist was from Reunion: where else would they have passed by chance? Another theory is that constant stress and danger force us to operate at a higher mental tone. But whatever the mechanism of transmission between the harsh environment and the inner magic, it’s pretty clear that there is. The story flashes too harsh but vital cities, too beautiful but banal, to ignore. It follows that, beyond a certain point, a more livable place risks being a less exciting one.

At this point, it is appropriate to stipulate that cities exist for the benefit of those who live here, not the avant-garde. If only it were that simple. As the main testing laboratory of our species for ideas – in art, food, business – cities generate vast estates of the most benign type. Your morning coffee, your freedom to sleep with whoever you want: many things are better now because of urban pioneers whose behavior spreads elsewhere. There is a utilitarian case for cities running at maximum creative inclination, even at the cost of their own livability.

What an indisputable return this word has made since the pandemic. Probably no city is more livable than Vienna. (The Economist Intelligence Unit, which agreed, crowned Auckland and other Pacific comparisons earlier this month.) But who do you think the future will be shaped in that chocolate environment? It has worked hard enough to reverse the decline of the population since the time of Klimt and Freud. A world without Vienna and its majestic type would be big. But a world that makes Vienna the benchmark would be torpid. The thing about livability is that a city can die from it.

Never be too quiet in your environment. It’s from Washington green, orderly but too understandable that I make this case for chaos. Los Angeles is my favorite place in the United States (a nation where cities have a tired habit of making sense) precisely because of its stimulating entropy.

No doubt, this argument can be missed. It’s not as if the less livable cities (Caracas and Douala, apparently) are the most creative. A certain type of London or New York pine is raw for a grassy past, as if the Ramones were worth all the stakes. Leave me out of that. The point is rather one of balance. There is such a thing as the optimal level of environmental stress, and it is not zero. I trust no one less with the future of the cities than the mystics of nature and the adverse techebs of the crowd (they choose living in Palo Alto) who dominate the zeitgeist.

The post-pandemic city, they reasoned, could be better. They just misunderstand the reason why. The hope lies in the fact that people who love space, clean air and sympathy for children will thrive. What remains will be an urban population of smaller dimensions but with a younger and more adventurous profile. It could not gain in livability. But there should be one in a creative spirit. Beneficiaries, as always, will not stop at the city limits.

Send Janan an email janan.ganesh@ft.com

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