It’s worth recalling that the Greeks saw the city as a living organism, a source of action and historical change—and superior to the individual in those respects. It is evident that, even under modern individualism, we remain committed to most of that understanding of cities, no matter how unconsciously. Cities, for us, have certain personalities—hard to grasp but each distinct. That explains why we feel duty-bound to preserve cities’ histories, ways of life, and urban characters, even amid rapid economic and population growth. Lenin once called the state the “machine,” and it’s true that as the state grew in size and bureaucratic impersonality, we have often reserved for the city all the human qualities that the state lacks. It is frequently the city, not the state, that becomes the object of our deepest affections and memories, our signal preferences and most treasured adventures.
Can that organic, natural reality of the city be transformed into something artificial? At first glance, it is easy to see how various contemporary developments might point toward a reevaluation of the city as something made or produced. Until recently, industrial culture organized itself around the production of inert commodities. Today, however, we live in the era of the smart gadget—a much better image or metaphor for a city than, say, industrial products like home appliances or automobiles. Or consider social networks such as Facebook. One could think of Facebook as a virtual city. Those who have mastered the technology of connecting people online might be forgiven for thinking that a next step would be to do something like that in the real world. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has been pursuing its own “urban living laboratory” in Toronto, in a district where it can experiment with new smart systems and advanced planning techniques. Announcing the project in 2017, Eric Schmidt, then Alphabet’s executive chairman, noted that the project’s impetus came from Google’s founders getting excited about “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.”
Above all, the Chinese have pushed furthest the notion of the city as product. One of the most important aspects of China’s recent economic development is the profusion of new cities being built from scratch. These aren’t expansions of existing communities but fully master-planned, manufactured centers of economic and social life, often built on newly developed land such as artificial islands or reclaimed desert. On some estimates, China has built more than 600 new cities since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Some of these manufactured cities have been extraordinary successes. Shenzhen rose from a rice paddy into one of the world’s most dynamic metropolises—its economy is the size of South Korea’s—in just three or four decades. But even Shenzhen pales, compared with the plans for Xiongan in Hebei province, a new city that covers over 770 square miles, more than twice the size of New York City. A 2017 Morgan Stanley report estimated the cost of relocating the area’s current residents as new infrastructure gets built to be $287 billion over the first 15 years.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor