Map of the Port of Alexandria, Egypt, from Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation) by Piri Reis, first published 1521, map taken from the revised 17th-century edition. Courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


The city is a lie

From Ancient Egypt’s deltas to Edinburgh’s crags and peaks, the city pushes back against the dream of human separateness

by Sam Grinsell + BIO

Map of the Port of Alexandria, Egypt, from Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation) by Piri Reis, first published 1521, map taken from the revised 17th-century edition. Courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

The ancient city of Alexandria lies on a narrow strip of Mediterranean coast to the west of the Nile delta. To the south is Lake Mariout, which once hemmed in the city rather closely, but has been reduced over the past century as land has been reclaimed for agriculture and for Alexandria International Airport. In 1921, during the period of British rule, a new masterplan was put in place for the city. It was prepared by William H McLean, a Scot who had an urban planning career across the colonial Middle East: he was town engineer in Khartoum, and also prepared a masterplan for Jerusalem. In his vision for Alexandria, McLean plotted its expansion to east and west, convinced that any land reclaimed from Lake Mariout would be needed for farming rather than housing. The fact that the city now straggles along the coast rather than sprawling inland is partly a result of this plan.

The other striking thing about the form of Alexandria is its two bays. The site of the city was, when Alexander the Great founded it in the 4th century BCE, one large bay with an island at its centre, called Pharos. In the 3rd century BCE, a road was built to the island. Over time, the Mediterranean has added to the original earthworks to such an extent that Pharos has become the head of a peninsula rather than an island. On each side of this peninsula are the two bays of Alexandria. Before the Nile was dammed in the 19th and 20th centuries, its annual flood dragged silt from the length of the river to the delta. Along the way, the silt deposited in the riverbanks and in the delta itself created some of the world’s most fertile soil. This process also expanded the delta into the sea each year, and the earth that was carried westwards by the waves of the Mediterranean to add to the land connecting Alexandria and Pharos was also part of this cycle. The watery land of the delta held such agricultural value because of this rich earth carried north by the river, and so the reason that the land around Lake Mariout was claimed for farming rather than urban growth is embedded in a complex set of land and water movements.

The Alexandria that you see on a map or satellite image today thus bears the long marks of actions by humans and nonhumans, its form emerging from centuries of collaboration between sea, land, river and people. But this is not generally how we imagine urban spaces.

The city is a lie that we tell ourselves. The crux of this lie is that we can separate human life from the environment, using concrete, glass, steel, maps, planning and infrastructure to forge a space apart. Disease, dirt, wild animals, wilderness, farmland and countryside are all imagined to be essentially outside, forbidden and excluded. This idea is maintained through the hiding of infrastructure, the zoning of space, the burying of rivers, the visualisation of new urban possibilities, even the stories we tell about cities. Whenever the outside pierces the city, the lie is exposed. When we see the environment reassert itself, the scales fall from our eyes.

Of course, cities are physically identifiable sites that are often clearly separated from the space around them. They might be surrounded by walls that define their limits, or green belts in which building is prohibited or heavily controlled. Even when large suburban districts surround the city, these often have separate governance systems. Nonetheless, all cities depend on a much wider territory beyond these boundary markers. Some or all of the following need to be brought in from outside to support an urban centre: food, water, building materials (wood, stone etc), workers, traders and their goods, raw production materials (wool, cotton etc), energy (in the form of material to be consumed, such as oil or coal, or on cables connected to a production centre such as a power plant or wind farm). This is the case irrespective of whether the city concerned has a clear physical edge or not.

Much debate about cities, at least in English-speaking cultures, reproduces the confrontations between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in the mid-20th century. Moses is portrayed as the archetypal planner, seeking to control New York’s urban scene through the built environment, pushing through highways in the face of opposition on the ground. Jacobs, meanwhile, is thought of as the champion of street life, arguing that ordinary people, given freedom to mingle in their daily lives, are best-placed to bring order to the city. This ongoing confrontation between top-down and bottom-up models of urbanism is central to contemporary urban thinking, but it leaves out the nonhuman. Both Jacobs and Moses view the city, fundamentally, as an entity made by people, the unfolding of a human vision. It is this underlying assumption that I wish to reconsider.

