Our wise contributors unravel the riddles at the heart of our cities: what makes them tick, how they can work better and what nocturnal joys lie within.
Genning up on local customs before you head for foreign shores is recommended, especially when it comes to that key element of getting into the holiday spirit: alcohol consumption.
Do you know what time night-time starts? Or evening, anyway? You’ll know the right time for night-time if you’re reading this on home turf or if you’re au fait with the manners of the manor that you’ve made your temporary abode but – oof! – it’s possible to get it so very wrong. Don’t be the guy giddily gunning for the home straight when the rest of town is considering where to start the night; don’t be in need of a taxi home while the locals are turning off the bathtub’s hot tap with their big toe and lazily canvassing options on speakerphone.
With the cocktail hour comes the heart-starter; with eveningtide comes the aperitif; with nightfall comes the seemingly endless starry backdrop for your revivified spirits – but only if you play it right. When in Rome, don’t do as you do at home; learn the ropes and be cool. When in Rome for real, sip an aperitivo before dinner and make it last a little; when in Paris have a glass with lunch but wait for supper to finish the bottle; in Spain a cerveza’ll do any old time but keep the yayos until a little later, there’s a dear.
In the UK we have an expression about it being bad form to have a drink until the sun is over the yardarm. This is a sailor’s thing and just the sort of navy lark to get you into seven seas of sorrow because if the sextant’s showing true the sun will cross the yardarm at noon. Noon. Beware that axiom and all those that sail within her.
In Japan, labyrinthine etiquette is a diminishing art and so now a sort of sport, but one about which it’s best to know the rules. Many of you will want to explore Tokyo to see what makes it this year’s Most Liveable City. “Nomini ikou!” will get you a start; a tachinomi will get you a faster one. Where the former, “Let’s go for a drink,” implies an izakaya restaurant and some food, the latter’s a hole-in-the-wall joint where you stand up to knock back your drinks. It’s speedy stuff. A tachinomi is no sort of date, unless you’re taking me.
Is moderation in lubrication the order of the day? If so, what about the night? It is more becoming. If the trick to travelling well is being mistaken for a local, better still a classy one, then learn the liquid lingo and leave your tavern temperament at home.
There is undoubtedly joy in being scurrilous, in getting it wrong but getting away with it, in swinging from the chandeliers while the square old rest of them are just getting into the swing of it. But it’s a bit less groovy than you think. When you’re on the floor it looks like everyone’s got an upturned nose. So we’ve done the starting. The ending? Don’t ask me. Really, don’t. So when in Rome, don’t do as you do at home (unless home is Rome, of course).
In addition to his magazine duties, Robert Bound is (appropriately enough) the host of Culture with Robert Bound. It airs every Monday at 19.00 UK time on our round-the-clock radio station Monocle 24.
Our grandparents deserve a better standard of care and that calls for a multigenerational approach – hence a new model that makes the presence of youth in old people’s homes a central tenet.
Is there a new way of building old people’s homes? Should they even be just for old people? In the Copenhagen district of Nørrebro those questions are driving a rethink regarding how the elderly are housed. In place of a 1970s care home facility, Danish architecture firm CF Møller has had plans approved for a project christened Future Sølund: a beautiful complex of buildings where old people will live alongside young families. Yes, there will still be nursing-home units to care for the infirm but also hundreds of houses, a nursery, a barber’s shop and bosky squares and parks. The lake is just a stone’s throw away. Under vaulted, undulating wooden structures, seniors and youngsters will meet to exchange stories. Wheelchair-bound residents can share smooth pavement space with buggies. Young and old can prune and nurture rooftop gardens side by side.
It sounds like a utopian vision yet given today’s global demographic trends – the world’s rapidly ageing population – this type of city-planning shouldn’t feel novel. Nor should it be the exception. Rather it’s a crucial response to the pressing, unrelenting reality that faces most western countries.
The principle behind old people’s homes is benevolent. Long-term residential care for the elderly came about during the 19th century as a philanthropic alternative to infirmaries, almshouses or worse, the workhouse, where “aged paupers” were set to task in gender segregated wards.
The postwar era and the advent of welfare saw the state step in to provide organised residential care. By the 1970s the model for “homes for the elderly” had become a lifestyle option, as well as a medical necessity. Meanwhile, private care homes became the norm (even an aspiration for many).
