A daily bulletin of news & opinion

5 July 2012

I was born in the 1960s. My dad was 50. So the London he told me about living in as a young man may seem dusty and distant to you. In his twenties, for example, he commuted to work in London’s Holborn by train and tram; the latter a type of transport – like my dad – long since vanished from London’s streets.

Today by some nice coincidence I live in Holborn, an area of the city that sits between the busy shop-packed neighbourhood of Covent Garden and the Inns of Court, home for centuries to the country’s leading legal folk. One of the odder landmarks in Holborn is the cobblestoned exit from a subterranean tunnel. Its black metal gates are padlocked shut. Look through the gates, however, and you can see a ghostly echo of a lost world: the rusted rails that once carried the Holborn trams. Is this where my dad would have jumped off as the tram popped up out of the tunnel and back into sunlight?

This entrance to a lost world is a red dot on my map of London, a place that catches me as others dash past. Like most people who find their veins entwining with their city’s streets, my map of London cannot be found on a sat nav or by turning the page of an A-Z. My London map is personal; a map made up of places where things happened to me – or people important to me.

Take the Underground – literally and figuratively. I was on the tube with a friend and we realised that as long-term Londoners every stop had a meaning, a reference, not hinted at by simple place names. My version of the Piccadilly line had us rattling through Clumsy Date, Missed Opportunity, Polish Dinners, Bad Trousers, Rainy Sunday, First Job, Flat Hunt and Book Pitch. Perhaps it should have been a jolting journey in some ways but these flashbacks are what makes a city and your memory bank fuse together.

That’s how we see cities – they are our histories in bricks and mortar. And you can’t redraw them. You can understand why some people flee and some people are drawn back to the same places again and again. It’s because the best cities offer us places not just to work, play and sleep but for our lives to unfold in unexpected and colourful ways.

But here’s the rub: can you manufacture the ingredients you need for the maps to appear? It’s not enough to have tall towers or smart communication systems. It doesn’t help if your city is carbon neutral or has its own app. Without history, without layers, serendipity, without the chance for remembering where your dad once got off the bus, can a city have soul?

We are in an epic rush to urbanisation and all sorts of people are putting up their hands to create cities from scratch from Saudi Arabia to China. One of these men is Ajit Gulabchand, chairman and managing director of the Hindustan Construction Company. In the hills near Pune he’s erecting Lavasa, a hill station that looks a bit like Sardinia’s Portofino. He wants this town to grow to be a city and offer a new template for how to urbanise India. He’s warm and positive but he says that he has some sleepless nights. The cause isn’t the cost of cement or whether the units will sell. He frets that the master plan may not have the catered for soul. And he won’t know until it’s built and the city runs away from him, stops being a prim and ordered model. He’ll have to hold his breath.

At least Gulabchand dreams. Too many cities-from-scratch planners pretend to care about such things but really don’t. They are throwing up perfect technopolises with gleaming metro stations but they are ones that I fear will never get renamed Proposal Point or Love At First Sight in anyone’s mental map.


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