This is not to say that all 20th-century urban thinkers have been blind to the nonhuman. The philosopher Henri Lefebvre distinguished between urban spaces and urbanisation as a process; he foresaw a time when the latter would shape all modes of life at a planetary scale. The architectural historian Sigfried Giedion and the urbanist Lewis Mumford similarly saw essentially urban technologies conquering space and time. The literary scholar Raymond Williams traced the cultural separation between city and countryside. But all of this work has not succeeded in shifting the popular idea of the urban as human space, with a nonhuman outside. In fact, by claiming that urban processes or technologies might expand to dominate the rest of the world, some of these thinkers reinforce an imagined historical distinction between the city and nature.

Even when thinking of nonhuman experiences of urban space, it can be difficult to move beyond the idea that the city is, in essence, human. In 2016, David Attenborough used episode six of his BBC television series Planet Earth II to follow animals in Jodhpur, Rome, New York and Mumbai. Viewers were encouraged to think of how humans might shape these spaces to be more accommodating to multiple species living together. But in this representation, humanity remains the architect of the city; New York is described as being ‘the most unnatural place on Earth’. So in fact what emerges is a new version of the lie, with humanity as the dominant force in the creation of a complex, multispecies habitat.

You might wonder why I describe this as a lie. Surely architects, planners, engineers and municipal authorities make our cities? If I am claiming that they don’t, then, you might say, am I trying to help humans duck the blame for the ecological impact of urbanisation? I will deal with the first question by analysing the lie more deeply, before returning to the second in the conclusion.

The hills on which Edinburgh was built were formed over centuries by volcanic and glacial action

There are three key elements to the false way of imagining cities that I am attempting to delineate here. First: that humanity alone makes cities; second, that the city has an outside, a natural world that lies beyond the processes of urbanisation; and, third, that the city is an abstract category of which all individual cases are simply examples. The first part is the simplest core of the lie, but it is dependent on the other two for its coherence.

Let us look at another specific example, to help us think through the first element: Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. Any visitor walking around the main tourist areas cannot miss the role played by topography in the form of the city. Castle Rock is the heart of the Old Town, separated from New Town by a deep gorge now occupied by Waverley station and the train tracks running into it. This gorge was once filled with water and known as the Nor Loch, part of the medieval town’s defences. As part of the northward expansion of the city that created New Town, the loch was filled in to create the area of the Mound and Princes Street Gardens. As well as Castle Rock, six other hills rise up to create the broader landscape of the city: Arthur’s Seat, Blackford Hill, the Braid Hills, Calton Hill, Corstorphine Hill and Craiglockhart Hill. Make your way to the top of one of these high points and you can see, beyond the city to the south-west, the higher peaks of the Pentlands, and to the north beyond the Firth of Forth yet further hills.

Edinburgh occupies a low-lying area dominated by its seven hills, and the city has developed in relation to this geography. If this site were without hills, it wouldn’t have the defensive qualities that led to the building of a castle here and the development of its associated town. The very word Edinburgh comes from a Celtic root that seems to have meant ‘fort on a slope’.

But geography is not a static feature of the world around us, it is itself a product of multiple processes. The hills and gorges on which Edinburgh has been built were formed over centuries by volcanic and glacial action. If we admit that Castle Rock and the other hills have played a part in shaping the layout of Edinburgh, then we have also accepted prehistorical volcanoes and glaciers into the list of forces forming the city, even if they were long gone before humans settled these hills.

This sense of geological time and its role in making a particular city might give us pause for thought about Edinburgh, but perhaps we would fall back on the second and third aspects of the lie. We could say that urbanisation is, by definition, a human process not bound up in the separate sphere of nature; and we could argue that the particular nature of any actual city is not as important as the city in its general, abstract sense. It is these parts of the lie that have preserved it, equipping it with defences against the easily demonstrable critique that some aspects of city form, such as topography, relate to nonhuman processes.

City and hinterland make each other, rather than one being a parasite on the other

Urbanisation, the complex set of processes by which city life is made and supported, involves a far wider area than the city. As already pointed out, cities need water, power, materials and food far beyond what they can produce themselves, and so they reach into their hinterlands with tendrils of infrastructure to draw out what they need. This is a sort of cellular view of the city in which it feeds off a separate world around it. But this process is as much something that happens to the natural and rural world as it is to the city – the closer one looks, the harder it is to pick this apart. Where does the city end and its hinterland begin? Are processes within the city remaking the environment, or is the city itself a product of changes to how the environment is managed?

