. . . that uniquely human invention. And like many of our unique inventions, we’re not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse. The chances are that you, like me, live in a city. We are urban creatures. We are surrounded by buildings not trees. If our fairy tales had their origins in the spooky woods – the wolf, the witch, the wizard then our modern day super-heroes are born in the city – Spider Man, Bat Man, the Joker. This is our world now. Concrete skies and trees in the park surrounded by sidewalks. From the first chapter of my book; what I’ve been working on.
“This story begins where we have ended up – in the city. For most of our history, 99.9 % of it, we lived in small groups, usually mobile, and had little or no infrastructure. Now most people live in the city. Our roaming areas of old have been replaced with the ‘metropolitan area’. ‘Metropolitan’ from the Greek mētr- ‘mother’ + polis ‘city’ – ‘mother city’. We have come home to our mother then and she suckles us.
The first cities appeared in the Middle East some 6,000 years ago. The invention of farming in the fertile alluvial soils of the great Tigris/Euphrates river basin afforded more and more sophistication in living arrangements. If you didn’t have to rebuild your house every 2 months or live in a cave you could really get into some architecture. Build something that lasts, bake bricks out of clay and stack them up, they’ll never fall down. Hunters and gatherers were limited to small groups because they had to be mobile and live off the land but if 1 person could grow enough food for 10 people then 10 people could have other careers – merchants and priests and kings and story tellers for the kings and of course warriors to protect the storehouses full of wheat and barley.
At around the same time cities started popping up along the Indus River valley at the border of present day India and Patkistan. Later small farming communities developed along the Yellow River in China and grew into the urban experience – the Yang-shao culture. Meanwhile and later still, in the ‘New World’, people domesticated corn and built fantastic stone cities around the cultivated areas – whether they were terraced fields in the mountains that ran along South America’s west coast or on the high central basin of Mexico surrounded by volcanoes. The urban experience flowered in human history as if it was a flower whose seeds had gestated in the rich mud of human pre-history for millennia just waiting for its chance to bloom; as if it was the great coming back together after the great dispersal of the tribes out of Africa and into every distant land.
And if you share the perspective that the purpose of ‘city’ is to concentrate energy and resources in a small area to facilitate human commerce then you would be affirmed by the booming success of our cities. You can do a lot of business in the city, way more than you can do out there in the country, or in a small town or, God forbid, the empty wastelands of the desert or the snow covered mountains where no one would want to live anyway unless you’re in a monastery. No, we built our cities in nice places and they are beautiful. Towers and decorated arches and elaborate edifices of all sorts line the streets, and the streets themselves are painted with symbols and lines telling of the greater glory of an organized city. A city with a reason and some central planning. The downtown area of any healthy city, the urban core, the heart of the metropolis is thick with human commerce. Ideas and money rain down and flow like water. Cars and people move about in a casually frantic but semi-orchestrated manner. The signs tell us what to do, traffic lights tell us when to move, parking signs tell us where to stop, lane markings remind us not to touch each other. Everything runs smoothly when you obey the rules. No questions asked. And when all the desirable land is occupied in a city we start building vertically. It’s sort of like living in the trees again.”