Book report: "Metropolis"

I have just finished the book “Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention,” by Ben Wilson. This book covers the development of the city from Uruk, 6,000 years ago, to the giant, teeming cities of today.

Cities have always had tremendous Macroeconomic impact on their cultures. The communication among closely-packed people leads to invention, product and idea development and trade. Every time an area doubles in population density it becomes 2% to 5% more productive. Lagos, with 10% of Nigeria’s population, produces 60% of its GDP. In China, 40% of the GDP is produced by three “megacity” regions.

Cities attract the most ambitious people from the hinterlands because the opportunities and standard of living have always been higher. (Even if life is crowded and dangerous and even a death trap for many.)

The book describes how the teeming, disorganized-seeming neighborhoods and cities often have a lively culture. Neighborhood people self-organize into many types of social groups, from religious to mutual aid and many more. So cities that appear to be chaotic actually may have important but hard to detect social organizations.

This book had a paradigm shift for me. Like many who have lived through urban renewal, I have been taught that slums are horrible, filthy, dangerous places with no redeeming qualities. Bulldozing a slum and replacing it with nice, modern high-rise apartment complexes must be a great benefit, right?

In fact, experience over decades has shown that the giant apartment complexes become crime-ridden slums (like Cabrini Green). Unlike the streets of the old neighborhoods, the big developments don’t have human-scale social meeting places like stoops or playgrounds or town squares.

The ultimate example of the successful self-organizing city is Tokyo. Tokyo has been destroyed many times by earthquakes, fires and war. The people are used to self-organizing into neighborhoods and rebuilding. There is no zoning so each neighborhood has a mix of residential, small and large businesses, manufacturing, restaurants, laundrymats, etc. so people can walk to services through the streets.

Ben Wilson calls the highly active rebuilding and business process “metabolism.” He believes that productivity and livability are maximized by authorities providing an apparently disorganized, bottoms-up city with infrastructure and property rights – without disrupting the organic growth of the neighborhood. He cites Medellin, Columbia (a famously violent, crime and corruption-ridden city filled with slums) with regenerating itself using these principles. He points to the massive investment by China in Africa but isn’t sure that the results will be optimal since China’s totalitarian society can’t be imposed on Africa.

At this point, over half of humanity lives in cities. The environmental impact and growth of the world economy will depend upon how the mass movement of people into cities is managed.



Sounds like an interesting book. There is an obligatory reference that must be brought up with any reference to cities and progress…

For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons. – Douglas Adams, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


Seriously… There are some interesting YouTube channels devoted to the subject of urban planning and all of the secondary macro economic and microeconomic costs associated with what has become the norm for North America. The channel Not Just Bikes is particularly good. – The Lively & Liveable Neighbourhoods that are Illegal in Most of North America – Stroads are Ugly, Expensive and Dangerous – Why City Design is Important (and why I hate Houston)

Strict zoning separating residential from commercial and further segregating single-family dwellings from “MDUs” (multiple dwelling units) has particularly harmful effects on those at the beginning of a work career because it limits housing availability where the work is (raising prices), generates sprawl by restricting MDU construction, then REQUIRES purchase of a car or reliance on public transportation that is provided as an afterthought and not suitable for those working flexible hours.

America has been so immersed in our current car / suburb culture for 70 years, it has become like water to the fish – invisible because of its omnipresence. But much of what we currently tolerate / endure does not stem from some thorough analysis decades ago that concluded THIS was THE best way to design, develop and operate cities. Most of it stems from a few key assumptions made by a VERY small number of arrogant public planners coupled with some unique twists of history and demographics that became cemented because big businesses figured out how make huge profits from the patterns. We COULD have chosen something different. We are now at a point due to geopolitics, energy supplies and global warming where we MUST choose something different. Quickly.



Yuval Harari has some interesting views on the same subject as discussed in his book “Sapiens”.

I, on the other hand, wrote this in “Take the High Rode - A Primer for the Independent Traveler” after touring the slums of Mumbai, India:

We have booked a tour of Mumbai’s Dharavi slums with Reality Tours (who did a great job on a general tour of Mumbai we took the last time we were here, One million people live in the 240-hectare slum, one of the world’s largest - with cramped squalid properties and appalling sanitation. Just one per cent of the tiny properties have their own toilets and there are open sewage drains running throughout much of the area. There are more than 20,000 small businesses in the district - and almost no beggars to be seen (I guess there are richer pickings elsewhere). Recycling is the biggest industry of all with an estimated 50,000 people working in plastics alone. When discarded materials arrive in the slum they are is sorted into color and quality by teams of low-wage workers and then processed to maximize the return on the recycled products.

The tour started with around a 20 minute commuter train ride (ten stops) starting at Churchgate Station. Since this is the beginning of the line, our group of nine (plus our guide) all got seats in the same section. As the train moved from station to station, it got progressively more crowded to the point that it surpassed even the packed conditions of the Manila transit system. Interestingly, there seemed to be a willingness of people to squeeze into a small sliver of seating so that benches made for five would end up with eight or more with people more or less sitting on each other’s laps. (For those reading this who might have “been there”, it rivals the conditions of the tuk-tuk bench built for two we shared with another couple in Sri Lanka or the taxi with four seats that six of us grabbed in the rain while walking towards the slums of Manila).

