Cities as “a bulwark against disaster”

A review of a new book of essays about cities includes this discussion of how cities can hold up against disasters:

Photo by Nextvoyage on

Mattern’s deft dissection of metaphors for cities shows that when they’re misguided, they point to a failure not only of imagination but of a city’s ability to carry out its chief function—as a bulwark against disaster. Humans build cities as fortresses against failure: economic collapse, natural catastrophe, human venality and cowardice. The city walls keep those things out, when they work. If houses are, as the architect Mies van de Rohe said, “machines for living,” then cities are places where those machines get daisy-chained into a society. Cities are machines for cooperation, and survival.

Last summer, the disasters of climate change and disease pointed at the ways those machines could fail. The past year has made it clearer than ever that economic and racial inequities around the world, and especially in the United States, have imminent, deadly consequences. The warning lights are all flashing red: A conversation about cities can no longer be about the invisible data of surveillance cameras and stock trades. It has to be about the visible, more human-scaled construction of something better. The built environment can’t be an accident anymore, because that leads to catastrophe. We don’t live in a metaphor. “The built environment is the product of so many agencies and institutions, often working in the background,” Mattern says. “It’s hard to localize responsibility for that.” As she writes, cities aren’t mere computers. but I might still deploy a facile idea from that metaphor: Justice and survival now depend on cities getting a serious upgrade to their firmware.

Cities are often celebrated for what they bring or expand. Think of the wealth generated, the culture produced, the diversity experienced, the large population nurtured. Cities can be places of opportunities and change.

The quoted section above presents the flip side of this. The bringing together of people, activity, and resources helps ensure that difficult times do not wipe out human activity. People can work together to make things happen, even in the face of problems. In a more spread out landscape or with lower densities, humans might not be able to overcome these issues.

It is good to keep both of these features of cities – what they enable and what they limit – in mind. In the United States, conversation can often turn to the unique issues that cities face. Indeed, there might be societal and environmental issues that arise because of cities and then it remains to be seen how cities can address them. However, focusing on urban crises of the time can prevent us from seeing cities in a broader perspective.

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