‘The Rhinebeck Panorama’ of London, c1810 © Bridgeman Images
© Bridgeman Images

Cities are hardened to death and disease. Six per cent of Chicago’s inhabitants died in the cholera pandemic of 1854; an outbreak in Hamburg in 1892 killed 8,600; the Great Plague claimed the lives of 100,000 Londoners — almost a quarter of the population — in 1665-66.

The metropolis was traditionally dingy. The gleaming hubs of modern cities, now emptied by Covid-19 lockdowns and the fear of infection, are historical anomalies. “The river is almost black, and is covered with black barges; above the black housetops . . . rises a dusky wilderness of masts,” Henry James wrote of Greenwich in south-east London in 1887.

Those who evaded bacteria and viruses had to take their chance on the streets — London knife crime is not new: it accounted for 56 per cent of murders in the medieval city. Then there were fires, including the 14 that burnt most of wooden-built Oslo by 1624, and bombs, which destroyed two-thirds of Coventry’s city centre in 1940.

Yet for centuries, it has been hard to stop country-dwellers leaving their bucolic calm and rushing to become citizens. The equivalent of eight cities the size of New York were being formed annually around the world before Covid emerged. Wuhan, the virus-originating city, which many would not have heard of before the pandemic, is home to 11m.

New high-rises loom over an old historic building in Shanghai © Getty Images
People gather along the Bund in Shanghai © Getty Images

Are we now witnessing a reversal of the centripetal momentum that has drawn people and businesses into urban clusters? Clustering has become a high-risk activity since the outbreak of Covid-19, and Zooming from home has replaced commuting for many, if not the workers who must keep public services going. City dwellers browse listings covetously for country cottages.

Books take so long to research and write that the peril of being overtaken by events always hovers. It has swooped on this collection on the triumph of urbanism. In Metropolis, a “history of humankind’s greatest invention”, Ben Wilson notes that early-20th-century cities were places of “pessimism not hope”, and we have received a sharp reminder that the metropolis is vulnerable.

“To stand in a stairwell on the 27th floor of a tower block, next to a communal garbage chute, beneath a fluorescent light, and look out through thick glass at the skyline of a British city is to be reminded of the suddenness and completeness of historical change,” writes Sam Wetherell, a University of York professor with a soft spot for postwar urban planning, in Foundations.


A global and historical look at the forces that make cities hum


An academic modernist sees opportunity in disruption. ‘The future now feels radically open’

These works chart the city’s rise from different perspectives — Wilson’s global historical; Wetherell’s academic modernist; Ged Pope’s literary suburban; and Mark Ovenden’s graphical statistical. Their collective moral is that cities are innovative and sturdy. They can be bombed, infected and pummelled into retreat over centuries, yet they shift shape and survive.

Urban growth has been so rapid in developing economies that many prefer to live in slums and shanty towns rather than stay in the village — 55 per cent of Mumbai’s population is estimated to live in informal settlements. Cities have expanded across regions, spawning suburbs, edge cities and exurbs; Phoenix sprawls on the Arizona desert.

Infrastructure is needed when cramming millions together. In Underground Cities, a fascinating dive into the monuments beneath our feet, Ovenden records extraordinary subterranean feats in many cities, from the Moscow subway to Helsinki’s 400 Cold War underground shelters. Much of Chicago had to be physically lifted in 1858, block by city block, to make room for sewers.

The cities beneath our feet. Graphic showing different depths of infrastructre beneath 10 major cities, Depth below ground (metres) by type of construction

Master planning is not a 20th-century innovation — witness Haussmann’s remodelling of Paris under Napoleon III (“Cruel demolisher, what have you done with my past? I search in vain for Paris,” wrote the poet Charles Valette) and Dinocrates’ ancient Alexandria. Imperial Rome was carefully ordered — Lewis Mumford recorded its six obelisks, eight bridges and 11 public baths in The City in History (1961).

Donald Gibson, the official who rebuilt Coventry after its warren of streets was flattened in 1940, watched the Nazi intervention with mixed emotions, hoping that “like a forest fire the present evil might bring forth greater riches and beauty.” But the visions of planners such as Gibson and Robert Moses of New York, read oddly now that we know the concrete reality of expressways and housing projects.

The power of the city has often arisen spontaneously, as Moses’ arch critic Jane Jacobs argued in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Wetherell regards post-Thatcherite neoliberalism, in the form of shopping malls and private housing estates, with suspicion but individualism lends cities much of their charm.

All The tiny moments blazing

A circuit of London’s suburbs and the figures who frequented them

underground cities

A dive into the monuments beneath our feet, across the world’s great cities

Wilson sets out to match Mumford’s sweep in Metropolis, and he brilliantly synthesises the forces that make cities hum. Many of the most powerful flourished as the hubs of trade empires, from Lübeck in northern Germany, capital of the medieval Hanseatic League, to Amsterdam. “If I were King of Lisbon, I would soon rule over the whole world,” said Charles V of Portugal’s 16th-century capital.