In these conditions, all of the trains doors (you know, the ones that close while a subway car is in motion) are kept open on both sides of each car. People first hang out of the doors while the train is in motion to get the breeze and afterwards because there is no longer physical space for them inside the car. At the station before we are to get off, negotiations were held with nearby passengers to create a path to the door in exchange for our seats. As the train only stays exactly 15 seconds in the station, we are told to stay on the train with the guide (who followed last) and be guided through the crowd. People started jumping off the train before it came to a halt and my wife did as well. Frankly this concerned me as she had never jumped off a moving train and there is a knack to it (which I learned the hard way jumping off a freight train in Laramie Wyoming during my somewhat misspent youth), but fortune smiled on her and she did not end up rolling down the platform.

From the train station, we crossed a bridge which gave us an overhead view of the vast slum. We then entered a rat’s nest of paths, alleys and narrow streets which lead through the part of the slum which specialized in recycling toxic chemicals. Plastic of all sorts is sorted, washed, crushed, dried, dyed and processed into colored wire that is then sliced into small pellets and sold to manufacturers. Likewise aluminum is melted down in large cast iron pots using charcoal (coke?) as fuel and an electric blower as a newfangled bellows. The air is full of toxic fumes from these and a number of other similar primitive factories we walked through. The streets are lined with trench type sewers, generally covered with concrete blocks as a walkway (except where it isn’t). While there might be other paving, there’s enough mud and dirt that there might not be.

The inhabitants of the slum originally lived heterogeneously as squatters on government land. When the government finally figured out that there was no way to get rid of them, it made the inhabitants - as of sometime in the 1980’s - “legal” where they had to be paid (as in our concept of eminent domain) to give up their hovels (the average family home here is 150-200 square feet (15-20 square meters). Newer arrivals are not granted legal status (to discourage a mass influx to Mumbai from the hinterlands) and can be thrown out of their housing without compensation.

In December of 1992, the Hindus in a town in northern India (Ayodhya) decided that a mosque (the Babri Masjid) was sitting on top of the birthplace of one of their gods (Brahma, I think), tore down the mosque and began erecting a temple. This caused an eruption of riots with thousands killed in both religious camps (those who have seen the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” which was about life in the Dharavi slum will remember the riots near the beginning of the movie where the two brothers lost their mother). After that, the slum realigned itself into “quarters” with Hindus, Moslems, Tamils and northern Indians (from Uttar Pradesh – called “UP” here - and adjacent provinces) each living in separate areas.

From the “toxic area” we walked to the light manufacturing area. Most of the workers in the slum are illiterate peasants from UP who work on farms during the growing (monsoon) season. In the off season they travel to Mumbai and work as illegals in Dharavi for about 200 rupees ($3) a day. They sleep in the factories – both saving money and providing security for the factory.

The light manufacturing area has an area which specializes in leather, another in making suitcases, another embroidering on shirts (a long string of computer controlled sewing machines with a bunch of wallahs feeding and removing garments for each run) and another sewing pairs of shorts on a production line basis, yet another processing expired consumer soap bars and casting them into bricks of industrial laundry soap and another sorting used cardboard boxes by size and quality for reuse.

Apparently, when shipping containers from India land elsewhere, the Indian shippers are paid to take them back filled with trash to India, and they head here for distribution to the appropriate recyclers. We hear of fires in major building sized factories in Asia. These are sweltering single room factories (gives sweat shop a whole new meaning – or maybe its original one) in an environment that is so filthy that most Americans do not have the experience basis to imagine. (When we returned to our hotel, our clothes were filthy and turned the water black when we washed them, when we blew our noses, black came out and we were spitting black “lungers” and that was after only a few hours wandering around in this environment).

Some of the names being applied to these garments were those I recognized as “designer label” staples in US department stores. Intermixed with the factories were cheap food venders, a cheap “movie” house (for a rupee, you can sit on the ground and watch an old Bollywood film on a TV hooked to a DVD player) rag recyclers providing cheap clothing and so on. The four necessities here are cheaply supplied: food, clothing, shelter and cheap mobile phone SIM chips (there are an average of two SIM chips per inhabitant in use in the slum and new phones are about $20 and recycled handsets even cheaper.

We then moved on into the residential areas. The Moslem area, though one of the newest is so congested that the “streets” are alleyways so narrow that there are only a few inches on each side of your shoulders as you walk single file over the pavers covering sewers. By the way, since the houses do not have toilets and there is only running water three hours a day, people use large plastic containers to illegally store/hoard water, and terracotta jugs to store drinking water – as they feel that the clay kills bacteria.

There is one public toilet per 1,700 people living here (and they are only cleaned by the government once a month, but the locals clean them once a week), there are a number of private paid toilets (where a use will cost a couple of rupees) and many more “open air” toilets (open fields, spots behind warehouses, etc.) whose location can easily be triangulated by their aroma.

