Covid, Simmel and the Future of Cities

By | 15th December 2020

One particular loss in the present emergency is Georg Simmel’s discussion of the case for cities, in his 1902 essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’…it presents crucial arguments against the break-up of urban life that is envisioned by some contemporary Utopians: the case against the 15-minute city needs to be heard…

Simmel composed this lecture against the background of a critique of cities from late 19th century conservative writers. Cities were seen as dark, dangerous and unhealthy places, where human beings lost touch with their nature. People became restive and disruptive, challenging the existing social order of church and social hierarchy. They were prone to fickle mass behaviour in mobs, crowds and demonstrations. Societies would be much better if they could return to a more pastoral way of life, not necessarily entirely in the countryside…

For Simmel, then, the quality of life in the city compensated for the material limitations – crowding, pollution, infectious disease and so on. Cities were exciting, dynamic places where the future was always happening…

If you are in a certain class at a certain career stage with a certain kind of family, 15-minute living may be very cosy. Simmel encourages us to think about whether this is a fundamentally selfish notion whose costs have been concealed  by its advocates.

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