When you look at a city, it’s like reading the hopes, aspirations and pride of everyone who built it. - Hugh Newell Jacobsen
The Cities Book is a celebration. Of the physical form, in stone, glass, metal and wood, that is taken by these remarkable spiritual, cultural, political and technological bastions. Of the people whose energy spills out into the city, transforming itself into music, art and culture. Of the myriad sights, smells, sounds and other temptations they offer. By celebrating the majesty of cities on every continent, we marvel at the contribution they have made to the collective richness of humankind over more than six millennia.
We begin with a look at the evolution of cities - their roots in the first civilisations, the characteristics we associate with the great cities of today, and the possible directions they will take in the future. According to the UN, just over half the world's population was urban in 2014, compared with one-third in 1950. By 2050, city dwellers are predicted to comprise two-thirds of the populace. Our urban ancestors could not possibly have predicted the way in which cities would change the world we live in.
The story of how cities evolved is the story of civilization. We can glimpse the past in the preserved walls of castles, palaces and places of worship that have survived, albeit haphazardly, for centuries, and which influence the colour and flavour of our present. Cuzco in Peru is one example. The city's strongest walls remain those constructed by the Inca, whose stone monoliths were carved by hand and laid so precisely, without mortar, that it is impossible to slide paper between them. These mighty stones continue to make up the streets and foundations of newer buildings to this day.
Paradoxically, with the advent of sedentary settlements, where people resided in large groups instead of roaming the countryside as small bands of hunter-gatherers, came the advent of inter-city travel. Initially people travelled (as they still do) for trade, war or religious pilgrimages, but eventually cities gave birth to the leisured classes who could travel for curiosity and pleasure. Even in ancient times there were hoteliers.
Current archaeological records indicate that the oldest cities are those found along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq. The great Sumerian capital of Uruk grew around fertile shores lined with irrigation ditches dug centuries before. These ditches, filled with water from the Euphrates River, allowed the Sumerians to farm the land, producing surpluses of food for the construction workers, possibly slaves, to raise the world’s first cities. The most ancient of these was Uruk, famous for its giant defensive walls, luscious gardens and sophistication of its ruling elite, including the god-king Gilgamesh, who was the subject of the world's oldest epic, the Song of Gilgamesh, still in print today.
Excavation of the site where the city once stood, an area covering 450 hectares, has yielded astonishing finds, such as a cuneiform tablet containing what is regarded as the most accurate description of the Tower of Babel, an architectural feat referenced in the Bible. After more than 5000 years, the legacy of Sumerian culture has remained potent. Not only did they invent the wheel and the first written language (Sumerian cuneiform script emerged around 3500 BC), but also the sexagesimal number system, still used to measure time.
Rome - antiquity’s great melting pot
Sicilian writer Vincenzo Salerno said that the blueprint for Western civilisation was the society of ancient Rome. The Romans gave us our alphabet (minus u and w), and many of the words we still use are derived from ancient Latin. They gave us the 12-month lunar calendar; the rudiments of classical architecture; straight roads; a system of government; literature; public-ablution facilities; and endless subject matter for Shakespearean plays and even movies. At the heart of the mighty empire was the imperial capital, home of the Senate and generations of megalomaniac emperors. Ancient Rome's former glory is still visible in the modern city, notably the remains of the Forum, Pantheon and Colosseum.
The Romans were not the first people to become civilised, though, and nor did they develop in a vacuum. They were great assimilators of the skills, knowledge, literary conventions and even deities from neighbouring or past civilisations - a process hastened through conquest - in particular the Greek and Egyptian civilisations, centred on Athens and Alexandria, which were already melting pots of ideas, racial groups and culture.
Alexandria the Great
In 332 BC, Alexander the Great thrashed the Persians and conquered Egypt for the Greeks. The following year, after being crowned pharaoh, he ordered the construction of a fortified port which he named, in a moment of egotism, Alexandria. The city was to replace Memphis as the capital of ancient Egypt and, had Alexander not died of fever during the conquest of Babylon, would have become the capital of his enormous empire.
During antiquity the Egyptian capital was famous for its wonderful papyrus and great medicines, perfume, jewellery and gold work. The city was, and still is, legendary for the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and for its library, established under Ptolemy III. Less than S00 years after Ptolemy Soter ascended the throne, Alexandria was reduced to rubble, destroyed through a combination of Caesar's aggression, petty-minded Christian rebels, earthquake and flood. The Egyptian city we know today as Alexandria bears almost no trace of its amazing history. But through the advanced system of trade and communications that existed, some of the knowledge contained in the library survived. Then as now, the great powers adopted and adapted the successful tricks and strategies of their contemporaries, ensuring that the legacies of civilisations dating back millennia would be recorded.
