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The city can die of life


Robert Harris, the novel of the Dreyfus Affair, captures the stench of sewage in Paris in 1895 very well. And he writes that the ugly scourge of a dense city “creeps” up to the mouth, so that “everything tastes of corruption.”

Talent is not spoiled. That year, on Rue Lafitte, Paul Cézanne had his first solo exhibition. Across the Seine, the Lumiere brothers, the purest case of nominal determinism, examined the first motion picture, All 50 seconds of itto the congregated beneficiaries. Paris of the free rodent was also the Paris of Sarah Bernhardt.

There is nothing logical to suggest that a more laid-back city would not fade with such creative force. Why is it so hard to imagine?

Even before the pandemic, with its “nature healed” reputation, cities aspired to semi-rural. The planned reform of the Champs-Elysées into an anti-car “park” is just one In the country town Planned. An architect friend tasked with greening the Thames Bridge at intervals from Chelsea to the Blackfriars. I rejoice in almost all of this good work. But I also wonder if the creative uses of the test environment got lost in the bargain.

It’s hard to say what it is about the cluttered and compressed humanity that leads to genius. The received view is that density allows for collaboration. Cézanne was from Provence, and the owner of his gallery was from Reunion: where else would they cross randomly? Another theory is that constant stress and risk forces us to operate at a higher mental degree. But whatever the transmission mechanism between the harsh environment and inner charm, there is clearly one. History evokes so many harsh and lively cities, so many beautiful but tacky ones, that they cannot be ignored. It follows that after a certain point, the most habitable place risks being a less exciting place.

At this point, it is appropriate to state that cities exist for the benefit of those who live there, and not for the benefit of the vanguard. Only if it was very simple. As the chief experimental laboratory of our kinds of ideas – in art, food, and business – cities generate vast externalities of a milder kind. Your morning coffee, your freedom to sleep with whomever you wish: many things are now better because of the urban goers whose behavior has spread elsewhere. There is a utilitarian case for running cities with the utmost creative inclination, even at the expense of their livability.

What an unwelcome return that word has made since the pandemic. Perhaps there is no city more livable than Vienna. (EU, which used to agree, crowned Oakland and other Pacific models this month.) But who thinks the future will take shape under this box of chocolates? It has succeeded in reversing population decline since the times of Klimt and Freud. A world without Vienna and her grandiose kind would be rough. But a world that makes Vienna the standard would be wrong. The thing about livability is that a city can die from it.

Don’t be too comfortable in your environment. From green, orderly but highly understandable Washington, I am demonstrating this mess. Los Angeles is my favorite place in the US (a country that has an exhausting habit of understanding meaning) because of its stimulating entropy.

No doubt, this argument can run out. It’s not as if the least liveable cities (Caracas and Douala, it seems) are the most creative. A certain kind of London or New York pine feasted bluntly in its sultry yesterday, as if the Ramones family made all their stabbing worthwhile. Leave me out of that point is rather one of balance. There is such a thing as an optimal level of ambient tension, which is not zero. I don’t trust the future of cities more than the mystics of back to nature and the techno-popular dweebs (hmm Choose to live in Palo Alto) which dominates the zeitgeist.

A post-pandemic city, right, could be better. They just misunderstand why. The hope lies in the fact that people who cherish space, clean air, and a haven for children will move on. What remains should be a smaller but younger, more adventurous urban population. There may be no gains in liveability. But there must be one in creative intelligence. Beneficiaries, as usual, will not stop at the city limits.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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