Leo Hollis: Cities Are Good For You

Mark Bridge reviews the new book by urban historian Leo Hollis exploring why, contrary to popular thought, cities are good for us 
LEO-HOLLIS: Cities are good for youEscape to the country. Get away from it all. It’s easy to think of the city as a necessary evil, a transitional place to earn as much money as you can before retiring to a rural paradise. This isn’t a new prejudice; even the ancient Babylonians mocked “townies” for being greedy and weak. Urban historian Leo Hollis disagrees with that viewpoint, as the title of this book suggests. In fact, he goes further. He believes the long-term future of the human race could depend on the cities we’re building now.

As the book points out, cities can be described as “good” for many reasons. They’ve enabled humankind to develop specialist skills. They offer efficiency. Our concrete jungles even encourage a greater level of fitness than suburban living. Yet that same environment can also threaten its residents’ health with pollution, traffic and the sheer volume of waste.

Leo’s theory takes him on a journey that’s both literal and philosophical, questioning the disproportionate wealth of Mumbai and the destruction required for Le Corbusier’s grand designs. As he travels the world he finds some answers and plenty more questions, too. There are anecdotes, there are facts, there are references and there are interviews. Ultimately, we’re reminded that cities are part of our future whether we like it or not. The majority of the world’s population is already living in cities. China alone has over 160 large cities with more than a million people living in each of them.

It’s all a very personal perspective, although to describe such a meticulously researched work as a ‘labour of love’ seems inadequate. The author presents a compelling case for the benefits of city living despite leaving me with a slight sensation I’m being swayed by his passion as much as by his ideas. You could argue the book’s title should be conditional but the rest of its messages are clear. Cities can indeed be good for us, yet only – as Leo writes – if we consider the human elements throughout the construction process. We need to build communities, not just structures. If we don’t, we’ll have nothing to escape from but ourselves.

Cities Are Good for You is out now through Bloomsbury