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The Science of the Life of the Metaphorical City

Author: joe

Sunday, 01 July, 2007 - 15:39

Saigon is like all the other great cities of the world. It's the mess left over from people getting rich.

P J O'Rourke, Give War A Chance, 1992


That Homer's Odysseus saw many cities and knew the minds of their men signifies the increase of his wisdom through world-weary experience. The biblical depiction of the city is constantly overshadowed by the lost Jerusalem, and tends inevitably to Sodom and Gomorrah. For Sallust and for Bacon, the city is venal, awaiting its purchaser - Rome found its purchaser in Julius Ceaser: but his accession to the consulship through corruption and bribery is not an exclusively antique problem. The ends may justify the means when the means are the norm. Milton's cheerful man sees 'Towerd Cities' as pleasing with the 'busie humm of men' in L'Allegro, but just as Keats later sings that it is 'very sweet to look into the fair and open face of heaven' ... 'To one who has been long in city pent', so Milton, no doubt his inspiration:

As one who long in populous city pent,
Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Air,
Forth issuing on a Summers Morn to breathe
Among the pleasant Villages and Farms
Adjoind, from each thing met conceives delight...

Paradise Lost, Book IX, ll445-449


And yet these cities from antiquity would certainly seem to us rural dreams, and it is the countryside which now reeks of ordure. As my brother likes to say, 'I don't like the country. The country stinks of shit.'

We look at the city and see what it is expedient to see, but understanding the city is another matter, and we resort to metaphor in the absence of better ways to conceive them.

I knew a man who was employed as a planner in Slough, which always seemed to me to be too little too late. Surely as O'Rourke implies, the city is an accretion of the short-minded desires of money? In the grander scheme of things, isn't it an organic evolving creature, developing in ways without intention, from causes whose source may seem deliberate at the scale of the individual, but whose macroscopic expression is as blind as the brute force of evolution?

Researchers and economists at Arizona State University have apparently debunked the 'metaphor' of the city as organism. But which metaphor of the city is it that they have debunked? The city as organ connected by the arteries of highways that conduct our cell-vehicles, carrying their payloads of organelle-humans with their protein-transactions? The city as evil chakra of the nation-body producing the tainted urges of consumers, driving us towards the un-nirvana of progress with the dark energy of desire? The city as phenotype, the built extension of man, fashioned from the technologies of industry to produce machines for existence? No, this is city-organism as biological consumer of literal energy, which even as it increases in scale linearly, consumes energy with a surprising and increasingly efficient non-linearity. This seems a rather modest metaphor of the city to pick issues with.

If one thinks of the human mind as a device for pattern recognition, then both metaphor and scientific model are totalising ways of conceiving the world. George Lakoff sees metaphor and metonymy, indeed, as the fundamental units of human consciousness. And it is ostensibly the object of the scientific method to reduce the world to a set of rules which all phenomena can then be shown to positively corroborate. But metaphor, while it forces unity onto disparate entities, is a profoundly productive thing. The complexity of the cultural world around us - including our cities - are products of the richness of metaphorical fertility. Metaphorical production increases the variety of the world, which the scientific method then reduces to ever fewer principles.

It might at first appear laudable for governments to set out to create eco-towns, based on science and planning: 'carbon-neutral', 'asset-owning', 'imagination-showing'. But it seems, however, that the very desire to impose totalised structures onto the lived experience and lived-in environment of people is no more than destructive vanity. Surely there is very little difference between venal men with short-term monetary goals imposing their mark on their city, or men in search of power imposing their designed systems onto entire urban landscapes? Michael Batty: "Cities have never grown in the way that urban planners imagined... which is why the grand plans are rarely successful." (Pearce, F., Ecopolis Now in Eco-cities special, New Scientist, 16 June 2006, 2556)

Fred Pearce observes: "...at the other end of the scale are shanty towns - organically evolved and self-built by millions of people in the developing world without a planner in sight. These shanties ... are high-density but low-rise; their lanes and alleys are largely pedestrianised; and many of their inhabitants recycle waste materials from the wider city... shanties and their inhabitants are a good example of the new, green urban metabolism. Despite their sanitary and security failings, they often have a social vibrancy and ecological systems that get lost in most planned urban environments."

Fancy that - social vibrancy and ecological systems arising spontaneously in the world of poverty and capitalist neglect. What kind of planning system, based on scientific rigour, can be implemented onto built environments, that account for the metaphorical richness life built from the ground, and how would it deal with the Ghost City and the megalopolis?

The future may well be the ecopolis, non-linear organism, precisely laid out and regimented, carbon-neutral, asset-owning, imagination-showing, under constant surveillance, and ruled totally by the diviners of simulated intention, indistinguishable from the thought police.

Give me open sewers any day.

Categories: city, urban, science, metaphor, eco-town, ecology, shanty-town, capitalism, spontaneous, production, thought-police, surveillance,
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