Show Hide image

In the 1990s, cities were meant to be on the wrong side of history - no longer

The Olympics can be susceptible to woolly abstraction. But London’sv spectacular 17 days do reflect one truly international trend: the triumph of the city, its spirit and its significance. London’s skyline provided the backdrop but the underlying story is universal. Cities, for all their challenges and contradictions, have never enjoyed greater global importance. We are more urban now, in 2012, than ever before in history.

In the mid-1990s, conventional wisdom held that cities were on the wrong side of history. Academics predicted that the digital revolution would remove the reasons to live in cities. “Cities are leftover baggage from the industrial era,” concluded the technology writer George Gilder. “The death of cities” would follow inevitably from the emergence of personal computers and mobile phones. After all, why should we huddle together in cramped apartments – or even go to the office at all – when we could live in spacious isolation and communicate via machines? Comfy suburbia rather than messy bohemia seemed certain to define our future.

How wrong we were. For the first time in history, there are more people now living in cities than the countryside. Cities are more productive, because they encourage the spread of ideas and increase specialisation. And cities are more environmentally efficient, because urbanites walkmore and use public transport.

The digital age, meanwhile, hasn’t deflated the city; it has revived it. “We are more free and flexible about where we can live,” argues Carlo Ratti of MIT. “And if you can live anywhere, where do you want to live? Somewhere interesting, somewhere fun – in other words, a city.” Style and design have reflected that shift in attitude. Twenty years ago, the suburban mood was in the ascendant. The four-wheel drive was more about faux-rural status than surviving off-road conditions. Restaurants and bars yearned to be “lounges”, as though we couldn’t relax properly without sinking into a leather armchair. Starbucks transplanted sofa living to the high street and sedated us with milky comfort drinks.

Where cities once pretended to be suburban, it is the suburbs now that take inspiration from downtown. We have taken the urban aesthetic into our homes, often subconsciously. Converting old warehouses into post-industrial apartments – which began in SoHo in New York – started as a means of exploiting wasted urban space. What began as expediency became a lifestyle movement. Open-plan living is as dominant in suburbia as it is in the city.

Downtown has triumphed. The deliberately distressed walls of today’s cafes want to claim a link with the industrial past. Far from being ashamed of the city’s gritty past, we celebrate it. We even crave the city when we get into our cars. The trend of ever-expanding dimensions has finally reversed – the new Peugeot 208 is seven centimetres shorter than its predecessor. The most iconic (and bestselling) recent car is the tiny Fiat 500, relaunched in 2007. Even when it is nestled deep in English suburbia, the 500’s retro good looks evoke 1960s continenta  city life. Instead of pretending to be splashing through mud in Gloucestershire, we want to feel we are jostling with Vespas in 1960s Rome  Monoclemagazine, launched in 2007 by Tyler Brûlé, is the news-stand’s version of the Fiat 500.

Critics assumed there couldn’t be enough readers to sustain a glossy magazine about the intersection of urbanism, fashion and design – but Monocle has punched above its weight in terms of influence. Its underlying logic is simple. If you care about lifestyle, then you should take an interest in how your city is run. A good transport system will make a much greater difference to your quality of life than going on a fancy holiday. We should take a serious interest in the things that affect our daily lives – and celebrate the designers and architects who make quotidian experiences feel special.

Many of us seek the atmosphere of the city when we go out for dinner. The trend is towards smaller spaces and a more unashamedly urban atmosphere. A new wave of London restaurants began with Polpo, in Soho, a cramped space modelled on a Venetian bàcaro. The restaurant struck gold by persuading the inhabitants of a very crowded city to pretend they lived in an even more crowded one. How does that work? Because people like to bump into one another: it is one of the reasons they leave the house.

That is a good metaphor for the city. Cities increase the probability of happy accidents – whether it is stumbling upon new friends or making business connections. However well connected we are on the internet, nothing supplants physical proximity. Being close to other human beings increases the serendipity around us. A city is like a giant singles bar – with a much more expansive range of opportunities on offer.

The London Olympics have reminded us that some things can only be achieved in cities. Even watching on television, we see the crowd and recognise the human need to come together in celebration. The best sport, as the New Statesman’s leader put it in last week’s issue, provides an “ecstatic sociality”.

Sport, too, once tried life outside the city walls. It didn’t work. When I became a professional cricketer in the 1990s, conventional wisdom favoured moving grounds completely out of cities, creating purpose-built stadiums in the middle of nowhere: shopping centres for sport. It proved disastrous. Out-of-town stadiums have no atmosphere, for players or fans. They strip sport of its social context.

Fans understand that one of the pleasures of being in the crowd is contributing to the life of the city. When you cheer Usain Bolt at the Olympic Stadium, you are doing two things simultaneously: celebrating Bolt and celebrating London. By doing so, you contribute one tiny but essential voice to the chorus.

That warmth of the crowd shone through in the Olympics. City life, once again, brought together two deep human yearnings: to belong and to make a contribution. That is an Olympic legacy to feel very proud about.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality