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  • Writer's pictureSofia Greaves

Rethink 'the city'

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Imagining the city involves creating a boundary which does not exist. In this image, ‘the city’ is a space which can be escaped, it has an edge, which defines it. It could have a centre, a river, or roads.

But a city is defined by our mind. Therefore, ‘the city' does not exist – it is an ontological category, just like ‘the countryside’, two ideas which differentiate spaces.

Just as ‘the city’ does not exist, nor does ‘the countryside’. These entities continuously change, and to fix them as ideas seems misguided. Cities cannot be defined by a set of structures, hence the idea that a community is made of ‘men not walls’. Nor can they be defined by their population counts – an old theme of urban commentators, who claim that this ignores the complexity of an urban community. To establish one ‘harmonious definition of a city’ by 2030 is therefore silly. It's an ideal which hinders big picture thinking. Cities are diverse, they are sited in different places, and they change all the time. Why define the city at all.

If London became a marsh, and it was founded as a marsh, this would really push the current definition of ‘the city’. The marsh is anathema to the urban environment, in which a bog is unimaginable – historically the marsh has been reviled because it has transgressed into urban space or prevented urban development. But the old argument that marshes promote disease can hardly hold true for all cities, or in this age. Indeed, marshes are actually fertile and alive; wetlands provide ecosystems, which can support a city. Water bodies can help with flood control. Re-marshing London could be considered wise.

If building to manage the environment is the marker of good design, which it has been, since antiquity, we need to reconceptualize ‘the city’. Managing the environment does not mean suppressing natural conditions and living in glass ventilated towers; it means establishing a relationship between a city and a city site, accepting that a city is fluid and enmeshed in a landscape which it also affects thousands of miles away. Therefore, a city is certainly an organism.

But we should not imagine it to be a body, with a ‘life span', with breathing 'lungs', with 'intestines'. To do so is to project human anatomy onto something which works differently, and it is misguided to make man the measure of all things. This prevents innovation. Thinking along more abstract terms, re-thinking what a city is, and our relationship to it, dissolves this false duality. The landscape is all linked, like the grains in a piece of wood. What if you did not have to ‘escape’ the city? This makes the city and countryside, urban and natural the same.

Painting, Water on wood, Greaves

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