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A city can die of liveability

Robert Harris, novelising the Dreyfus affair, captures Paris’s great sewer stink of 1895 too well. The foul miasma of a dense city “infiltrates” even one’s mouth, he writes, so that “everything tastes of corruption”.

It did not corrupt talent. That year, on Rue Laffitte, Paul Cézanne was accorded his first solo exhibition. Across the Seine, the Lumière brothers, the purest ever case of nominative determinism, screened the first motion picture, all 50 seconds of it, to huddled patrons. The Paris of free-range rodentia was also the Paris of Sarah Bernhardt.

There is nothing in logic to suggest that a gentler and more ordered city would not have fizzed with such creative force. So why is it so hard to picture?

Even before the pandemic, with its “nature is healing” smarm, cities were aspiring to the quasi-rural. The planned reform of the Champs Elysées into a car-hostile “garden” is just one rus in urbe scheme. An architect friend is tasked with greening the Thames embankment at intervals from Chelsea to Blackfriars. I cheer almost all of these good works. But I also wonder if the creative uses of a testing environment are being lost into the bargain.

Exactly what it is about crammed and stressed humanity that gives rise to genius is hard to pin down. The received view is that density enables collaboration. Cézanne was from Provence, his gallerist was from Réunion: where else would they have crossed at random? Another theory is that constant strain and hazard force us to operate at a higher mental pitch. But whatever the transmission mechanism between harsh surroundings and inner magic, it is plain enough that there is one. History throws up too many rough but vital cities, too many nice but banal ones, to ignore. It follows that, beyond a certain point, a more habitable place risks being a less thrilling one.

At this point, it is proper to stipulate that cities exist for the benefit of those who live there, not the avant-garde. If only it were so simple. As our species’ main trial lab for ideas — in art, food, business — cities generate vast externalities of the most benign kind. Your morning coffee, your freedom to sleep with who you wish: lots of things are better now because of urban pioneers whose behaviour diffused elsewhere. There is a utilitarian case for running cities at maximum creative tilt, even at the cost of their own liveability.

What an unwelcome comeback that word has made since the pandemic. Probably no city is more liveable than Vienna. (The Economist Intelligence Unit, which used to agree, crowned Auckland and other Pacific paragons over it this month.) But who believes the future is going to be shaped in that chocolate-box setting? It has work enough reversing the population drop since the time of Klimt and Freud. A world without Vienna and its stately kind would be coarse. But a world that makes Vienna the benchmark would be torpid. The thing about liveability is that a city can die from it.

Never be too at ease in your environment. It is from green, orderly but too-comprehensible Washington that I make this case for chaos. Los Angeles is my favourite place in the US (a nation whose cities have a tiresome habit of making sense) precisely because of its stimulating entropy.

No doubt, this argument can run out of hand. It is not as if the least liveable cities (Caracas and Douala, apparently) are the most creative. A certain kind of Londoner or New Yorker pines crassly for an edgy yesteryear, as though the Ramones made all the stabbings worthwhile. Leave me out of that. The point is rather one of balance. There is such a thing as the optimal level of ambient stress, and it is not zero. I trust no one less with the future of cities than the back-to-nature mystics and crowd-averse tech dweebs (they choose to live in Palo Alto) who dominate the zeitgeist.

The post-pandemic city, they are right, might be better. They just misunderstand the reason why. Hope lies in the fact that people who cherish space, clean air and child-friendliness will move out. What remains shall be an urban population that is smaller in size but younger and more adventurous in profile. There might be no gain in liveability. But there should be one in creative wit. The beneficiaries, as ever, won’t stop at the city limits.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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