Lost cities - Atlantis to Great Zimbabwe
For thousands of years, fabled lost cities have gripped our imagination. Even Plato (427-347 BC) pondered how advanced civilisations could just be mysteriously wiped out. The source of the legend of Atlantis stems from his account: In this island of Atlantis was a great, wonderful empire which had ruled over the island and several others, and over parts of the continent... But there occurred violent earthquakes and floods, and in a single day and night of misfortune... the island of Atlantis... disappeared in the depths of the sea.
There are still people out there trying to find this ancient utopia, and over the years a spate of potential Atlantises have been found in waters across the world. The jury is still out on this legendary city’s existence, but strange structures discovered in Japanese waters off Yonaguni do appear to be man-made. Though not enough to signify the existence of a whole city, the stone ruins' estimated age, circa 10,000 years, represents another conundrum for those tracking the chronology of ancient human civilisation.
Each new archaeological find is a puzzle, and as likely to inspire fear and prejudice as it is joy. Take the case of Great Zimbabwe in Africa. The ruins, with their massive curved walls raised without mortar, weren’t discovered by Europeans until the late 19th-century. A full exploration of the site, conducted byj Theodore Bent, an amateur archaeologist bankrolled by British imperialist Cecil Rhodes (a notorious racist), concluded that the enclosures were the work either of Phoenicians or Egyptians, despite unearthing masses of evidence that pointed to their indigenous origins.
The inability of conquering civilisations to appreciate the achievements of those they have conquered has added to the numbers of lost cities and ruined sites on all continents. The World Heritage-listed site at Machu Picchu was once the spiritual capital of the Incan population that was decimated by the Spanish. With the Inca gone and their knowledge lost, the ruins they left behind can never be interpreted with any certainty. But perhaps that only adds to the allure of the lost city.
In the days of the European Grand Tour of the 19th century, young aristocrats would complete their education by travelling to the great cities of the Continent to study their history and art. But travel was still time-consuming, difficult and expensive, and therefore only available to the privileged classes. Today, modern transport means that we can travel between cities in hours, not days. Recent travel trends show that short-break city trips are one of the most popular kinds of travel, and that the main motivators are education and the exploration other cultures, escaping the stresses of everyday life, and fulfilling a sense of adventure. Travel has had a considerable impact on people’s lives, helping define a social conscience and positively impacting personal goals and values.
Back in 2004, the reality of a disaster such as that which may have destroyed Alexandria and Atlantis was beamed into TV sets around the world. The devastating tsunami that struck in December that year, causing widespread coastal damage, affecting 12 countries and causing the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, has been followed by further brutal natural disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005; the catastrophic earthquakes in Sichuan, 2008, Haiti, 2010 and Japan, 2011; and Cyclone Nargis in 2008 - all of which caused serious destruction in urban areas.
When Katrina lashed into New Orleans, it was confirmation that even cities with significant defences could not take their safety for granted. The historic city lost a large number of its priceless old buildings, became engulfed by toxic waters, and many inhabitants suffered physical and psychological damage. The rebuilding process has resulted in new, vastly improved flood defences, though the New York Times reported in 2015 that 'old inequities have proved to be resilient’ across the city as a whole. If New Orleans still needs help choosing its future direction, it could do a lot worse than turn to the example set by the place that has been named the world’s most livable city for the past six years, Melbourne.
Standards for living
In the early 1990s, Danish urban planner Jan Cehl was asked by Melbourne’s City Council to evaluate the Australian city and propose a plan for making it a much more pleasant place to live. The city wanted to inject a few of the features for which Copenhagen was famous; a transport network that helped people use bicycles and public transport rather than cars to get to work, and a city centre that was a people-friendly place to live. Any visitor to Melbourne today can see the results of Gehl’s consultation: a thriving cafe culture and nightlife, a city centre that isn’t dominated by the automobile, and a population that loves its city, which is now ranked as one of the most desirable places to live in the world.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s survey, published annually, assesses living conditions in 140 cities around the world by measuring the essence of livability in terms of citizens' quality of life, tied to 30 factors concerning safety, health care, education, infrastructure (transportation, communication, water and sanitation), the environment (green spaces and clean air), affordable housing and meaningful employment. In the 2016 survey, Melbourne was again the highest ranked city, and a further two Australian cities (Adelaide and Perth) featured in the top 10. Alongside Australia, Canada has some of the most livable places in the world, with Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary ranked third, fourth and joint-fifth respectively. Auckland in New Zealand was eighth, while the remainder of the top ten were European; Vienna, Helsinki and Hamburg.
