THE CURRENT PANDEMIC has thrown up a great number of hopes about what may lie on the other side of it — to name a few, perhaps a new social contract, a more participatory appraisal of local and federal governance, a purposive response to the glaring inequities highlighted (who gets to isolate in relative safety from the virus, for instance, and who cannot afford to), and the redesign of our cities to allow for inclusion and healthy living.
The future of the 21st century city has certainly been in question. Recall the various ways in which it was abandoned over the past year. In the early days of the pandemic, for example, the flight of the rich in American cities from densely populated cities showed up in financial advice on how they should factor in the tax implications of luxurious work-from-away. In sharp contrast, the lockdowns in India brought on the desperate flight of migrant daily workers worried that their meagre reserves would not see them through long stretches of no-work. Across the spectrum, the city’s residents will return; but will the city, in rich countries and especially in poorer ones, upgrade itself to address the concerns, health and livelihoods of its most vulnerable?
In Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, Annalee Newitz, an American journalist who also writes speculative fiction, informs her plea for political systems to “address the twin problems of climate and poverty”, with a tour of the said four cities: Çatalhöyük in central Turkey, dating back 9,000 years; Pompeii in Italy that was buried under volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE; Angkor in Cambodia, that flourished for hundreds of years and was later ‘abandoned’ in the middle of the second millennium; and Cahokia on the Mississippi River that was the largest city in North America before the arrival of Europeans.
As she spends time with archaeologists, reportedly over seven long years, Newitz foregrounds the lives and concerns of the cities’ people, not just the rulers and the architectural and urban infrastructure that survives. Among the questions she asks: “Why did our ancestors leave the freedom of the open land for cramped, stinky warrens full of human waste and endless political drama? What kinds of counterintuitive decisions led them to settle down and plant farms whose crops could easily fail, leaving them to starve? How did thousands of people ever agree to live together, cheek to jowl, cooperatively building public places and resources for strangers to enjoy?”
Relatively recent research allows her to answer some of these questions with a fresh perspective. For instance, it lets her deepen an appreciation of the architectural marvels around the currently hip environs of Siem Reap, including Angkor Wat, with a mapping of the million-strong population that made Angkor among the largest cities in the world at the time. This has been enabled with the use of “anthropogenic geomorphology”, to allow researchers to draw the demographic grid beyond the grand stone structures that survive and colour in the farmland and urban sprawl. Another tool, employed in the Pompeii section, is “data archaeology”, to get a sense of the people’s social and interior lives. In Newitz’s collation, the result is a vivid narrative that takes the reader through not just the physical remains of these towns, but also provides glimpses of the social interactions that enlivened and nourished them.
In the end, the conclusion has echoes for our especially fraught time, when “globally, we’re in a period of political instability and authoritarian nationalism”. Writes Newitz: “Looking back on Çatalhöyük, Pompeii, Angkor, and Cahokia, it’s not hard to figure out what keeps a city vital: resilient infrastructure like good reservoirs and roads, accessible public plazas, domestic spaces for everyone, social mobility, and leaders who treat the city’s workers with dignity. This is not such a tall order, especially when you consider that thousands of years ago, our ancestors managed to maintain healthy cities for centuries at a time.”