Yet the siphoning off of seniors – be it to a purpose-built gated community in sunny Sarasota or a countryside care home – is a model that has limited scope. Creating ghettos for silver elders is a segregation that most societies won’t be able to afford nor sustain.
What’s more, it’s clear that mixing the young and very old can reap rewards for all. At one state-run maison de retraite in Paris’s Saint-Maur suburb, 200 pensioners and 25 toddlers share mealtimes; the rambunctious energy of the little ones acts as a tonic for elderly residents.
Another project in Seattle combines a rehabilitation and care home with an Intergenerational Learning Center catering for 125 children aged six weeks to five years. Throughout the day, babies visit assisted-living residents and toddlers sing along with senior citizens. There is storytelling, side-by-side jigsaw puzzles and chair volleyball.
This type of multigenerational mingling doesn’t have to be staged and supervised. Designers, architects and planners can choreograph our communities so that old and young run into each other for casual chinwags. Thoughtful use of communal space can break down barriers and prevent urban youth-club-style zones emerging, and inhibit sleepy retirement settlements that are social and emotional cul-de-sacs. By changing the configuration of our homes just slightly, architects can alter the social dynamics. “It’s about making use of threshold space in between apartments,” says Mads Mandrup Hansen, project leader for the Future Sølun project, where every detail is geared towards breaking down barriers. “It’s about creating halls and corridors that can act as social hubs where people can stop and form relationships; they can claim the space.”
The blending of the very young and very old makes perfect sense. After all, retired seniors are often the only ones who have time to engage with little children when everyone else is at work. On the London mews where I live with my husband and two-year-old, our elegant Turkish-Cypriot neighbour, Mehmet, is a regular fixture. Each day, in a perfectly ironed white shirt, he strolls to the shop to fetch milk and a newspaper, stopping to jape around with and coo at our toddler.
There’s a growing understanding that our societies need to adopt a plural approach to age, not just for the benefit of the old but for everyone. Matthias Hollwich is the co-founder of New York architecture firm hwkn and a proponent of what he calls “new ageing”. He insists that there’s an urgent need to reinvent architecture to respond to longevity and his firm has come up with a prototype tower.
The Skyler provides 1,000 residents with social spaces (gyms, business centres and shared transport) where they can “collide”. “What we’re looking at is promoting healthiness, happiness,” he says, explaining how the Skyler will place an emphasis on lively communality but also offer residents an inbuilt “stealthcare” system to care for the infirm in their adaptable homes. “It’s a building that will serve occupants at every stage of life.”
Even though Hollwich’s plans look futuristic (think sculptural shapes and sci-fi graphics) he insists that the pursuit of modernity in this sector has hindered rather than helped the progress of new ageing. “There is a belief that we can solve everything through technology by providing special services,” he says on the phone from New York. “What we’ve forgotten is something much more humble: community. Intergenerational living used to be family based. Now we have to find new ways in an active, modern society to create these relationships.”
Indeed, many societies might well have to look to old models of co-existence and architecture to deal with their ageing, imbalanced demographics. Take South Korea, a country that is set to have one of the oldest populations on the planet by the middle of this century, just behind Japan, Italy and Greece. According to the OECD, by 2050 more than one third of South Koreans will be over the age of 65. Perhaps this modern workaholic nation will have to look back to the traditional hanok home found in areas such as Seoul’s Kahoi Dong for relevant inspiration. The single-storey hanok always functioned as a multigenerational homestead for families; its courtyard typology provided a highly adaptable space for the old, young and everyone in between. Yet rapid modernisation saw high-rise apartments become the norm and alas, many hanoks were demolished to make way for them.
Similarly, in China we have seen the systematic demolition of the traditional siheyuan, once a symbol of Beijing. Many siheyuans are a thing of the past yet Chinese architects and town-planners may have to draw from the culture of the past to solve a very modern demographic and social crisis.
While many hanoks and siheyuans have had their day, architects and designers are using some of the concepts found in these vernacular structures to remake the multigenerational family home. One project, the Grange, in Toronto’s Chinatown by Williamson Chong Architects combines the living quarters for three generations under one roof. “It was the clients that brought the multigenerational concept to the table,” says Betsy Williamson, one of the firm’s partners behind the sleek dwelling that occupies a lot surrounded by Victorian homes. “A young couple with a baby were living in a single condominium and they wanted to live with their parents. So it was a case of combining for financial resources.”
