Cities are good for you

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World Habitat Day happens the first Monday of every October and it’s a day to reflect on the state of our towns and cities. It’s also a time to remind the world that we all have responsibility in shaping the future of our cities and towns. FYI, this year’s focus is on Urban Mobility – an interest of mine in making cities more accessible, walkable, and more open to public transport, bikes, and other modes of transport other than cars. And what better time to reflect on a great tour I went on a couple of weeks ago during my FIRST trip to London!

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Every time I tell people that I’ve never been to London, which is only an hour and a half by plane away from Geneva, they find it shocking. So when I went for the first time in September, it was a definite highlight of the year, even if it was only for a weekend. Being dropped into a city was so much history and energy was an intimidating thought, so when I learned about The School of Life tour called ‘Decoding the City’ by Leo Hollis, a writer, historian, urbanist, and author of the book ‘CITIES ARE GOOD FOR YOU‘, I jumped at the chance to get a firsthand look at London from someone passionate about the city and cities in general.


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The 2-hour walking tour, which eventually went on for an extra hour, was around the St. Paul’s Cathedral area. Little did I know that there are Roman ruins, internationally renowned architecture, the first coffee shop in London (the photo above), a mix of public and private spaces, and where the Great Fire of London started. I couldn’t find the tour description on the School of Life website anymore, but here it explains it best:

The future is urban. Half of us already live in cities, and the numbers are growing. The metropolis is where the twenty-first century is going to happen. Leo Hollis… argues our urban future is a good thing: it has the potential to deliver a better life for us all.

To help us thrive in the Big Smoke, Hollis will teach us how to read it better. He has devised this multi-layered drive through Londons past and future to reveal the secret science and art of urban living. As we pass from rooftop panoramas to hidden backstreets, well discover how to decode nearly 2000 years of history; how the invention of the elevator changed everything; what the story of the Great Fire of 1666 reveals about the nature of resilience; the importance of trust in a complex society; and the future of the vertical metropolis. Hollis will show us how these concrete ideas support his passionate manifesto for a new kind of urban living: complex, creative, people-centred.

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As we wandered through this part of London, Hollis talked about how the city is a laboratory, constantly changing, and ‘breathing’. He empahsized that no one just decides one day, “Hey, let’s build a city here”. Cities are more than just buildings and streets – it’s a mixture of the physical, the cultural, and, most importantly, the people. On the one hand, with the growth of smarter cities where air, traffic, people can be monitored and connected, the city becomes a living thing. Hollis believes that there’s a benefit to cities becoming places of creativity and technological advances can make that happen. Yet, with all the effort to monitor, connect and make cities more efficient, are we also moving away from what make great cities great? For example, do the cameras on almost every corner of London change our behaviors and make it impossible for people to meet and share without being punished? How about Singapore’s strict laws and fines from littering to carrying a durian on the metro? I personally think it does change the way we behave whether for good or bad.

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During the tour, we were playing a bingo game to win a copy of Hollis’ book. It was also a great way to learn about and remember all the information and ideas he talked about. Hollis peppered the talk with fascinating stories and names that have influenced the way cities look and develop: Architects like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs and her view of Hudson Street, elevator company Otis which changed the vertical landscape,Bogot Mayor Antanas Mockus and his unorthodox ways to make the city better through social experiments, and physicist Geoffrey West who believes that cities are in many ways governed by simple laws.

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My takeaways from the tour: While we have online spaces to connect and collaborate, we still need public spaces where people can meeting, interact, share ideas, and explore new possibilities. Without these spaces and the emphasis on being connected online, we learn to stay in our own little worlds without much interaction with ‘real’ people. We need to think about how we build our cities – a great message for World Habitat Day – and to realize that cities are becoming the way we define our identity. Rather than being attached to a country, cities will become our badge of ‘citizenship’. Added to this is that if our economies are based more and more on knowledge, the city is the place where this knowledge will be stored in its people, buildings and infrastructure. Ultimately, how we treat our cities will determine the value and sustainability of this knowledge economy.

The city is both the illness and the cure.

And in case you don’t think people are what make cities great, see what happens when all the people are removed from the streets of Paris in the video below…

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