Ben Wilson, Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind's Greatest Invention (2020)

I wonder: have I ever described the city as "humankind's greatest invention"? It's not impossible, given the proclamation's tempting combination of boldness and obviousness — which it would retain if applied to, say, language, another of my own interests. Reading Ben Wilson's Metropolis: A History of Humankind’s Greatest Invention, I realized its subtitle sounded familiar because it echoes that of Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, published nearly a decade ago. Glaeser is a Harvard economist and Wilson a historian, author of popular books on the free press, public morality, and the British navy. Though their different professional and intellectual backgrounds make for differences in their approach to the city, both Triumph of the City and Metropolis are ultimately arguments in its favor. And so their most enthusiastic readers, myself included, feel a bit like preached-to choirboys.

The most city-inclined among us would, I suspect, prefer urban environments even if they made us poorer, dumber, less green, less healthy, and sadder. (When my own such preferences emerge in conversation, I often find myself incorrectly assumed to be an environmentalist.) That in Glaser's view the numbers support the opposite conclusion is but a nice coincidence. An economist in the 21st century would, of course, make much of numerical data that support his point, but Wilson also hauls out what feels like nearly as many figures on his way through urban history. The world's urban population has increased from one billion in 1960 to more than four billion today. Every hour, 85 people move to Lagos and 53 to Shanghai. China used more concrete between 2011 and 2013 than the United States did in the whole of the 20th century. Two-thirds of humanity will live in cities by 2050.

These aren't uninteresting trends, though the numbers that stick in my head rend to reflect specific chapters of history. In the year 1500, Asia had seven of the world’s twelve largest metropolises. In 1675, Holland's urbanization rate was 61 percent, as against nine percent across the rest of Europe. By 1851, more than half of Britain's population lived in towns and cities, making it the history's first majority-urban society. Haussmann added 600,000 trees and 24 squares to Paris. In the 1950s and 60s, the cities of the United States gained ten million new residents, but its suburbs gained 85 million. The number of public baths in Tokyo peaked in 1968, at 2,687. Mexico City and Mumbai now have nearly 250,000 street vendors each. Shanghai had no modern high-rises in the early 1990s; now it has 25,000, more than any other city. Seoul, where I live, comes in second with 17,000.

The South Korean capital makes more appearances throughout Metropolis than I would have expected. Wilson roots each of its fourteen chapters in one or two cities in a particular period (or, when discussing "cities of the world" in the late 15th through mid-17th century, four: Lisbon, Malacca, Tenochtitlan, and Amsterdam), and though Seoul never plays such a starring role, it does figure into several different chapters. A discussion of the "cosmopolis," first embodied in antiquity by Athens and Alexandria, finds its way to the nature of public space, which in Confucian cities "was sacred, governed by rituals of obligation, leaving little room for everyday social interaction. Irritated at having to bow continually to nobles riding horses on Jong-ro, Seoul’s main road, ordinary folk retreated to the narrow alleys parallel to the main thoroughfares." These pimatgol, or "horse avoidance streets," remain a notable feature of downtown Seoul's urban space today.

In the book's final chapter on the "megacity," exemplified by modern-day Lagos, Wilson also highlights much more recent developments in Seoul, including the "hideous elevated freeway" torn down and turned into the Cheonggyecheon, a "remarkable oasis of greenery and water in the middle of the city" (about which I wrote for the Guardian in 2016). Restored to an idealized version of its pre-freeway state, this stream "reduces air-pollution levels and mitigates the heat-island effect with temperatures 5.9°C cooler than elsewhere in the metropolis. More importantly, its foliage increases biodiversity and improves quality of human life in the city." As an example of the worldwide urban "transition from cars to vegetation" Wilson highlights the more recently completed and comparatively little-known Seoullo 7017, another "once-busy city flyover" converted into a "pedestrianized sky garden with 24,000 plants and trees" (the subject of one of my Seoul Urbanism segments on TBS eFM).

