Some 50 per cent of the world’s people live in cities right now. It has not always been so. Nor is the city – at first glance – a natural human habitat. So what got us hooked on cities? That is the question Monica Smith sets out to answer in this book.
In telling the story of cities, there is the problem of how to define them. For Smith, a city is above all a place where ‘many aspects of everyday life hold open the possibility of choice among a variety of potential actions’. The city defined in this way is contrasted throughout the book with life outside the city in smaller rural communities and at times before its development. The picture Smith paints is unflattering. In the village, social life was ‘solid and sober’. And, in the ultimate put-down, she claims that before cities ‘there wasn’t even take-out food’. A desire for something different drove the emergence of cities: ‘People wanted plenty of intangible things that they couldn’t get out there in the countryside: the thrill of a crowd, the excitement of new inventions and novel foods, and the tantalising allure of meeting a romantic partner from beyond the confines of the village’.
For Smith, cities provided a social lifeline for bored humanity everywhere: ‘in cities, all of that potential forcefully sprang loose and exploded into an entirely new socioeconomic realm’. The residents of Tell Brak in modern Syria – which Smith showcases as the best candidate for the ‘first’ city,