Since its 2009 opening, hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed a saunter along New York’s High Line, the reclaimed stretch of elevated rail in Manhattan that, like its precursor in Paris, has been turned into a well-appointed park. British writer Leo Hollis’s reflections about the High Line color the beginning and ending of “Cities Are Good for You,” his effusive tour of the 21st-century metropolis.
“It is places like the High Line that allow us to think again about the city and how it can make us happy,” writes Hollis, adding that “the metropolis is perhaps our greatest achievement.” Guiding a general audience from Manhattan to Mumbai and Marseilles, among other places, Hollis does not precisely list why urban life benefits us as much as explore various social and creative possibilities it offers; thus he also emphasizes that in planning cities “it is the people that matter, the way that they are allowed to interact, intermingle, and connect.” As such, we should address “sustainability, trust, and inequality” in urban life, he says, whether tackling housing, traffic, or climate change.
The notion that cities are good for us would have been more provocative a quarter-century ago, when the typical metropolis — certainly in the United States — appeared mired in crime and poverty. Then the 1990s happened: The economy boomed, cities gentrified, violent crime dropped, and the public perception of urban life shifted.
Indeed, Hollis provides no recent examples when he writes that the “city has long been considered the destroyer of men and, worse, their souls.” Instead he presents, as anti-urban curmudgeons, the wildly unlikely trio of Dante, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Henry Ford, surely enlisted as allies for the first time in intellectual history.