While many of us might baulk at the thought of sharing close quarters with elderly in-laws, the careful configuration of the Grange (with its series of courtyards, decks and large communal areas) provides the family with privacy and the possibility to adapt the spaces as their circumstances change. “In fact, as the project moved on, there was a feeling that more communality, not less, was suiting the family,” says Williamson.
In Toronto’s neighbourhood fabric, where single-family homes on long and narrow Victorian lots are the norm, the project presents a powerful alternative for city-planners. “What we’ve done is challenge the typology of Toronto’s neighbourhood fabric,” says Donald Chong, another partner at the firm. “It’s very exciting that we’ve seen the house gain the interest of policymakers looking at increasing density. The Grange has moved the debate on.” Though they might seem like show-projects now, these architectural experiments are making it on to the minutes of city hall meetings.
Back in Copenhagen, Mandrup Hansen is confident that Future Sølund will alter the way Denmark approaches urban planning. “It is a model set-up; we want to show how an old people’s care home can serve as an urban generator rather than be a drain on its resources,” he says. “We’re seeing strong support [for the project] from a wide range of political parties. If we can nail this it will be an example to follow.” Let’s hope he’s right.
Sophie Grove writes about business, foreign affairs and design – and often where all three collide – for Monocle. She is also a regular voice on Monocle 24.
The heavyweight bout between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs was a city-wide struggle for the heart and soul of New York – and its outcome had a knockout effect on the future of city-planning.
The modern city was born in the mid-20th century. The freeways, skyscrapers, strip malls, housing projects and suburbs that developed in these years dramatically redefined the form and function of the urban areas of the western world, and their impact continues to ripple across the planet. When we look at the modern city, be it New York or Lagos or Shenzhen, we’re looking at a place based on the innovations and ideas of a time when the forces of city-making were in overdrive.
Two great figures personify the way the city was being viewed in the middle of the 20th century. Robert Moses, often credited as the man who built New York, was the most powerful unelected official in US history and the embodiment of the top-down approach to planning, building and rebuilding. He was the leading actor in a mid-century movement to fix the city, which at the time was seen to be in need of drastic renewal. At the other end of the spectrum was Jane Jacobs, a journalist without a college degree, who noticed that the treatments suggested by urban “doctors” such as Moses were doing great harm to the cities they were supposed to be saving.
“This is an unfortunate period for the city,” said Moses in a radio interview when he was leading urban renewal efforts in New York in the wake of decades of depression and war. They took the form of planning expressways and building public housing projects in place of dilapidated (but often thriving) low-income neighbourhoods that he saw as a cancer on the city. “We’ve done an immense amount to cure these diseases and we have much more to do.”
Jacobs pushed back against this perception of the city as a problem to be solved. “It is so easy to blame the decay of cities on traffic, or immigrants, or the whimsies of the middle class. It goes right down to what we think we want, and to our ignorance about how cities work,” she wrote in her landmark 1961 book on urban planning and city-making, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Arguing for the organic nature of cities, built by and for the people living in them, her book landed with the power of an A-bomb in the cosseted and arrogant worlds of top-down city-planning.
These opposing views would eventually become the two sides in a series of battles over development in New York in the 1950s and 1960s – and over the future of the modern city itself. The conflict is one of city-making in the mid-20th century but it’s also about our urban future; three fourths of the world’s population will live in cities by the end of this century. When it comes to rising powers such as China and India, megacities are still being built in the style that Moses and his ilk favoured: fwith little or no input from those who inhabit them or from the communities who have been displaced to make way for their construction. However, in an argument that Jacobs would continue to make until her death in 2006, anti-democratic approaches to city-planning and building are fundamentally unsustainable; a grassroots, bottom-up approach is imperative to the social, economic and ecological success of tomorrow’s global cities. “Social capital” is a term that Jacobs is thought to have coined and her thinking has influenced generations of urban planners, architects, academics and city lovers. And as the world leaps headlong into a dramatic urban transformation, these ideas are more important than ever.
