Great cities are among our sturdiest survivors, she argues, because they serve a crucial role. That’s why more than half the world’s population now lives in cities, and that proportion will only rise in coming decades.
(Penguin Random House)
In this era of increasing polarization, she offers a hopeful reminder about the calming influences of urban places. “In cities, people could suppress their tribal impulses to fight by refocusing on the density and variety of ways to satisfy desires for food, objects, and goods,” she writes. Because of the greater number of casual contacts in urban spaces, “people almost unwittingly engaged with an impulse to align with their commonalities rather than to divide according to their differences.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In talking about cities, you use the metaphor of the internet – which you call “the cognitive analogue of cities” – and yet the irony is that e-commerce threatens to unravel cities by undercutting the tax base from locally based retailers and other businesses.
The internet does make us think about the ways in which cities are going to evolve in the future, which I’m very concerned about. But cities are here to stay; we’re not going to invent some other form of settlement. They’re just going to grow. Think about where the big tech companies are. If they were interested in running their own show, they would buy land in areas of the country where real estate is cheap. Instead, they are right in the hearts of cities. Google, Facebook, Amazon – they want to be in downtowns. They are investing in urbanism because they want workers who are drawn to the attractions of a place like New York.
In the book you talk about how cities were invented to serve the needs of socially and culturally differentiated groups. But in recent years some have argued that coastal cities, including New York and San Francisco, have become almost exclusive boutiques for the rich.
Funny you mention New York, because I was just there last week, and I’ve been lucky enough to live there a couple of times. To see the kinds of changes that are happening there are much more diverse than the kind of prevailing sound bite (about the city). I see a lot more families in Manhattan than you used to. I see people with kids living in the city. I see older people moving back in, from places like New Jersey and Connecticut, because they can access many more things than they can in a rural place. And for people who don’t want to live in Manhattan, there’s always the Bronx and Queens and Brooklyn and Staten Island, which is a kind of garden city. And I’m not sure I’d even put all of Manhattan in that boutique basket. East of Central Park, you have low rises and bodegas, and it almost feels like a kind of small-town neighborhood. So I think the stereotype we have of Manhattan might be expanded slightly.
The World’s Oldest Cities
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You talk about a flash of inspiration by a colleague you mention in the book, about how cities arose not because of wealth but from the vulnerabilities of certain areas. Is that true for megacities?
Yes, when we think about cities, we worry about their fragility. And there are certainly good case studies of cities that take a beating, but they almost always come back. Think of cities like New Orleans, which really geographically ought not to exist. It’s been wiped out so many times that people should have abandoned it. But it has something that is worth people coming back to. Some cities are almost too big to fail. When New Orleans or Houston or Miami take a hit from a hurricane, they get rebuilt. A city can be reinvented over and over and over, which is amazing.
Monica L. Smith is an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at UCLA.
I was struck by how much you seem to revel in the subject of overconsumption for a professor who teaches at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. You write about how we think of overconsumption in cities as a new thing, but how it’s really been a thread throughout history.
It certainly has. As a field archaeologist, I’ve been lucky to work in a variety of places where we were digging through these layers and layers of ancient garbage. It really stupefying to think about the quantity of discarded stuff. And just as in modern trash, when we dig, we always find containers. People filled it up once or twice and then just tossed them, exactly the kind of thing we do today – all those items that we could reuse over and over, and we just don’t. You’re right about the irony of this. My (academic) department is all about mitigating waste. But my point is that if you don’t understand why people want so much stuff, you are not going to be able to engage in any kind of behavior modification. We have to understand that people engage with lots of stuff because it gives them a chance to have lots of identities, which is very useful in a city.
You write that “the ancient Romans prove that infrastructure unifies social spaces.” Most people would probably think of the Roman Colosseum, but your example was more the Roman baths.
Exactly, and the aqueducts. Because when you build a pipe, whether it’s an aqueduct or a water pipe that comes into a city, you’re serving many people with that pipe. Cities make deliveries of goods and services and things like electricity and water much more efficient, because the number of people served per length of conduit is greater than in a rural area. So making infrastructure at a capacity to serve a variety of needs is something that also helps to make cities thrive.
You argue that slums are not so much accidental byproducts of cities, as many might assume, but essential features, as entry points for migrants without many resources.
Yes. If you think of cities in ancient Mesopotamia, when archaeologists first started to work, they often focused on the palaces and the temples. It was a little more difficult to persuade scholars to look at ordinary housing, and the development of lower-income parts of town. But those lower-income people are the ones who make cities function. Cities are not just about CEOs or middle managers, but all the service industry people – people who work in food service and cleaning and delivery. Those people have always been an absolutely necessary part of the city, and often come into the city with no other assets than their own two hands. And it means that people are eking out an existence in very marginal conditions, hoping to get something better to come along, but they stay because even under very difficult conditions it is more attractive to them than going out into the countryside, where they have no prospects.
We have increasing polarization in this and many other countries, and you write that we’re not going to be living less but rather more in cities. Given what you say about cities and how they liberalize attitudes, might that be a source of optimism about the future?
I think so. The things that make people have a shared city are often relatively cheap, like a baseball cap. You see other people on the subway, and you might guess from their clothes that they’re poorer or wealthier than you, but you’re all wearing the same baseball cap. And that means that you all are thinking about something bigger than those differences. The other thing is that cities do tend to be much more liberal. They tend to be much more accommodating of diversity, which is why migrants often come into cities preferentially. This is why you get diverse ethnic and LGBTQ communities, because cities have a greater range of allowance of mental acceptance of people. Cities tend to promote social justice, just by getting to know people on a one-to-one basis.