Global magnetism can only be exerted by a few cities at a time: Lisbon’s rise coincided with Venice’s fall. “The city represented a giant social network, a place where ideas and practices spread through the system in the most efficient way, igniting change,” Wilson writes of 17th-century Amsterdam. The Dutch city did not just attract traders; it spawned consumers, as Shanghai has done in the early 21st century.

A promenade in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens was among the delights of Georgian London, and all classes frequented the theatre, a “place where it felt like the city of a million people came together,” Wilson writes. Those who flock to cities must feel “an increase in humanity, from the very habit of conversing together, and contributing to each other’s pleasure and entertainment,” wrote the 18th-century philosopher David Hume.

Phoenix suburbs sprawl into the Arizona desert © Getty Images

London had puppet shows, rope dancers, jugglers, strolling players, waxwork museums, fairgrounds and Punch and Judy shows. Commercial mass sporting events started in the 1730s with 10,000 spectators being drawn to the Artillery Ground to watch cricket. Sex was also on offer: William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress records the descent of a naive country girl, tempted by fine new clothes, into a courtesan.

Clustering enabled education as well as entertainment, including visits made by Robert Hooke of the Royal Society to London coffee houses in the 1670s to gain a wider audience for his science lectures. “Here, civilisation makes its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage,” judged Alexis de Tocqueville of Manchester, but cities can also elevate. Financial trading and insurance sprung out of coffee houses.

Liberated from pestilence and attracted by the restoration of human-scale districts, job opportunities, and a fall in crime, it is no wonder that professionals moved eagerly to the core of cities from the 1980s onwards. What Wilson calls “the intoxicating metropolis” gains power from human proximity.

“I choose not the suffocating anaesthetic of the suburbs, but the violent jolt of the capital . . If it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death,” declares Virginia Woolf in David Hare’s film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours (The town also got a harsh review in TS Eliot’s 1922 poem The Wasteland: “Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew/Undid me.”).

Urban magnetism is now under threat but Ged Pope’s charming circuit of London’s suburbs and the figures who frequented them in All The Tiny Moments Blazing is a reminder that cities have coped with worse. Even urban smog has its benefits: “Monet worked in the park whilst I, living at Lower Norwood, at that time a charming suburb, studied the effects of fog, snow and springtime,” Camille Pissarro wrote of 1870.

Cities have always attracted artists and musicians. “I know I come from Woking/And you say I’m a fraud/But my heart is in the city/Where it belongs,” sang Paul Weller of The Jam in 1977. Wilson writes that hip-hop was conceived in 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, at a party in an apartment block wedged between Interstate 87 and the Cross Bronx Expressway.

But others have settled for Richmond, or other suburbs, as Pope records. Arthur Conan Doyle lived in Tennison Road, Norwood, setting for one of the first Sherlock Holmes stories. In Coming Up For Air (1939), George Orwell lamented streets that “fester all over the inner-outer suburbs” with “the stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door.”

Camille Pissarro’s ‘Bath Road, London’, 1897 © Getty Images

Migration from the declining inner city to the new suburbs was common in the mid-20th century, and not just in London. Businesses also moved: the Taiwanese-American computer industry emerged in the San Gabriel Valley, near Los Angeles; the mythical Silicon Valley sprung up between San Francisco and San Jose in northern California, rooted by Stanford University.

“Cities are not only resilient, they are also adaptive systems,” Wilson writes. If Covid-19 makes some question the inner city and think of moving out, it will not be for the first time. Nor is it likely to overturn the fundamentals of humankind’s choice: “We decamped to the city for good reasons 5,000 years ago — for the proximity, opportunities, sociability and sensual pleasures it offered.”

Modernisers have spotted an opportunity in Covid-19 and economic upheaval. “The future now feels radically open in ways that were unimaginable just six years earlier,” concludes Wetherell with relish. But the future of the city is more likely to be made by ambition, artistry, emotion and imagination than by planning.

“The fields from Islington to Marylebone/To Primrose Hill and St John’s Wood/Were builded over with pillars of gold/And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood,” wrote William Blake, the visionary artist who was born in London’s Soho. He started the poem in a Sussex village, but his heart was in the city and he returned.

Metropolis: A History of Humankind’s Greatest Invention, by Ben Wilson, Jonathan Cape, RRP£25, 448 pages

Foundations: How the Built Environment Made Twentieth-Century Britain, by Sam Wetherell, Princeton, RRP$35/£30, 272 pages

All The Tiny Moments Blazing: A Literary Guide to Suburban London, by Ged Pope, Reaktion Books, RRP£25, 560 pages

Underground Cities: Mapping the Tunnels, Transits and Networks Underneath Our Feet, by Mark Ovenden, Frances Lincoln, RRP£30, 224 pages

John Gapper is the FT Weekend’s business columnist

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