Rapt in wander
Cities are places to wander, without a map, relishing the freedom that comes of being lost in a strange new world. Whether you’re taking a leisurely stroll along the wide, cobblestone pathways of Antigua or letting a doe-eyed dog lead you aimlessly around the busy streets of Bangkok, or walking through a canyon of skyscrapers on New York’s High Line urban park, exploring on foot can easily be the highlight of any trip around a city.
The best thing about walking is that you have control. When you come across something interesting you can stop and check it out, take your time and savour the experience. Often the most ancient cities are the most rewarding to walk through. Perhaps it’s because they were built for walking, in a time before cars were invented and carriages and horses were reserved for a small elite. Small cities also lend themselves to walking, as it is easy to learn your way around and to get a feel for their human scale.
Walking allows us to meditate and absorb the ambience of a place, particularly in holy cities. Passing along the decorated walls of Varanasi in India, for example, winding through the hustle and bustle, myriad temples and sumptuous buildings can be a dreamlike experience. In Mecca, a city where you are required to walk, the sense of renewal and rejuvenation comes from the river of humanity you will find yourself caught up in during the Hajj pilgrimage alongside well over two million Muslim pilgrims.
A trip to any city would be much the worse for not savouring the flavours favoured by the locals. The quality of a city’s restaurants can reveal much about its inhabitants - the importance of their traditions and their openness to new ideas. Many cities in this book would claim to be top or near the top of the epicurean food chain. New York, Paris, London, Toronto, Melbourne and Montreal would stake a fierce claim, as would San Francisco. Some cities have nice weather, others have nice beaches, but San Francisco has both (most of the time) and great food to boot.
Of course, sampling a city’s cuisine isn’t always about eating the very best. The locals in any city have their own peculiar favourites, often in marked contrast to all the grand fare served up by gastronomic wizards in the finest restaurants. Sometimes it’s all about discovering the local secrets, trying something a little different that you wouldn't find at home.
In celebration of diversity
There’s something about Sydney's Mardi Gras and Rio's Carnaval that makes them the antithesis of the country village where everyone knows your name. One of the great opportunities that cities offer new residents is the chance to be themselves. Sharing a living space with millions of others is often a profoundly liberating experience. Anonymity allows for freedom and the chance to become the person you want to be. Cities have a long history of attracting people who are seeking a
fresh start or need to outrun the demons of prejudice and intolerance more common in villages and rural areas. During medieval times throughout Europe, peasants, not to mention thieves and vagabonds, would escape the attentions of despotic landlords by fleeing to the cities, hence the old expression 'city air is free air'. Cities are centres of migration, from rural areas and from abroad. The relative peace and stability that is enjoyed by people of different races, sexual orientation, cultural backgrounds and political views, who live together side by side in thousands of cities worldwide, is a wonderful advertisement for urbanisation.
No matter how many natural, cultural or culinary charms a city may have, it is often judged by the quality of its nightlife. And having explored the delights of your chosen city by day, it's only natural that you should want to check out what happens between dusk and dawn, just to make sure you haven't missed anything. Some of the best nightlife can be found in the cities where you’d least expect it. Take Belgrade for example. Along the Danube are dozens of splavovi (floating raft clubs) blaring out funky, folksy Balkan beats as they slide out of view. In contrast, you expect New York to deliver- and it does. The world’s most extravagant city has it all, 24/7.
Having lured us out of the wild and into homes that for many are packed with creature comforts, fridges, running hot water, electricity, heating, superfast broadband and the rest, what more does the city have up its sleeve? One thing is certain - there will be change.
The challenges for the future faced by cities mainly revolve around sustainability and managing growing populations. The UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development took place in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016, following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A number of goals were set to ensure safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable housing, transport systems and public spaces, as well as safeguarding cities' cultural heritage and reducing the impact of natural disasters. Elsewhere, at the World Cities Summit of 2016, in Singapore, delegates (mostly mayors and civic leaders) identified five challenges that cities face: transportation planning and development; economic development and job creation; financing infrastructure projects; housing supply and affordability; ageing populations.
Clean and sustainable cities
Of course, making cities cleaner, more sustainable and thus more livable would seem to be entwined with all these targets. The UN Habitat programme has reported that 75% of energy consumption is attributable to cities and they emit 50-60% of all greenhouses gases. At the same time, cities - highly vulnerable to climate change - are at the forefront of implementing innovative solutions to minimise their carbon footprints.
Collaborative action and the sharing of ideas is key and with this in mind the C40 network has been established to bring together 90 of the world's major cities to share ideas and innovations. The network maintains that urban density can actually result in a better quality of life and a lower carbon footprint when coupled with more efficient infrastructure and planning. There are reasons for optimism, as some of the world’s major urban centres have introduced strong targets for cutting emissions.
New York announced plans to reduce its gas emissions by 80% by 2050 compared with 2005; LA set a target of a 45% reduction in emissions between 1990 and 2035; Seoul has planned 40% cuts from 1990 to 2030; and Hong Kong announced 50-60% cuts from 2005 to 2020. China has also introduced a low-carbon city project for many of its biggest cities including Tianjin, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Hangzhou, Nanchang, Guiyang and Baoding.
So what measures can these cities take to meet these targets, to reduce waste and become more sustainable overall? Providing an efficient public transportation system is a good place to start, at the same time encouraging the take-up of electric vehicles and cycling. Buildings can be constructed from eco-friendly materials (wood from sustainably managed forest, for example) and be equipped with solar panels and rainwater-recycling facilities. Investment in urban farming will reduce the carbon footprint of food transportation, while dirt beds for greenery on roofs can hold rainfall and reduce pollution. Cities can take measures to encourage recycling and introduce more radical steps such as banning plastic bags, while an increase in the amount of open and green space is a given.
Combating air pollution is also a huge challenge as the urban population grows. The World Health Organisation reports that only 12% of cities worldwide meet its guideline levels for clean air. However, there are a number of initiatives being introduced that can positively impact this issue. Again, a clean and efficient public transport system is an obvious step, as is the establishment of cycle and pedestrian networks. Copenhagen and Oslo now prioritise building cycle routes over roads, and Zurich and Helsinki are just two places discouraging private vehicles by introducing financial penalties. Low-emission zones for polluting vehicles, such as those in Paris and London, are another step, as is the retrofitting and prohibiting of polluting vehicles - Delhi has phased out its diesel taxi fleet while Bangalore is converting its 6000 buses to run on compressed natural gas. As urban centres grow, enforcing clean targets in the construction industry is another essential. Hand in hand with these civic initiatives should be an attempt to educate individual citizens in lowering their own carbon footprint and reducing waste.
The UK's Climate Care Trust offers individuals a way to live guilt- free in the city by simultaneously selling carbon offsets while funding projects that help to reduce emissions elsewhere. Using the trust's Carbon Calculator, you can work out the amount of carbon dioxide emissions for which you are responsible by entering how much electricity, petrol, gas and oil you use per annum. The calculator then works out how much carbon dioxide was ejected into the atmosphere as a result, revealing a total in pounds that can be paid in the form of carbon offsets. The Air Travel calculator reveals how much carbon dioxide you're responsible for if you take a flight from, say, Boston to Delhi. Such a journey would emit 3.15 tonnes of carbon dioxide and cost £23.61 to offset.
New real estate
Technology moves ahead in leaps and bounds, and perhaps the only thing that can limit a city in the modern age is the imaginations (and finances) of the people who are building it. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s extraordinary developments in Dubai are well documented, securing the city's reputation as a top tourist destination and fantasy playground for the fabulously wealthy.
Another epic urban-development project is Songdo IBD near Seoul in South Korea. Construction began on the 556-hectare landfill in 2005 and had attracted 90,000 residents by 2017. When complete it is planned to house almost half a million people and be a picturesque, high-density economic hub to rival Hong Kong. As well as being incredibly technologically advanced, the city has some exciting innovations in terms of sustainability and green initiatives. There’s a waste-processing pipe system that sucks all household refuse direct from kitchens to eco-friendly waste-processing centres. City planners boast that residents will always face just a 15-minute walk between home, work, school and leisure, and 40% of Songdo IBD will be green space.
More innovative new urban centres are being constructed or are planned in China, across Africa and in India, where the ruling BJP has ambitiously promised '100 new smart cities'. Many such projects are private-sector initiatives, however. Where in the past real estate developers would build houses, offices and apartments, it seems that the 21st century has ushered in a new era of real estate where developers construct entire cities. Anyone who has played Sim City knows the allure of being able to construct their own metropolis. For an increasing number of people, the fun is turning into reality. Constructing cities started off as the preserve of warrior god-kings, then passed into the hands of elected politicians, and now it seems anyone with enough passion, perseverance and financial backing can give it a go.
No two cities are the same. Some have great food, others great nightlife, some stunning architecture, some are rich with history and others have an eye on the future. Cities are individuals. Like a human being, a city is a mass of genes, chosen at random by forces beyond our control, fused together in a secret furnace, acted on by nature and reared through infinite probabilities of nurture before finally growing up and making its own way in the world. Only by taking an interest in someone, spending time with them, observing their mannerisms, conversing with them, engaging with their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, learning their idiosyncrasies and habits, listening to them sing in the shower and snore at night, only by walking the path with them and imagining what it would be like to wear their shoes, can you begin to realise how special someone is. And the city is the same, except maybe a little bit bigger.