Looking to Korea in recent years, Western urbanists have paid almost as much attention to the Cheonggyecheon as they have to Songdo. Constructed between the mid-2000s and mid-2010s on reclaimed land along the waterfront of Incheon, the coastal city home to Korea's largest airport, Songdo International Business District is Seoul as official Korea would want foreigners to see it. Its $35 billion price tag factors in such underlying technologies as a pneumatic waste-disposal systems and data-gathering, sensor-embedded streets as well as, so the promotional materials have it, an urban plan designed to combine the best features of well-known cities: Parisian boulevards, a Manhattan-esque central park. For years I received e-mails from journalists and researchers asking for information about, opinions on, and even tours of Songdo, but the flow of requests seems lately to have dried up. Perhaps word has got around that, despite its best-laid plans, Sondgo isn't actually interesting.

Other than to cite it as an example of the "ubiquitous city" designed with all the state-of-the-art technology for better urban living, Wilson has blessedly little to say about Songdo. But he does find a way to work it into an early chapter on Harappa and Babylon, the "Garden of Eden and Sin City," respectively, of, four millennia ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that Harappan civilization, which grew in parts of modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, seem to have had it all, at least as far as civil-engineering technology permitted at the time. Its 100,000-strong city of Mohenjo Daro boasted a well-organized street grid, public trash cans, and "the crowning glory of Indus urban planning, a citywide sewerage system." And yet "an urban utopia is surely a contradiction in terms. A clinical city such as Harappa or Songdo might satisfy some of our needs, but it leaves aside many more."

Indeed, "we don’t always want cities to make us better people. The opposite is often the case; some might say that the whole point of cities is to provide anonymity and a labyrinthine mystique." Wilson marshals compelling voices in support the urbanites who revel in these qualities, seeking what I think of as mastery of the city. When he arrived in London in the 1870s, Henry James found London an "'impersonal black hole in the huge general blackness.' But there was a cure: 'I used to take long walks in the rain. I took possession of London.'" Sigmund Freud, for his part, "was almost crushed by Paris. But he came to terms with it by total immersion in the city, sketching it and describing its topography in detail in letters to his fiancée. After a few months he came to love it, a result of becoming intimately acquainted with it."

We must develop the city for ourselves as "a construct of our imagination," assembling a rich mental map experience by direct experience. "If you travel by public transport your private city might consist of a few clusters of geographically distant places, little pockets that you know among the vast blank of the rest of the city," Wilson writes. "If you drive, your city is unveiled in an entirely different, linear way prescribed by the road system." But "urban walkers know the city more intimately because they depart from established routes, discovering the connective tissue that knits together the very different districts of a city but which remain unknown to the majority." This has worked for writers in Paris and London, "the world’s leading cultural metropolises at a time when people were absorbing the shock of modern industrial urbanization." But "few would walk for pleasure through Lagos, Caracas or Los Angeles."

At first I got a laugh out of seeing Los Angeles, where I lived before coming to Seoul, classed with the likes of Lagos and Caracas. (One kind of Englishman, exemplified by David Hockney or Reyner Banham, goes native the moment they land at LAX; Wilson, I suspect, is the other kind.) But experience shows that the southern Californian metropolis' supposed inhospitality to walkers isn't without basis in reality. Part of the problem has to do with infrastructure — the Angeleno can't always expect a well-maintained or even extant sidewalk — but a bigger part has to do with insufficient stimulation at street level. This isn't an issue in Paris, where you have only to "immerse yourself in the performance and become a connoisseur of the urban drama." Yet even before I moved to Los Angeles I felt an irrepressible (and unfulfillable) desire to master it, not least on foot.

