Millennial predictions: cities will wither

Paris. London. New York. Perhaps Tokyo. Never Sao Paolo. Never Mumbai. So sings the liberal cultural fantasy of the tourist consumer who shops in the great cities of the world before returning to home base, where they gather in the inner city and try to impose their strangely rural visions of the 20 minute city on poor uncultured suburbanites.

This fantasy is insulted by Fernandez-Armesto’s scepticism about the viability of the large cities of the earth in the face of increasingly intolerable living conditions. So too the vanity of technological Utopianism: where these zealots believe there is no problem that cannot be solved without the technical application of knowledge, Fernandez-Armesto posits a likely pause or even an end to the endless technological development. There will come a time when, like all previous civilisations, there will be no answer in technology to the problems posed by human life together; when technology adoption curves will appear to be a quaint belief of ideologically incensed minds; when our culture will stutter and stumble, tired and without hope, before the challenges its elites pose for it.

Of all the marvellous technological-social inventions of humanity, cities are the most death-defying, the most exhilarating, the most fecund for the writers of speculative fiction. They have also been harbours for deep doubts, who have prowled its back lanes and slums and wondered why the cruelty of cities is not better known.  Fernandez-Armesto looks out, like a wistful traveller, at the great mega-cities we have created and asks if we have made Frankenstein’s monster? Have we made a set of challenges that are beyond the range of responses our cultures are capable of?

Cities of 20 million. Commuting in crowded tin cans for 2 hours a day. Spectacular ugliness combined with inhuman splendour. Has the scale of our cities defeated us, and will we retreat into a reinvented village life, enabled by collaboration through telecommunications that he imagines. Our governments seem unable anymore to plan and think for the needs of massive cities in decades from now. Roads are built for the tolls, not for the travellers. No one builds cathedrals any more. Physical decay is accompanied by social decay. We have learnt to exploit urban property, to market liveability, but we have turned away from the fabric of shared social experiences great cities on smaller scales once gave to their cultures.

So I agree. Cities are withering before our eyes. But if only because of the numbers, an alternative way of life in the country, chatting with colleagues by Skype, will be a rare alternative. More likely violence and warlordism will stalk more cities; more likely the cultured will retreat to Lindisfarnes in the suburbs, where the gentle work of holding onto the human heritage will go on in isolation and beneath the contempt of the new power elites; unless the culture begins to build again the public goods of connected life.

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