Over a five-decade career in New York as a parks commissioner – among dozens of other unelected positions – Moses was responsible for a wide range of major public works, including 13 bridges, hundreds of parks, hundreds of miles of freeway and roughly 150,000 units of housing. Starting in the 1920s, his output of large-scale urban projects transformed the city and his tight control over its development went largely unchallenged for decades. The Power Broker, Robert A Caro’s epic, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses, characterises him as a zealous and cunning bureaucrat who did whatever it took to push his ideas and projects forward. But he was also a product of his time, seeing a need to get things done as a response to a rapidly modernising world and a troubled, burgeoning cityscape. In his day, monumental plans for housing projects, expressways and a great sorting of the messy cityscape seemed to make good sense.
This approach came to be characterised by urban renewal, a heavy-handed policy that often tore down neighbourhoods, replacing them with monolithic housing blocks. It was an outgrowth of Depression-era New Deal housing initiatives and became the largest domestic transformation plan of all time. Neighbourhoods in cities from New York to Chicago were redesigned by idealistic city-planners working in a new high-modernist style that championed skyscrapers and superhighways – the realisation of a scheme proposed by Le Corbusier going back to the 1920s.
Moses saw the necessity of accommodating cars in the modern city; it didn’t matter if people were displaced in the process and thousands of New Yorkers were. “You have to bully it through,” he told a cbs interviewer in 1964. “Just because 2,000 people come out and protest an expressway doesn’t mean you are not going to build that expressway.”
Moses aggressively pursued the post-Second World War ethos of the “white man in charge”, looking down at the city and decisively imposing big changes in the name of the greater good – especially, it turned out, for the greater good of car-makers, monied builders and increasingly powerful real-estate interests.
Jacobs was among the first to see a problem with urban renewal. While working at Architectural Forum in 1952, she travelled to Philadelphia to write an article about the city’s sweeping plans to remake Society Hill. At first she saw potential in the grandiose ideas about urban transformation but when she later returned to see what had actually been built, she was appalled. The vibrant core that was supposed to rise from the levelled neighbourhood was instead a banal wasteland devoid of human activity.
“Why did stores that looked very cheerful, that were supposed to be doing a great booming business in the plans, go empty or languish?” she’d later ask. “I would bring these questions up with the planners and builders of these places and I couldn’t get them interested in these questions. I got instead a lot of alibis. It came down to: ‘People are stupid, they don’t do what they are supposed to do.’” If people aren’t doing what the plans say they should, she thought, there must be something wrong with the plans.
She began writing more pointedly about urban renewal in US cities, showing how these efforts were turning numerous downtowns into lifeless, inconvenient and dangerous places. “The best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today. To look for its strengths, and to exploit and reinforce them,” she wrote in a 1958 article for Fortune called “Downtown is for People”. “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city. People make it. And it is to them not buildings that we must fit our plans.”
Jacobs came to understand cities as intricate places full of diversity, and realised that this diversity sprang from people’s interactions with spaces and with each other. She saw this first hand in her own neighbourhood, Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where a dense mix of housing, small shops and amenities created a thriving hub of human interaction and activity. When top-down urban plans reduced people’s ability to interact in neighbourhoods, the life there was drained. Through her writing, Jacobs began to push back against these plans. And, in Greenwich Village, her fight for the city would become very personal.
By 1949 Moses had added a new role to his long list of titles: chairman of the mayor of New York’s Committee on Slum Clearance, charged with the demolition of messy low-income neighbourhoods and their replacement with ordered housing projects. It was the kind of city-planning that Jacobs was worried about so it was especially troubling in 1955 when she learnt that one of Moses’ most audacious and brazen plans was targeted at her own neighbourhood. He wanted to build a road directly through the middle of Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village’s main public space. Jacobs, who lived nearby, took her children to play there and it had long been a well-used recreational area and social space for the neighbourhood.
That Moses would want to replace a valuable public space with a roadway for fast-moving cars was preposterous to Jacobs. She wrote a letter to the mayor opposing the plan. “My husband and I are among the citizens who truly believe in New York,” she wrote. “It is very discouraging to do our best to make the city more habitable, and then to learn that the city itself is thinking up schemes to make it uninhabitable.”
