Why is it that people find it difficult to live in the city?
For all of the many opportunities presented by urban environments, they come with their own set of complexities, many of which are the result of prioritising efficiency over the human experience. Cities can feel like machines and at times we can feel like cogs that keep them running.
Despite living in great human concentration we feel subhuman, and lonely. This process of atomisation fosters a sense of mistrust, insecurity and anxiety. We can feel like urban life is too fast, that we can’t keep up and that we are always missing out. It is of course not all bad by any means! But my book addresses some of the more common societal ills that come about from finding urban living stressful, and provides an explanation and some suggestions on how to address these issues on a practical, human level. It is about practicing one’s own humanity in an often inhumane environment, and remembering that we are all in it together. As American urbanist Edward Glaeser wrote in his brilliant book “Triumph of the City” – “the real city is made of flesh, not concrete”.
In your book you advocate ‘feeling’ the city and cultivating a relationship with it. Please share your experiences with how to do this and how it can make life in the city better.
I grew up on a very remote, dramatic and beautiful island off the west coast of Scotland. It was easy to be moved by the natural landscape there. When I moved to London I felt more isolated in the city than I had been on the island because it was manmade, engineered, dirty, busy, hard, brutal — the opposite of what I had known.
I quickly realised that it wasn’t as simple as rural = good and urban = bad. It was important to build an emotional relationship with the city in a similar way, albeit with different triggers, to the relationship that I had with my island life. It was a relationship based on awe, intrigue, respect, grit and human achievement.
The many layers of history and culture on which our cities are built are told through the materials and buildings that surround us. If we are open to learning, looking and listening to these stories then the city becomes a complex, rich environment – not something static or inanimate. I describe this process as feeling the city – likening it to a person with its own character and idiosyncrasies that speak to us individually. Cultivating our own relationship with the city we live in helps us to better appreciate its ups and cope with its downs.
“Cities can feel like machines and at times we can feel like cogs that keep them running.”
You also discuss concepts such as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, ‘moving’ and ‘being still’. Please tell us about these concepts and how they make a difference in embracing city living.
These are ideas based on coping mechanisms for dealing with the frequent pressures and difficulties in urban living. Together they are ways to encourage us to feel more human, not to shut ourselves down by way of self-protection and thus isolation.
So being ‘hard’ is essentially being resilient and understanding that at times the city is tough and requires us to be tough to cope. Being ‘soft’ by contrast is being tolerant of the complexities inherent in living in such close proximity to so many others. Striking a balance between our own resilience and tolerance is important – we need to be elastic.
Similarly, the dichotomy of ‘moving’ and ‘being still’ refers to the balance of making the most of the abundant opportunities the city has to offer, but recognising that discipline and self-control are important safety valves in not succumbing to over-stimulation and running ourselves dry. I frequently come back to the point that the more we feel in control of our own lives in the city, the happier we are and this has a healthy, contagious effect on the relationships we build with others.
Every city is different, but what common elements have you observed across cities and what do urbanites need to understand about these elements in order to navigate city life better?
I refer here to another wonderful quote from another urbanist hero: “cities have difficulties in abundance because they have people in abundance” by Jane Jacobs from “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.
In talking about quality of life in cities, we tend to get stuck on hardware and not look at the software. The most common element in every city is the human population that inhabits it. The difficulties incumbent in urban living stem largely from our tendency to see the city as concrete, not flesh – to borrow Glaeser’s words. Feeling engaged with each other, opening up to building relationships, looking out for our fellow citizens, neighbours and strangers alike, is a crucial factor in raising urban quality of life.
Of course mayors, city planners, developers, architects and designers are all responsible for building environments that enable us to better engage with each other. But ultimately we have a responsibility as city dwellers to be good citizens too and this requires us to be social more than antisocial. The Ephebic oath was sworn in Classical Athens by all men coming of age: “I will leave the city better and greater than when I entered it.”
“But ultimately we have a responsibility as city dwellers to be good citizens too and this requires us to be social more than antisocial.”
In your travels, what comments can you make of Malaysian cities? Also, what do you observe of the inhabitants?
I have visited KL fleetingly and found it charming and gritty in equal measure, grappling with rapid expansion and, as with so many cities, juggling its past with its future.
It’s a common conundrum with any city, though arguably felt more keenly in Asian cities due to the current axis of power shifting from west to east: how do we hold onto our past and build our future at the same time? Where do we fit in? What is our story – for us, for our children and for the world? And how do we tell it?
Addressing these questions is not so much about creating an artificial brand with a snappy tagline and a nice logo, it’s about understanding one’s identity and having the confidence to celebrate standing out and fitting in, in equal measure. From my small experience as an outsider (though a very well-travelled one!) I think KL lacks confidence in its identity. But it needn’t. There is tremendous opportunity for self-assertion in the region, the continent and the globe: the ingredients are all there.
I understand there’s no cookie cutter formula, but what advice do you have for living in Malaysian/Asian cities?
The same advice for any city dweller in any country or culture – look up from your phone. Engage with your city, think about what it means to you. Engage with your fellow citizens, don’t hide behind your screen. Don’t let your real life slip away behind your virtual one. When people today talk about feeling numb, detached and disengaged, is it any wonder when at every opportunity we bury our heads in our phones to distract us from real life? I believe this is one of the greater sicknesses of our times and in cities it is like an epidemic. Look up. Maybe the opportunity, lover, friend, answer, crisis, entertainment or magic is in front of you in real time, not online.
‘How to Live in the City’ is available from most major bookstores. To find out more about Hugo Macdonald see www.hugomac.com
This story was first published under the now-defunct “Think City Channel”.