There are green flags with a crescent and a star flying all over the rooftops of this area. Then we hit a Tamil area that had a small “super market” and quite a few fresh fruit stands and was somewhat more upscale than the Moslem sector. From there we entered a Gujarat area where the inhabitants specialized in turning and baking terracotta pots of all sizes and shapes. There were mud bins for clay (brought from Gujarat) drying racks and numerous kilns bellowing black smoke into the air (we were told that the people from Gujarat were “immune” to the problems caused by breathing the smoke all day).

The area with the broadest streets (which allowed garbage trucks to enter and keep the quarter clean) was the Hindu area. There were surveillance cameras, a forest of satellite TV dish antennas and a number of BMW’s and Audis parked in front of some pretty fancy (comparatively speaking) homes. There were kids playing cricket in the streets.

Apparently one of the popular styles of Indian flat bread (papadam) was invented here and dozens of huge bamboo baskets are inverted in the street with these breads plastered on top drying in the sun. They are sold for 30 rupees per kilogram and a woman baker can turn out about 8kg per day and supplement her husband’s wages. After seeing how these are handled, I do not think I’ll be ordering them anymore.

Then we got a pitch designed to have us donate to the MGO that Reality Tours supports which helps slum dwelling kids. Afterwards, they popped us into cabs for the ride back to the station for the train back to Churchgate Station and we found that we had walked about three miles into the slums. Interestingly, regardless of the extreme poverty of most of the people we encountered, I never felt the least bit threatened. These are people working hard to survive, but not at the cost of their ethics.

The following day saw me arguing with the turbaned hotel taxi dispatcher over what the price of a taxi to the airport should be. I finally grabbed a cab that had just let off passengers and the turbaned guy made a play at finding out the price to the airport from the cab driver (about ½ what he had originally quoted me – I decided a tip was not warranted).

In India, everyone (except the ultra-wealthy) HAS to work (otherwise, as there is no social safety net, they will starve). While many work at jobs we, in the west, would recognize, many create their own vocations. Crawford Market is a place to watch the people at their finest.

There are wallahs to handle every imaginable task.

There are tea and chai wallahs, dubba wallahs (who carry the lunchbox tiffins to the office workers of Mumbai, dhobi-wallahs (or laundrymen) who work in the outdoor laundries of dhobi ghatts and thrash the dirt out of the clothing of Mumbai every day, kaan-saaf-wallah (ear-cleaning wallahs – men in red turbans probing a sliver of bamboo tipped with a wad of glycerin-soaked cotton-wool into a customer’s ear for 10 rupees), hakim’s who practice traditional street medicine, nai’s who are street barbers, itinerant chavi-wallah locksmiths, scale-wallahs – who own a bathroom scale and rent out weight readings for those in the population which do not own a scale, rui-wallah’s who strum a one-stringed harp-like instrument as they fluff out the cotton of old mattresses and pillows, taki-wallah’s who re-pit with a hammer and chisel, the surface of stone grindstones which housewives use to pound their curry spices and a chhuri-wallah’s who pedal portable knife sharpening machines.

The scream of steel on steel is all but drowned out by the bedlam of traffic surging past the sidewalks where–undaunted by the melee of cars, scooters, cyclists, jay-walkers and stray cows-- laborers (haath-gadi wallahs,) their brows glistening with sweat, push a wheeled hand-carts stacked with heavy boxes. They inch past a baraf-wallah, carrying blocks of burlap-covered ice on a creaky bullock cart. Along the sidewalk, a group of fisherwomen carrying baskets on their heads shriek “muchhi-wali, muchhi” and a man selling home-baked cookies screams, “biscoot-wallah, aayyy, biscoooot!” (A more detailed discussion of wallahs can be found here:…).

The din created is the background for the cloth market. Hundreds upon hundreds of small shops in long dark arcades sell fabrics in bright colors, of fabulously complex patterns and sparkling appliques in a visual riot which does not seem to ever repeat itself. Gifted salesmen drape sheets of fabric so that they mimic carefully wrapped saris with an ease which belies the complexity of the actual garment. Itinerant tailors wander the aisles offering their services.

What do I think of Mumbai? Well, even for a New Yorker, the city is too crowded, too poor, too dirty, to noisy and has some of the worst traffic anywhere (the Angel of Death must be distracted by Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere because I cannot figure out why I saw nobody hit by a vehicle in traffic that should have covered the streets with the blood of pedestrians and drivers alike). That said, it is a fascinating place that I would enjoy revisiting. There is none of the “standardization” of the malling of the world to be found in the downtown area and there are thousands of shops trying to differentiate themselves based on unique products rather than comply with all pushing the same stuff. In short, despite its numerous failings, I like the place.



I just started reading “Four Lost Cities: A secret history of the urban age” which chronicles Catalhoyok in modern Turkey,the earliest known city, Pompeii, famous for its destruction by a volcanic eruption, Angor, an ancient city in modern Cambodia, and Cahokia, a pre-Colombian city on the Mississippi near present day St Louis.

The book describes how after thriving for centuries, cities decline from a combination of political corruption and environmental degradation with an eye towards applying lessons of the past to today’s urban landscape. So far, I am enjoying it.