Jacobs joined a neighbourhood effort to stop the project, The Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square to Traffic, and quickly became one of its leaders. Ridiculed by city authorities as a “mere housewife”, she revealed herself to be a brilliant strategist, staging protests, gathering petitions and painting Moses and his cronies as bullies. Thousands of Greenwich Village residents and other New Yorkers joined the opposition, including notable neighbourhood residents such as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Ramming a road through a public park, they argued, would irreversibly damage Greenwich Village and the city as a whole.
It was an argument many agreed with, gathering enough clout to make the road politically unviable. By October 1958, the plan was dead. “There’s nobody against this,” Moses famously told the Board of Estimate that autumn, in an effort to revive the plan. “Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers.” On 1 November 1958, Jacobs, the committee and the Greenwich Village community held a victory party at the base of the Washington Square arch.
This was to be merely the first in a long series of battles between Moses and Jacobs. In early 1961, a 14-block area of the West Village was declared “blighted” and so slated for the “slum removal” Moses had been pursuing across the city. The neighbourhood’s mix of old buildings, small shops and pedestrian-filled streets was seen by Moses and other officials as messy and problematic. But these conditions were exactly why the neighbourhood worked, a point Jacobs argued emphatically in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which would come out the same year and explode common notions about how cities should be planned.
The so-called blighted area conspicuously included Jacobs’ own Hudson Street, seen by some as a retaliation for Moses’ Washington Square Park defeat. Almost as soon as the designation was made, hundreds gathered to form the Committee to Save the West Village, with Jacobs as its leader. “The aim of the committee is to kill this project entirely,” she said. “Because if it goes through, it can mean only the destruction of the neighbourhood.”
Jacobs’ talent for rallying support was remarkable; hundreds of supporters attended local meetings, putting pressure on officials to call off the plan. Being an election year, these activities gathered media attention and the mayor eventually acquiesced, calling on the planning commission to kill the project. Within a year of its public announcement, the plan for the West Village was abandoned.
But still Moses pushed on. For decades he had been developing a scheme to reformulate car circulation in lower Manhattan by building a large-scale freeway, connecting the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges on the east side of Manhattan to the Holland Tunnel on the west. Dubbed the Lower Manhattan Expressway, or Lomex, it would be a 10-lane megastructure that would smash through numerous neighbourhoods in Manhattan, displacing thousands of residents. Construction was slated to begin on Lomex plans in 1962 and with thousands of homes and businesses in Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown and what would eventually be called Soho in the freeway’s path, Jacobs took action. She led the formation of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, recruiting affected residents and businesses to actively oppose the project.
New mayor John Lindsay, elected in 1965, came into office and supported the plan, giving Moses a seemingly ensured victory. But Jacobs was now a famous author and her campaign was closely followed by the media. At a public meeting held at a high school in 1968, Jacobs took to the podium to make her public comment to the State Department of Transportation, only to turn to the public audience, rallying them in opposition to the project and urging them to join her on stage. A chaotic scene ensued and Jacobs was promptly arrested. The stunt and the arrest made her into something of a martyr, further bolstering her effort and increasing opposition to the project. In 1969 the mayor withdrew his support for Lomex and it was dead.
These were watershed battles for the heart and soul of New York. Jacobs was the leading light, marshalling outraged citizens who were alarmed at the massive changes in their beloved city. This series of victories is a testament to the power she possessed to challenge the status quo and to rethink how cities should be planned and built. She exposed the lunacy of plans imposed from so-called experts with little regard for the people they’d affect, as well as the faults in academic assumptions about why neighbourhoods were good or bad. The truly just city, Jacobs showed, can only emerge when it’s planned for and by its people. She has been called, for this realisation, a “genius of common sense”.
Jacobs’ philosophy of cities has been widely adopted by planners, designers and urbanists in cities all over the world. They call for a human-scaled city, with mixed land uses, engaging public spaces, walkable neighbourhoods and a diverse economy. It’s not just about the bike lanes and coffee shops that have become somewhat stereotypical elements of people-friendly places. The city Jacobs argued for, and the city that many have been clamouring for, is one of variety, potential and opportunity, built and rebuilt to meet the needs of its people.
