A city can die of livability
Robert Harris, novelist of the Dreyfus Affair, captures too well the great stench of the Paris sewers of 1895. The filthy miasma of a dense city “seeps” into the mouth, he writes, so that “everything tastes like corruption â.
He did not corrupt the talent. That year, rue Laffitte, Paul CÃ©zanne was entitled to his first personal exhibition. On the other side of the Seine, the LumiÃ¨re brothers, the purest case of nominative determinism, screened the first film, in 50 seconds, in front of crowded spectators. The Paris of rodents in freedom was also the Paris of Sarah Bernhardt.
There is nothing logical in suggesting that a smoother, more orderly city would not have sparkled with such creative force. So why is it so hard to imagine?
Even before the pandemic, with its ânature healsâ smarm, cities longed for the quasi-rural. The plan to reform the Champs ElysÃ©es into a car-hostile âgardenâ is just one rus to urbe scheme. An architect friend is responsible for greening the Thames embankment at regular intervals from Chelsea to Blackfriars. I applaud almost all of this good work. But I also wonder if the creative uses of a test environment are lost in the business.
It is difficult to determine exactly what is happening with the overpopulated and stressed humanity that gives birth to genius. The received opinion is that density allows collaboration. CÃ©zanne was from Provence, his gallery owner was from Reunion Island: where else would they have come across at random? Another theory is that constant stress and risk forces us to function at a higher mental rate. But whatever the transmission mechanism between hostile environment and inner magic, it is clear that there is. History throws out too many harsh but vital cities, too many beautiful but mundane, to ignore. It follows that beyond a certain point, a more livable place is likely to be less exciting.
At this point, it should be made clear that cities exist for the benefit of those who live there, not the avant-garde. If only it was that easy. As the main testing ground for ideas of our kind – in art, food, business – cities generate vast and benign externalities. Your morning coffee, your freedom to sleep with whoever you want: a lot is getting better now thanks to urban pioneers whose behavior has spread elsewhere. There is a utilitarian argument in favor of managing cities with maximum creative inclination, even at the expense of their own quality of life.
What an unfortunate comeback this word has made since the pandemic. Probably no city is more livable than Vienna. (The Economist Intelligence Unit, who agreed, crowned Auckland and other paragons of the Pacific this month.) But who believes the future is going to be shaped in this chocolate box frame? It has enough work to reverse the decline in population since the time of Klimt and Freud. A world without Vienna and its majestic species would be rude. But a world that made Vienna the benchmark would be numb. The problem with livability is that a city can die from it.
Never get too comfortable in your surroundings. It is from a green, orderly but too understandable Washington that I argue for chaos. Los Angeles is my favorite place in America (a country whose cities have an annoying habit of giving meaning) precisely because of its stimulating entropy.
No doubt this argument can get out of hand. It’s not as if the less livable cities (Caracas and Douala, apparently) are the most creative. A certain type of Londoner or New Yorker crudely yearns for an edgy past, as if the Ramones make all stab wounds worthwhile. Leave me out of this. Rather, it is a point of balance. The optimal level of ambient stress exists and it is not zero. I trust no one less for the future of cities than return-to-nature mystics and crowd-hostile tech dweebs (they to choose living in Palo Alto) which dominate the zeitgeist.
The post-pandemic city, they are right, could be better. They just misunderstand the reason. The hope lies in the fact that people who love space, clean air and child-friendliness will move. What will remain will be a smaller urban population but younger and more adventurous in its profile. There may not be any gain in habitability. But there should be one in the creative mind. The beneficiaries, as always, will not stop at the city limits.
Email Janan at [email protected]
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