“Cities are Good for You – the Genius of the Metropolis” by Leo Hollis, part 1.

I’ve read 4 of 11 chapters in this book. Both my sons live in cities, and here I sit in the countryside… I’ve never lived in an American city. I remember my months in Berlin (inside the Wall) with special fondness. I know the arguments in favor of higher density living, but cities make me nervous.

One of Hollis’s opening arguments pertains to “second tier” friends. He says city and country people have about the same number of “first tier” friends and relatives, the people with whom we work, play and live. But he asserts that city folks have more “second tier” friends – former colleagues, acquaintances, casual contacts, slightly known neighbors – and these people improve the quality of life. Evidently this can be documented in the job search arena. 

Hollis moves on to discuss the city as a hive, and there, I think, violates logic. He references ant biologist E O Wilson (again! see my post of August 1) in a discussion (over my head) of complexity theory. A few pages later, Hollis casually informs us that a bee hive is a “democracy”. What?! The concept of “democracy” is so saturated with political and sociological assumptions that applying it to an insect (no bones, not much brain, etc.) is just wacko. It’s like hearing someone announce that they are going out to milk the cow, then seeing them walk off with a full set of welding tools. It’s not going to work…

So, who else turns up in Hollis’s book? He disliked Robert Moses, who so shaped (deformed?) New York City. I agree with him, but that’s based only on the Robert Caro biography of Moses. (New York City makes me particularly anxious…)

Hollis is uncritically approving of Cory Booker, the popular mayor of Newark, NJ. I am reserving my opinion on Booker, and Newark for that matter. (I’ve been there just once.) I wonder if Hollis was surprised at Booker’s Senate candidacy.

Hollis devotes an interesting chapter to creativity, using that term to apply broadly, to arts, technology and innovation in general. He discusses, with many examples, how cities re-invent themselves, which often seems to involve arts or information science. When it works, is it because someone made and implemented a good plan, or is it because the right number of bright, high energy people were in the same place at the same time? Does it happen from the bottom up, or the top down? Do professional planners and architects help or hinder? I know some artists with whom I want to discuss this.

I decided to take a break from reading and write about this book now, because it’s so full of ideas I may not be able to keep them all straight. More to follow…

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