Kuala Lumpur by night
"The test of civilization is the power of drawing the most benefit out of its cities."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
In 2008, humanity crossed an unspoken milestone. For the first time in history, the majority of the human population lives in cities. While this trend had been brewing since the industrial revolution, its seeds extend all the way back to Catal Huyuk, Ur and Mohenjo-Daro. Now, more than ever, we're in an Age of Metropolis.
I've always found cities fascinating. Perhaps that's because, growing up far away from them, they held a certain magic. Living rural idyll, by contrast, was never, well, idyllic, for all its beauty and charm.
But the fascination has held. I enjoy a city's vibrance and history; the way density is a rich breeding ground for hybrids of all kinds. I've found people to be no more or less noble there than anywhere else.
Cities get a lot of crap, routinely blasted for being unnatural sores upon the planet for reasons environmental and societal. However, as a species we've been building them seemingly since we knew how. If they're unnatural, then so are we.
One thing I've learned is that the stereotypes city and country dwellers hold about each other tend to have a kernel of truth. Yeah, cities can be vicious and the country narrow-minded. Small-town values, a term the vile often appropriate as a cover for their own prejudice, aren't a lie; I witnessed some beautiful examples of generosity and community growing up. But just as true are the amazing opportunities to forge your own life in a city. As with many things, once the bullshit's torn away, it's all real.
And we'd better learn to live with it. I predict that humans becoming a truly urban species may well have as huge an impact on our evolution as any kind of intelligence enhancer the labs are going to cook up.
The political implications could also be stunning. Cities are far more prone to insurrection and chaos, so we're probably going to face plenty of both, especially as today's political structures are forced to adapt to a rapidly changed world.
They can also be an environmental problem, a major one even. However, less of that damage seems to come from classical, extremely dense cities than from the sprawling (and now rapidly declining) suburbs that have combined the worst aspects of both rural and urban living without any of the benefits.
Hell, we may yet get the best of both worlds, with a retreat from the suburbs saving both cities and countryside from sprawl.
Still, much of the urban growth outside the industrialized world is in mega slums, which make suburbia's worst look positively grand by just about any measure.
We're also running into a "bell the cat" moment. Everyone agrees that a more balanced form of city living is desperately needed, yet witness the fractious -- even in a small, compact city like Asheville -- over the height of buildings, truck noise and development.
Right now, most of the debate focuses just on building design and traffic flow. Necessary leaps in truly considering the culture and politics of the city haven't yet been made, and there remains a tendency to shy away from aesthetic discomfort or necessary sacrifices. Comfort zones and profit margins may end up being the worst enemies of tomorrow's cities.
Still, Metropolis seems to be the future, as billions continue to vote with their feet. Whether it ends up glittering towers or smoldering ruins is up to us.