August 2013

Emily Mooney


An Interview with Leo Hollis

There is a reason people walk faster in the city. They are moving towards something. When people live and work in close proximity to one another, a quickened pace is sparked. Always in pursuit of the next innovation, city-dwellers are propelled by what Leo Hollis calls "the genius of the metropolis."

Written as a defense to a maybe outdated assumption that many find the city to be the agent of societal ills, degeneracy, and disease, Hollis's books extend his argument beyond the virtues of urban living. He openly challenges current modes in an effort to ensure every person "La droit la ville," or the right to the city, as first advanced by French urban theorist Henri Lefebvre. Hollis unabashedly asks, what role did the gated community have in the death of Trayvon Martin? What can we learn about efficiency and alternate economies in the world's worst slums? If society reflects its populace, there is the hope that people can effect change.

While the title is prescriptive, the bulk of the book is descriptive. In an engaging blend of travel narrative, commentary, and evidence, one learns of places such as Bangalore (population 8.4 million), which rivals Silicon Valley as tech capital of the world and has yet to finish building a road from the airport to the city. Or of Balboa, a once-unassuming European city that exploded after building an airport, metro system, and the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum.

Cities Are Good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis is Hollis' third book. It is preceded by London Rising: The Men Who Made Modern London and The Stones of London: A History in Twelve Buildings. I had the fortune of corresponding with Hollis to discuss the global and social issues raised in his latest work of nonfiction, which steps outside of London and transports the reader to cities around the world.

Your exploration of the metropolis encompasses vast metropolitan networks, inclusive of its suburbs, and finds the demarcation of the Central Business District, Inner Ring Suburbs, Suburbs, and outlying Exurbs as divisive terms employed by urban planners to compartmentalize a thriving hub of energy and interconnectedness. This compartmentalization is debunked in your depiction of a sprawling yet thriving Houston, and also recognized as a failure in Detroit. How would you define the relationship to the city and its surroundings?

I believe that cities are constructed from people rather than buildings. This means that we need to define the urban as a social relationship as much as we define it as a place. My book is an attempt to describe a "social urbanism" that goes beyond zones and looks at the connections between us, and how they affect our behavior.

Obviously one cannot divorce the relationship between place and behavior. There are numerous studies that show that cities have become divided, whether in terms of equality, wealth, ethnicity, as well as the differences between the inner city and the suburbs. While it is essential to mark and map these fault lines and to challenge the barriers that create these divisions, one also needs to take very seriously the things in common.

There is a special genius to the city that is often misunderstood. It cannot be explained by size or density alone, although these factors are important. The city is not a large town or a massive village; it is of its own kind and has its own unique characteristics. We have ignored these too often, or misinterpreted them. For example, cities are not inherently unequal; rather they amplify the inequalities that we allow to occur on our front doorstep. It is us who are at fault here, not cities; and by changing our behavior we can change the city.

Are you sometimes conflicted about your urban identity as a resident outside of London's city limits? Does it matter?

When people ask me where I come from I am more likely to say "London" than "Britain." The city is part of my identity. However, even outside the city I will always be an urbanite, because that is the way I behave, rather than the place I am in. It was Henri Lefebrve who said that we should stop talking about cities and start talking about urban societies, and he was right. I feel more at home in any city than I do in the middle of a field! So we need to look harder at the characteristic of urban behavior rather than just measuring the fabric of the physical city.

Is the "other" implied in your title, neither city nor metropolis, meant to signify the countryside and rural communities?

I make a point of not describing what you call the "other." In the UK the attachment to the countryside is very strong, and I know elsewhere the "other" can take many forms. My task, as I see it, is to prove the advantages of urban living on its own terms rather than through some either-or choice.

Nonetheless, I am not anti-countryside. I believe that the best way to protect and preserve the countryside is by working on the city and making it a sustainable future home. The environmentalist George Monbiot recently wrote a book about the possibilities of re-wilding the countryside. This would be a terrific idea -- but it is only possible if we can get the cities right first.

As an historian and urbanist, you surprisingly seem to diminish the ability of architecture to ameliorate humanity. I find the grandeur of the cityscape evidence of the "genius of the metropolis." Do you agree that the sublime heights of urban architecture lend to the magnification of human potential?

Architecture is obviously an essential part of the city's identity. However, I think we need to distinguish roles. While I am a huge fan of Le Corbusier as a maker of buildings, I think that his role as an urban planner was wrong-headed from first principles. I disagree that a building is a "machine for living"; I also think that he was completely wrong by abolishing the street. There are numerous architects that I am very excited about: I would celebrate muf, Rem Koolhaas or Jan Gehl.

I do believe that good design can transform life, but I also recognize that there are limits here and often these claims are overstated. As Le Corbusier correctly said, "architecture is background." It is people that matter in cites, and architecture must serve its purpose in creating the setting of our urban lives.

I am very interested in architecture from the bottom up, activist building, and most importantly the development of place -- which involves some aspects of architecture but does not have to include construction. The life between buildings is what I am most concerned about.

This does raise interesting dilemmas for both the historian and the architectural thinker. The question of conservation for architectural or historical heritage raises many problems and there is no single universal response. The decision between retrofitting and redevelopment on sustainable grounds also is an issue. The true cost of gentrification is a debate that we seem to avoid.

