Feelings make the city?

In what may be her cheapest jubilee gesture, Queen Elizabeth II has elevated Doncaster, Port Stanley and Wrexham to the status of cities. Dunfermline, too, must forgo the modest honor of being a mere “toun” where, in “Sir Patrick Spences”, the King sat, “drinking the blude-red wine”. Milton Keynes, once reputedly Britain’s most boring town, is now its most boring city. Bangor in Northern Ireland and Colchester join the ever less exclusive throng.

Does it matter? British places compete for city charters. So dwellers or leaders must perceive value in the process or outcome. Port Stanley’s residents have promised to “party with the penguins”, and in Preston, which the 2002 royal jubilee upgraded, inhabitants are reported as claiming to have felt transformed. Like other fairy dust, however, the benefits of such accolades are hard to detect. In the United States charters do enhance the powers of local government, but do not affect the design of cities already self-styled as such, regardless of size, amenities or any conceivably defining feature.

The places Her Majesty has elevated have no obvious qualifications. In Geoffrey Tyack’s informative, unpretentious and unerring new urban history of Britain, The Making of Our Urban Landscape, Doncaster appears only as a railway terminus and an example of the suffix that forms part of its name. Wrexham is merely cited for being “founded by a lord”. Colchester features because it is old and Milton Keynes because it is new. Dunfermline and Bangor get no mention. Their enhanced status deepens the mysteries of what it means to be a city.

Tyack does not even attempt a definition. Instead he lists elements of a typical urban profile: “permanent, relatively dense” settlement, markets, economic specialization among residents and “most important of all … civic identity”. That sounds reasonable: a place becomes urban when people think of themselves as belonging to it rather than, say, to a tribe or totem. Identity, however, is an unsatisfyingly subjective criterion, reminiscent of Isidore of Seville’s assertion: “Feelings make the city”. Charters, it seems, only confirm or anticipate sentiments.

The problem of definition defeats even Carl H. Nightingale, whose erudition more than 800 footnotes affirmed. In Earthopolis, billed as “a biography of our urban planet”, he admits that “no archaeologist, no urban theorist, and no global historians” has identified “something cities all share”. If scholars of the urban cannot define their subject, it sounds as if they literally do not know what they are talking about.

Nightingale has credentials for them right: long service in the ranks of urban historians, an impressive range of pertinent knowledge and skill in arraying it effectively and juxtaposing material from widely separated periods and places. He has a lively eye, noticing, for instance, the players of petanque who “argued strategy for their next throw in the boulevards” of Second Empire Paris. Nightingale marshals data crushingly: a litany of poor homes bulldozed in exploitative slum clearance takes up nearly five pages. His talent for description makes lines on Haussmann’s street plan or fin de siècle Vienna among the most engaging in the book. He uses two delightful guides through his tour d’horizon – a Sumerian goddess who conferred cityhood on ancient Uruk, and Pandit Sharma Karma, a rickshaw wallah who, driving the author around Delhi, became his equivalent of Virgil in Dante’s purgatory. Cute words entertain us: Nixon and Khrushchev, in their famous debate on standards of living, circle “the model dishwasher like feral cats”. City slickers, after the 2008 meltdown, speculate “on new shining slivers of refined, digitized air”. Global capitalists today are “shooting themselves into space or eyeing Martian real estate”.

Large settlements do not quite match Nightingale’s claims for them – that, for instance, they “allowed us to create contingency”, or that “larger realms of human action” are possible only in cities. He is closer to the truth when he admits that “it does not always take cities to do something enormous”, and that “unbuilt spaces” deeply affect “the life-courses of the urban worlds”. Developmental, built environments are a compelling subject on the scale the author proposes. They are a peculiar practice of the human species: other animals modify environments, but only humans have enough ambition or vainglory to smother, flatten and hide nature underneath their streets. Cities have come and gone at a pace that measures the shifts of history. They are now – in spite of slum and stench, dereliction and disease, crime and crowding – humans’ habitats of choice in most of the world. The biggest problem is, “Why?”. The next is, “For how much longer?”. Nightingale’s response to the first lies in deficiencies of capitalism and deficits in democracy. To the second, he reacts with optimism: cities are broken but reparable.

On the way to these conclusions, serious flaws mar the book. There is disappointingly little about ordinary city-dwellers’ lives: food and water supply lines, laundry, fire control, internal transport, policing, hospitals, crime, begging and mobilization for works or for war are scarcely mentioned. Except in courtly centres, municipal government receives scant attention, as do problems of the siting of cities. The civic identity that seems essential to urban psyche hardly interests the author.

Nightingale’s eloquence overspills into loquacity. A quarter of the length could be cut without loss. He wields chronology confusingly, adopting units of such enormous length that events separated by centuries appear synchronic. Judgments are ocasionally tendentious. “British Protestants … attacked Catholic households” is Nightingale’s summary of recent Irish “troubles”. He describes the first Arab-Israeli war only in terms of Zionist aggression. He exaggerates the frailty of ancient cities and the superiority of European technology. Factual errors are inevitable in a work of vast scope and length, but Nightingale’s reveal alarmingly uneven knowledge, especially of the early modern period.

In addressing the problem of what cities are, the author confides in his Sumerian guide’s list of desiderata – broadly similar to Tyack’s – before offering “a leap of faith”: cities are “places where we transubstantiate the power of Sunshine, Earth, and water into … human power”. Similarly puzzling formulations form a sort of refrain throughout the book. Nightingale insists from the outset that “we built human environments to harvest … energy”, whereas the reverse is true: cities consume food and fuel from rural or offshore sites. Conflict is an almost infallible test of relative strength. Nomads’ victories against settlers therefore belie the author’s conviction that cities are insuperable generators of power.

At the end of more than 800 pages we are no nearer to understanding what defines cities. But we find it hard to go on liking these “surging realms of deathly consequences” that have brought us “to the edge of a global River Styx”. Nightingale, however, is undespairing. We can “redesign” cities by abjuring hydrocarbons and practising democratic protest. The proposed cures are unconvincing. Democracy is a cause of madcap growth and elides easily into despotism. Even if we restrain hydrocarbon consumption, environmental problems will continue to assail us. On the other hand, Nightingale’s expectations of unremitting urban growth are unduly pessimistic. As demographic trends go into reverse, while historic reasons with for concentrating labor and crowding consumers, cities are likely to shrink or become more agreeable: clusters of villages with local amenities, allegians and, to revert to St Isidore’s term, – or, in the words of Nightingale’s divine Sumerian guide, “the rejoicing of the heart”.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto‘s most recent books are Straits: Beyond the myth of Magellan and (with M. Lucena Giraldo) Un imperio de ingenieroswhich was published this year

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