But while many modern cities are pursuing this people-focused approach, even more are not and the ramifications could be devastating. We are currently seeing the greatest building boom in human history. Urbanisation is occurring rapidly across the planet, turning formerly small enclaves into high-rise megacities and transforming hordes of people into urbanites. Roughly four billion people – about 55 per cent of the global population – now live in urban areas. By 2050 the urban population will grow to more than six billion.
Many of the cities being built today are repeating the mistakes of the past. Public officials in collusion with private developers in countries such as China, India and Nigeria are looking to the example of Moses and his mid-century cohorts as they scramble to handle mass migration to their cities. In the process, history repeats itself with miles of new but poorly planned urban fabric. Forests of banal housing towers are rising rapidly in cities across the developing world, creating single-use districts where life on the street is all but non-existent.
Of course, many of the neighbourhoods labelled slums in the developing world do have problems – just as North American slums had and have them. But those problems can’t be solved by simply wiping the slate. Speaking to a crowd in 1962, Jacobs argued: “The kind of planning we ought to have should not be planning that begins with: ‘What is nasty here? What do we take out?’; rather: ‘What is missing here? Which of the conditions are needed to make this a lively and convenient place that works?’”
Over time neighbourhoods accumulate social capital and the power of these networks and relationships grows when it’s allowed to. Jacobs argued that neighbourhoods should be seen as “organic settlements” where social capital grows because people self-determine their spaces and communities. “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves,” she wrote.
The decisions made by Moses and others in the middle of the last century have had a disastrous, lingering impact on our global cities, tearing out or stopping the growth of that social capital. And this is not just a newly re-emerging phenomenon. For decades planners in China and the developing world have aped the policies and practices of the American mid-century: the modern city of freeways, skyscrapers, strip malls and suburbs. In a time of acute social instability, mass migration and climate change, the mistakes of that era keep getting repeated. The clenched-fist urban planning of Moses is thriving in the emerging megacities of the developing world.
And that’s why it’s so important to remember that Moses and his approach to city building ultimately failed. His approach was shown to be harmful, anti-democratic and anti-human. Jacobs, through her writing and activism, helped people to realise that this form of city-making doesn’t have to be the only way. The movement of cars, the profits of developers, the orderliness of spaces: these don’t have to be the elements that guide how cities look and function. The city, she argued, is less about its physical spaces and more about how people can use them. The city is for people.
It’s a lesson the emerging cities of the developing world need to hear before it’s too late. If left to develop in the Moses style, these cities will be doomed to a fate of prescribed neighbourhoods planned without people in mind and without the potential to experience the serendipitous interactions of vibrant, living spaces. Jacobs’ vision is the one we need and deserve in the 21st century – and through collective efforts it is the one that we can achieve.
Matthew Tyrnauer is a writer and director. His upcoming documentary The Jane Jacobs Documentary Project is a film about cities through the lens of the titular journalist and activist.
Head out of the city and into the countryside and it’s not just a change in air quality that you’ll notice: the winds of change apply to politics too. Can liberal capitals and their more conservative rural surroundings ever meet in the middle?
The story of the divide between Vienna and the rest of Austria is best demonstrated by a map of May’s presidential election: it’s a sea of blue denoting regions won by the far-right Norbert Hofer, stretching from east to west, north to south, with the lonely oasis of green – the bastion of liberalism won by Alexander van der Bellen – in the capital. Similar stories can be told with electoral maps in the UK (London and the major cities are red for Labour, the rest of the country blue for the Conservatives); in France, where the Front National can’t win in Paris but comfortably makes the top two elsewhere; and in the US where the big cities on the east and west coast are painted in Democratic blue, leaving most of the rest of the nation daubed in Republican red.
Divides between urban and rural populations are nothing new: they have been a part of political debate since the Industrial Revolution first drew millions to cities across Europe in the late 1700s. But urban populations are soaring; as Matthew Tyrnauer notes (see essay, above), more than half the world’s citizens now live in towns and cities. And these divides are becoming more pronounced. City dwellers tend to be more socially liberal, as the example of Vienna proves: voters there were more likely to be in favour of gay marriage and more comfortable with the rapid recent increase in refugees.