It was surprising to read your exploration of creativity within the context of economy: "The city also offers diversity and competition, the best forcing grounds for turning seeds into blossoming success. This is what Adam Smith calls the 'invisible hand' of capitalism: the market's demand for the new, the supplier's desire to reduce costs and scale up profits has always fuelled creativity." In the same chapter you express the positives of high culture in terms of elevating a city's prominence globally. How do you reconcile the commodification of the arts in a work that values the people's right to the city over the top-down approach of politicians and economists? Why did you choose to highlight creative capital over the art found in the "ballet of the streets"?

I fear that I may have expressed my argument badly.

This particular chapter looks at the "creative economy" that many thinkers have connected with the twenty-first century. I wanted to query and perhaps undermine this idea without undermining the idea that cities can be incredibly creative. Cites are extraordinary forcing grounds for good ideas -- that is part of their genius. The dilemma seems to be that we are entering the age of the "knowledge economy," in which we produce nothing except creativity. We are overstating something that has always existed, and this of course, distorts the way things work.

In this chapter I attempted to show that while singular events like Bilbao occur, these are not the norm. Many cities have tried to make themselves attractive, more commercial, wealthier through schemes to attract the "creative classes," or the cultural tourist. They have failed more often than not. The successes, nonetheless, have been noteworthy and can transform a neighborhood -- Tate Modern, London; High Line, Manhattan; or even a city: Bilbao. But it is a dangerous path to follow.

Then there is the creative class itself, which I also cover in the chapter. In my critique of Richard Florida, as seen in the creation of Tech City (Silicon Roundabout) in London and the failure of homegrown innovation in Bangalore, I wanted to show that top-down initiatives haven't worked despite the marketing spent. Cities generate creativity, as I show when looking at Silicon Round being home to a number of amazing enterprises -- but top-down management often has the opposite effect by making it harder for homegrown talent to blossom in these places. Running our cities according to the principle of the "creative class" is a very dangerous idea. Instead, one needs to think about the grain of a place, and to develop creativity from the ground up.

I do believe that the state and government -- and perhaps even private enterprise -- has a role to play in nurturing this talent.

As to the question of the commodification: I don't think that there is one rule here. High culture is essential to any city; the debate should be about barriers to accessing culture. Pricing, education and commercialization are all part of the same exclusionary practice. In London most museums and galleries are free or subsidized by the state; this is a good start but not a complete response to the problem.

A delightful aspect of this book is the insertion of your own narrative; you weave firsthand accounts and anecdotes, even as you relate the complexities and differences of the many cities you've traversed. Was it difficult to remain subjective in your impressions, or was it tempting to compare the systems of other cities to the norms of your urban model and home, London?

I really enjoyed writing those sections; being in so many cities is an extraordinary experience and a real privilege to do research in this way. It also allows the sense of place and people to come through for the reader (I hope). One has to be subjective at these moments, but I hope that I have learnt enough on the journey to know what is comprehensible and what can be shared. Thinking about London, it is a city that I love and understand the best, but this makes me one of its most vocal critics. I can see clearly so many things wrong with the way that it is today. Nevertheless one always has to check one's privilege, because I live in one of the great cities in the world with such a history.

Connection seems to be an answer as to why cities are good for you. Close proximity allows people, and ideas, to come together. This spirit of togetherness that cultivates the currency of trust also creates a sense of belonging. Yet you do not shy away from exposing the inequality that is the price for living in a heightened state of density. The inspection of slums, poverty, and isolation is necessary in order to address unresolved questions in the hope to gain a better way to live. Was it difficult to remain transparent concerning this dichotomy while advancing your argument that cities are beneficial?

Lefebvre observes that cities are both the problem and the solution to our problems, and I agree. There have been so many books recently -- like Edward Glaeser's The Triumph of the City, or Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley's The Metropolitan Revolution -- about the economics of cities, and I see my book as a corrective to these. I love living in cities, I am convinced by the sustainability argument that cities are our best chance to prepare for the future, and I am sure that the city is the finest social experiment in human history. We are meant to be together and cities are the most effective laboratories for finding these ways of being that we have concocted so far.

However, I refuse to turn away from inequality, injustice or poverty because it does not fit the argument. Rather I believe that it has to be at the center of the debate, and that is why I place the relationship between trust and inequality at the heart of the book. The city is not just an economic machine but the sum of human life.

I hope my book looks at these important issues seriously and perhaps contributes to the discussion. I do not pretend to have the answers, but I hope the book offers a method that I might clarify the question and offer some optimism for the potential of a better future.

What is the most satisfying aspect of urban excavation?

What fascinates me most is the relationship between place, action and self. Returning to the idea of "social urbanism," we need public places in order to learn the rules of civic life, yet it is these public places that are constantly under threat. It is only by continually patrolling and safeguarding these freedoms that we start to belong. Occupying, as it were, teaches us to become citizens.

The book, I hope, allows us to rethink about the way the city is organized. It attempts to liberate us from the traditional assumptions and hang-ups we have about urban living. Without underestimating the scale of the problem in front of us, it gives us a reason to try and remake the places that over 52 percent of the world's population calls "home." This is not just about making money; it is about thinking hard about what quality of life means, and having the courage to trust each other. It puts people first rather than places or profit and then tries to see what happens when we start considering a more social urbanism.