NOVEMBER 12 — Cities are strange places, when you stop to think about it. Quite unnatural, even.
As a species, we are not really physically or mentally equipped to deal with cities, which are a relatively modern development. For the overwhelming majority of human existence, we lived freely and openly in the countryside, roaming from place to place depending on the needs and dangers of the moment.
Then, about 10,000, years ago, came the agricultural revolution, resulting in humans constructing permanent settlements so they could look after their crops and livestock more securely. But that was still a very rural existence, with no more than a few hundred people gathered together in largely self-sufficient villages.
Gradually, life became more complex and developments such as trade, legal systems, military campaigns and religion necessitated the growth of population centres into larger and more strictly organised areas.
Many contemporary historians agree that Uruk, in modern-day Iraq, was the world’s first city, founded around 6,000 years ago. From that moment the path of human development was set in stone, and more cities soon followed: Jericho,
Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, Athens, Rome... and eventually that process led to the current proliferation of vast and densely populated urban jungles.
Now, more and more of us live in “mega cities”, defined as places with a population of at least 10 million people.
There are currently 40 mega cities, most of which are in Asia and led by Tokyo with its estimated population of 39 million. Greater Kuala Lumpur, incidentally, has not quite yet attained mega city status, with a total population of less than eight million, while Singapore is even “smaller” with 5.6 million.
But you don’t have to be a mega city to be an environment very different indeed from the wide open spaces inhabited by our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years, and in 2008 a study showed that more than half the world’s population is now living in cities — mega or regular — for the first time in human history, with that percentage rising to nearly three-quarters in developed countries.
So our transformation from countryside foragers to urban dwellers is nearly complete, but, to paraphrase an old saying, you might be able to take the man out of the countryside but you can’t take the countryside out of the man.
Who among us doesn’t crave for a little bit of greenery? A few trees? A lake or river? A patch of grass to break up the hardness of the cityscape?
Thousands of years of conditioning have left us craving, even in our ultra-modern air-conditioned fully electric free-wifi concrete and steel mega cities, a bit of Nature. We don’t only like the countryside, we need it.
And so, without exception, city planners —– whether through conscious choice or not —– always find themselves compelled to make provision for the inclusion of green spaces within their urban sprawl. Tree-lined avenues. City parks.
Undeveloped hillsides. Botanical gardens. They vary widely in shape and size and the degree to which they are maintained, but you won’t find a city in the world which doesn’t have some space allocated for a reconnection with Nature.
I am writing this article, for example, from a terrace outside a cafe in Retiro Park in Madrid, the capital city of Spain. It is a glorious open area, without doubt one of the most beautiful city parks I have visited.
Over there, beyond the boating lake filled with happy families and lovers enjoying a gentle paddle in the sunshine, beyond the exotic trees and the flowerbeds, beyond the grassy lawns and the children’s climbing frames over there lies the city. A city of six million people, the traditional centre of the Hispanic universe.
From where I am sitting, you can see the tops of some of the buildings. Nearest is the Prado, one of the world’s most prestigious art galleries. Then there are various governmental offices, leading into the historic city centre squares of the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Mayor, crammed with tourists and shoppers.
Then the royal palace, dropping down towards the river and the motorway, with its endless stream of busy people, living their lives and going about their daily business.
From where I am sitting, the city and all its relentless intensity of frantic, frenzied existence is just around the corner. But here, within walking distance of all those sights and sounds, where decisions affecting millions of people are taken and lives are made and broken, here there is solitude. An escape from the noise. A chance to stop, rest and repair.
We need cities, of course. They fuel our lives, and have done so for thousands of years. We are attracted to cities because they are where important people live and important things happen. Cities are the source of work, leisure, commerce, entertainment the source of life.
But a part of us – and not only a small part — needs more than just city life. We can’t escape our anthropological inheritance that easily, and we need open spaces, a communion with Nature, just as much as we need the hustle and bustle of urban life.
It might never be possible to completely escape the clutches of the city, which closes menacingly in on our green spaces from all sides, but we need that oasis of calm in the middle of the storm. We need the grass, the trees, the water, the relentless growth and decay, growth and decay, which form the natural cycles of life on our planet.
We need a physical and mental space to relax, unwind and let go of our daily cares. And sometimes, we need a place to just do nothing.