This isn’t just a western phenomenon. When Iran holds its admittedly compromised elections the most moderate candidates do best in Tehran, the most conservative elsewhere. The 2009 Green Movement may have erupted in Tehran but the rest of Iran was pretty comfortable with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In Kenya it’s straightforward working out which side will win each region, based merely on the ethnicity of the candidate; but in Nairobi, a more heterogeneous mix, there’s a genuine contest.
That growing divide makes governing for the whole nation increasingly difficult. For a start, given that politicians tend to live in cities, they don’t always grasp the yawning chasm that’s opening up. (The same can be said for many of the journalists and commentators who report on their activities.) Even those that do, don’t necessarily know how to bridge it. Too much in favour of immigration and you’ll lose support in rural areas; too socially conservative and the city vote is lost.
One consequence is that cities, particularly those with strong mayors or local government, are enacting different policies to the rest of the nation. The divide is becoming entrenched. It’s also far harder for a consensus politician at the national level to bridge the divide: liberals won’t accept a conservative and vice versa.
Yet it does not have to be a zero-sum game: strong cities do not have to mean a weak nation state. Strong cities are at the heart of every nation with a growing economy. We need nations to tell a story that includes all their citizens; a tale that binds together the rural and the urban, the liberal and the conservative. Urban nations can still be united.
When the sun sets and the street lights and neon signs are switched on is arguably when our urban centres are at their most vital. In fact, there’s historic precedent for discovering a city’s highlights when night falls.
The contemporary metropolis is one that doesn’t seem to sleep. After nightfall, office blocks in London, New York and Tokyo are constellations of brightly lit windows in which scattered individuals can be glimpsed staring at screens. Machines and the semi-automated people who operate them thrum throughout the night. Meanwhile, cleaners and security guards, among other poorly paid workers, often from an immigrant background, traverse the city at all hours in night buses and on foot.
But the history of cities at night implies that society has been post-circadian for centuries. In the 18th century, public lighting was introduced in the commercial districts after dark. At the same time metropolises such as London and Paris became important centres of consumption where upper and middle-class people would promenade in the grandest streets (when the weather was suitably clement), lingering over artfully lit commodities displayed in shop windows. Others, from the poorer classes, would come to gaze at the window shoppers; and pickpockets and prostitutes, for their part, would come to ply their trades.
German novelist Sophie von La Roche, on a visit to London in 1786, commented rapturously on the sight of Oxford Street at 23.00: “A street taking half an hour to cover from end to end, with double rows of brightly shining lamps, in the middle of which stands an equally long row of beautifully lacquered coaches.”
The streets after sunset became more and more populous in the 18th century, as city-dwellers of all sorts and conditions sought entertainment in coffee houses, taverns, theatres and pleasure gardens. Meanwhile, artisans and poor labourers – especially bakers, brewers, shoemakers and tailors – increasingly worked at night in order to meet morning deadlines. And a scattered community of rag-pickers, gold-finders and nocturnal street cleaners (known as “Tom-Turd-Men”) sifted the detritus on the streets while respectable citizens slept.
In the early hours representatives of these despised trades crossed paths with gamblers and aristocratic party-goers. Richard Steele, in an article for the Tatler in 1710, described them as fashionable types with an “unaccountable disposition to continue awake in the night and sleep in the sunshine”.
If people of this unaccountable disposition have been a constant feature of cities at night for at least the past three centuries then the homeless have been an even more consistent presence. Ever since the later Middle Ages, when vast numbers of itinerant workers immigrated to Europe’s cities in search of stable employment – usually because they had been forcibly thrown off the land – the “houseless”, as they were once called, have hidden in plain sight at night.
In spite of the introduction of various technologies that have transformed urban life after nightfall – including the invention in the 19th century first of gaslight, then of electric light – the persistent presence of the homeless is the most striking, and the most shocking, continuity between the metropolitan cities of the past and those of the present.
However, in areas that are cut off from night-time patterns of production and consumption, you’ll find that even apparently sleepless cities can be deserted and, apart from the distant sound of traffic on some periphery, oddly silent. It is one of the less well-advertised pleasures of inhabiting a city – a pleasure, admittedly, that is sadly more available to men than women – to find these sequestered corners and wander idly about them in the dead of night. It is there that one can sense the city’s ancient past and its secret life. It is there that one can hear it breathing.
Matthew Beaumont is the author of Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London.