Wilson chose to gain his understanding of Los Angeles at the wheel, making a "160-mile loop (not counting diversions)" that "circumnavigated a landscape rich in history and meaning, a drive-by narrative that began in the atomic age of the 1950s and concluded at twenty-first-century globalization's ground zero." The former era is represented by Lakewood, best known as the subject of Holy Land, a "suburban memoir" by lifelong resident D.J. Waldie. For other writers, including no less an observer of the Californian experience than Joan Didion, the short history of this community built at industrial scale and speed to house aerospace manufacturing workers has served as a correlative for the rise and fall of the middle class in Cold War America. As Wilson puts it, Lakewood reflects "the roller-coaster ride of America since the Second World War, its boom, busts, deindustrialisation, diversity and its fraying suburban idealism."

Whether or not anything remains to be said about Lakewood itself, Wilson uses the opportunity to argue that American suburbs in general, "with their distinctive look and feel, were not the manifestation of national taste or individual choices; they were largely the creation of the state." As a "pre-emptive form of defense against nuclear strike," military strategists and urban planners hit upon the multibillion-dollar idea of incentivizing population dispersal with tax incentives for industrial relocation, large-scale road-building programs, and most effectively of all a "ginormous safety net for investors" (one of Wilson's more unsettling choices of adjective) strung up by the Federal Housing Authority that made a mortgage on a suburban house cheaper than the rent on an urban apartment. For decades postwar America, federal subsidy made it so "you could have whatever home you liked, as long as it was a brand-new bungalow in suburbia."

Edward Glaeser also confronts government-encouraged urban exodus in Triumph of the City, though in a slightly more apologetic fashion, having "suburbanized" himself. After living most of his life in "older urban areas" like Manhattan, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., he reached his late thirties having fathered three children and "did what millions of other Americans have done facing an expanding household. I moved to a suburb and started driving," which he doubts he would have done if not for "the antiurban public policy trifecta of the Massachusetts Turnpike, the home mortgage interest deduction, and the problems of urban schools." Suburbia may have its satisfactions, but — here Glaser speaks the language of the libertarian economist — "the government should not be in the business of enforcing lifestyles that we happen to find appealing." Today as in the mid-20th century, "public policies strongly encourage people, including me, to sprawl."

Would a history of or paean to the city by, say, a French or Japanese writer have this same defensive undercurrent? Glaeser is American and Wilson is British, and as the latter writes, "The British and Americans have never taken to cities in the way that people in Asia or continental Europe did. The tendency has been to seek to escape from the city as soon as one could." Wilson finds American anti-urbanism expressed in Thomas Jefferson's pronouncement that "when we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe," as well as in an admission by Jon Jerde, the mall architect responsible for Los Angeles' flimsily elaborate urban simulacrum Universal CityWalk, that "Americans seldom stroll aimlessly, as Europeans do, to parade and rub shoulders in a crowd. We need a destination, a sense of arrival at a definite location."

However deep this tendency runs, America's once-dreaded "inner cities" (a term that carries negative connotations only in the U.S. and U.K.) have undergone of a revival over the past decade or two. In 2015 I took a road trip across America, stopping in cities like Flagstaff, Oklahoma City, Knoxville, and Raleigh, and all the way heard variations on the same remark from locals: "If you'd told me downtown was going to come back to life ten, fifteen years ago, I’d never have believed you." But even then, the seemingly sudden proliferation of third-wave coffee shops, art galleries, bike-share systems, and neglected office buildings turned quasi-luxurious lofts got many hands wringing about the threat of "gentrification." That word appears only three times in the whole of Metropolis, Wilson having far more severe threats to urban life to recount: the siege of Leningrad, for instance, or the subsequent near-total destruction of Warsaw.

Leningrad, which has since returned to the name of Saint Petersburg, rebuilt; even more dramatically, so did Warsaw. As a historian, Wilson writes with the expected vividness on episodes of large scale death and destruction, but he also has much to say on urban resilience. Some of the cities he covers — such as Uruk, subject of his first chapter, where he locates the "dawn of the city" — have vanished, never to return. Others he describes as having become themselves through the crucible of their own annihilation: London's burning in 1666, Chicago's burning in 1871, Tokyo's repeated burnings due to earthquakes, bombings, and other causes besides. In modern-day America, alas, heroic rebuilding has given way to resignation and accommodation, primarily to urban social dysfunction. This has taken many forms, including a push for "compact districts that offer millennials a more metropolitan lifestyle in suburbia," grotesquely branded "urbanburbs."

