February 25, 2008

Town and country

Howard Bloom suggests that evolution works fast enough for humans to have been genetically influenced by cities. I'm not convinced, but what do I know? Anecdotes and prejudices, easily swayed.

Humans adapt well to cities, that's why we're all moving to one, but I ought to find out how second and third generation hunter-gather immigrants survive in an urban landscape, if they're really at a disadvantage to those born into more connectedness, allowing, of course, for the confounding factors of racism and active social exclusion.

The supposedly ideal community - the hunter-gatherer band of 25 or so - can still exist in the city, circles of colleagues and friends. And like Will Self said, you can make a choice to live in a more natural way, following rhythms that make deep sense, although this is far easier for people not to tied to offices, nine to five. At times like this I love my job, free all day Tuesday until 5pm, working on proof-reading, doing other things.

I grew up on and off in small villages, and don't romanticize the life in a genuinely small community. It's dull to be in the middle of nowhere with no books and no like-minded folk, where everybody feels they have an interest and a part of you. The easy anonymity of the city is for me, with all the facilities and opportunities for satisfaction and pleasure.

A decent city has unplanned diversity at all scales, is an organic, emergent whole, a realization of the prevailing ideologies and practices of the inhabitants, freeze-framed and stilted over time. Human artifacts, especially those which are emergent, the product of a huge mass of choices over time and space, are expressions of human nature. Which is not to say that they're necessarily good or healthy, but only that they're likely to conflict with human drives in the most superficial ways. But that's pretty glib - how could it be otherwise? Well...consider the clear inhumanity of a centrally planned community, the expression of one ideology and vision, as opposed to one that has grown up slowly, reshaped by economic, social and environmental variations at a very fine grade. The former is the standard state architecture of empires and dictatorships, grand slabs with no life. The latter is one of the things I love about Tainan. In my neighborhood of a square kilometer we have restaurants, convenience stores, morning and afternoon markets, schools, bars, supermarkets, parks, a hospital clinics, a university, two movie theaters, two swimming pools, tennis courts, a convent, temples, brothels, tailors, dentists, travel agents, hardware stores, bicycle shops, electrical repairs, plumbers, beauticians, barbers, bookstores and more, all amongst the homes of rich and poor people, crammed together, and there's not a dull part of it, unlike in the newer, more sanitized and planned parts of time, where there's nowhere to walk and all your needs demand motorized transport.

I don't think we needed to evolve to adapt to cities. The city was already inside us, and a need for connections and size that was once met by natural landscapes can now be met by urban spaces.

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