Book Review: Metropolis By Ben Wilson

Ben Wilson’s Metropolis is in some ways a love letter to the city. In other’s it’s a fascinating and sometimes disturbing examination of the horrors of city life throughout the last few thousand years of human history.

Cities are the place where human ideas and civilisation has taken place throughout history. While recognising the inequality of the city: skyscrapers and riches often matched or exceeded by hidden slums, poverty disease  and crime, Wilson clearly sees the city as being an important; if not a necessary, part of the future of humanity.

Wilson argues cities are “forever in motion” – and he attempts to capture them as such. The first cities in history didn’t begin as safe havens that encouraged people to congregate, as Wilson points out. Rather, they began as harsh areas where communities had to bind together to make the land liveable. But once it was, it supported their whole community or cities were found at an oasis, a sacred spot where people congregated.

brown dome concrete building near bridge at daytime
Rome – one of the world’s most iconic cites

Exploring the history of cities is all the more interesting as we as a species have become so isolated during the coronavirus pandemic. Many have left the cities and moved to smaller communities in the countryside – often causing resentment with local communities, something that as Wilson points out, has happened many times in the past.

The narrative is sprawling, going from the first Sumerian city, Uruk to modern day Lagos. Wilson paints vivid pictures of ancient cities, without becoming too detailed or technical, leading to an engaging readable narrative.

One of the most interesting aspects of this narrative is how history repeats itself so often in the city. The city has often been build with inequality engrained in its very nature. The practice of slavery emerged in the city, to do the jobs the elites wouldn’t. Cities became the centre from which empires grew, and with competing cities came more war – leading refugees to flock to the safety of their high walls and strong defences.

high angle photo of cityscape
Athens, one of the birthplaces of democracy

In the history of Athens we learn modern debates about immigration are not new, and the cosmopolitan city of the world, out of touch with people outside it has been around a lot longer than Brexit. Sexism too grew in the city, with men taking positions of power and women becoming more institutionally secluded, far more than in provincial villages where the division of labour between man and woman was more evenly distributed (although of course sexism was still rife). Cities have also always hotbeds for violence. Knife crime in London during the Middle Ages was horrific.

But cities are also the home of democracy: from Harappa, to Athens, Rome’s Republic to Amsterdam and then continued in the legacy of London’s coffee houses, cities have helped to engage the public in the workings of government. The ancient Greek’s word for city: Polis is where we get the word politics politics- the affairs of the city.

Inequality and appalling working conditions are also a feature of the city, especially during the industrial revolution… a harrowing excerpt of an interview with a 6 year old girl in the Manchester textile factories attests to the grim reality for many who could not be further from the ‘urban elite’ too many associate with city dwellers today.

So, it’s no surprise that the melting pot of the city also created a fierce backlash to industrial capitalism. Marx and Engels developing many of the ideology of Marxism in Manchester and London after seeing the horrific living conditions of the working class; similar slums in fast growing cities are still all too common in the developing world today.

photo of Elizabeth Tower, London
London

However Wilson believes these slums offer hope. These cities within cities showcase the ‘best of humanity’ as people support each other and make the best of their situation, fostering community, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. Dharavi, considered one of Asia’s largest slums in Mumbai, has an internal economy of over $1 billion a year. In developing countries, rural inequality is often worse than those in urban areas, explaining why people are still drawn to the city.

The book is not a history of architecture and city planning – although there is an exploration of how cities of the future were built, first in New York, now in Shanghai, and how cities were destroyed during the Second World War. A fascinating chapter details the horrors inflicted on cities like Shanghai and Warsaw- although an entire book could be dedicated specifically to the destruction of cities .

Despite the bleakness cities are places of excitement innovation and fun, that will help humanity to thrive in the future. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in cities – Wilson makes a good case made that they are indeed humanity’s greatest invention.

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