On the other side of the pond, even Londoners have indulged in periods turned inward, away from the city. Most every 21st-century urbanite will appreciate Wilson's chapter on how coffee, and more specifically coffee houses, turned 17th-century London into a "sociable metropolis." Yet within 200 years or so, most such establishments, groundbreaking in their original openness to men of all social classes, had turned into members-only clubs, offices, or stock and insurance markets (Lloyd's of London, for instance, started as Edward Lloyd's coffee house). On London's shocking lack of sidewalk cafés in the late 19th and early 20th century Wilson cites such literary Americans abroad as Henry James and Ford Madox Ford. The coffee house has most recently been revived in the 1990s, partially filling "a gap of sociability that had become acute in cities particularly in Britain, the United States and Australia where city centers had become impoverished."

Here in Korea "coffee had been drunk on the go, purchased cheaply from vending machines until Starbucks burst upon the scene in 1999," creating such urban species as the keopiseujok (the "coffice tribe" who use cafés to do their work), and kapebeureorijok (or "cafébrary tribe," who read in them). These terms aren't often heard around Seoul today, possibly because the phenomena they describe have become too common to require labels. I'm writing this very essay, as I write most all my essays, in a Seoul coffee shop, though not a Starbucks (of which this city has more locations per capita than any other). As I write I'm enjoying a beer — something unavailable at Korean Starbucks — and not just a beer but an "Urban Wheat Ale" from Chicago's Goose Island brewery, a fact out of which a writer like Wilson could surely spin a compelling tale of metropolitan globalization.

Whether Wilson's global metropolitan research took him to Seoul is unclear, but he did make it to Lagos. The Nigerian capital has also lately become an object of urbanist fascination, albeit for quite different reasons. With a population of about 21 million, Lagos has four million fewer residents than the greater Seoul region but twice as many as Seoul proper. Having expanded from a base of 288,000 in 1950, it stands as a prime example among the developing-world megacities now celebrated for their social and commercial vitality, none of it the result (and some of it in spite) of official designs. Being inchingly driven along the city's "brutish roads," Wilson asks the car's other passengers why they live in Lagos, which "had just been declared the world’s second worst city to live in, just behind war-torn Damascus." They answer with one voice: "This is the funnest city in the world!"

My objections to the word "funnest" aside, I will say that Wilson's Lagos chapter — as well as his examination of its street-food staple Agege bread in an earlier, culinarily oriented chapter ostensibly about Baghad — makes me want to, if not catch a flight there, then at least read a full-length book about the place. (Ideally this will be the nonfiction narrative of the city that Teju Cole, the Nigerian-raised author of the acclaimed New York novel Open City, is said to be working on.) All of Wilson's essays — for this is essentially a book of essays, each of which uses its theme to start somewhere unlikely, make a number of mildly surprising geographical and temporal connections, and finally end up somewhere else — stoke a hunger for not just street food but more detail about the experience of each of the dozens of cities he references.

Metropolis also makes an ideal subject with which to launch this Books on Cities newsletter, thanks both to its broad scope and recent publication. It's so new that it has one of those but-of-course-COVID-changes-everything introductions I've been seeing in a variety of new books. Possessed of a historian's long view, however, Wilson clearly knows that COVID, like the litany of other disasters visited on cities, won't change everything. It could, he admits, "turn the tide against cities once again, encouraging people to flee metropolises, places where long periods of quarantine and lockdown are almost unbearable and where the risks of infection are greater." But only toward the book's end does he articulate how lockdowns have underscored the importance of "having reliable sources of food, medicine and daily necessities in one’s immediate locale." Only one form of civilization offers that in the fullest sense, and it's not the urbanburbs.