Environmental historians such as William Cronon and Debjani Bhattacharyya have pointed the way to the blurring of these lines. In his book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991), Cronon showed that we have to read the agricultural history of the American West as embedded in the history of the city, the protein from the cattle reared on the plains feeding the growing urban population. This is not just a matter of a city taking from its rural surroundings: the farming systems that developed in the West did so in order to feed this population, drawing on flows of money generated in the metropolis. More recently, Bhattacharyya has uncovered the watery history of Calcutta in her book Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta (2018). She traces a forgotten history of land speculation and reclamation that literally made the foundations of the city. These historians have shown that city and hinterland make each other, rather than one being a parasite on the other.

From a somewhat different starting point, the urbanists Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid have promoted the concept of planetary urbanisation. This takes up earlier arguments from Lefebvre that the process of urbanisation would soon reach into every part of the world. Brenner and Schmid argue that this time has come, and that every part of the planet is now in some way tied in to this process. Even in remote places, humans are seeking to extract minerals, food and materials to fuel their urban lifestyles, be it precious metals for mobile phones, phosphorus for high-intensity agriculture, or tuna for the dinner table. At the same time, human-made plastics can be found everywhere, even in the deepest trenches of the ocean. This argument doesn’t claim that everywhere is a city, but that there is no longer anywhere that is untouched by urbanisation, the process of making and fuelling cities.

Bringing these two strands of thought together raises a question: have cities never had an outside, or did they once have one that they have since lost? This is a live issue for urban scholars, but I am arguing here that any such line has only ever been indistinct. All cities have always been bound up in complex relationships with other places, some of which they have been strongly connected to and others less so. This is more than a matter of supply from the hinterland. Cultural, economic and political networks tie cities to each other as well as to the agricultural lands around them, and this has also been true for a very long time.

All of this, then, suggests that urbanisation is a process that operates within other systems of life on the planet, and that it is not easily separable from these. While a city is connected to other places, this doesn’t mean that urban processes stop at its borders. We would perhaps be better off thinking of it as a dense concentration of intersecting movements, of trajectories as the geographer Doreen Massey would have called them. A city is not so much a cell as a knot of threads.

What of the abstract city? This final part of the lie claims that there is something distinct about city life that has given birth to human civilisation, and that the city should therefore be seen as the human site par excellence. Here the claim of separation from nature is less material and more philosophical: that humanity has separated itself from the animals by making its own home. In this view, cities all share, in some sense, certain characteristics that give urban life its richness. Further, this is fundamentally different from all other ways of living, such as the rural, suburban or nomadic.

Cities are, as we have already begun to see, complex meeting places of multiple trajectories. At one level, this is true of all places, irrespective of whether or not they are urban. But in human terms, cities appear to be particularly dense concentrations of activity. They are the places in which we can brush shoulders with hundreds of thousands or even millions of our fellows, whereas in suburban, rural or wild regions we are likely to encounter progressively fewer people. Depending on where you live, your concept of a large number of people, densely packed together, might be rather different: almost 7 per cent of the world’s population live in cities of more than 10 million people, but some 26.5 per cent live in cities of fewer than 500,000 inhabitants. Nearly half of humans don’t live in urban areas at all. When you picture a city, you might imagine the skyscrapers and informal settlements of Mumbai, the ancient grandeur of Rome, Manhattan’s grid of streets, or Dubai as a gleaming jewel in the desert. Or the first thing to come to your mind might be a city you grew up near or in – the first place where you encountered the possibilities of large numbers of people gathered together.

All of these places are, certainly, bound together by urbanisation. They are also wildly different. Their topography, climate, economy, wildlife and so on vary enormously. And these are not mere details of city life: a student town has a very different atmosphere from a port or a commercial centre; a flat Edinburgh would feel like a different place, as would an Alexandria that occupied the land to its south. By bringing in other forces to the making of cities, as we have been doing, we have already destabilised the sense of cities as an abstract category. But perhaps we should push a little further.

Our cities are as much a part of natural processes as our farms and fisheries

Think again of your city, the one that first comes to mind when you hear the word. This needn’t be one you have visited, because modern cities also operate as cultural icons even for people who never see them. Picture its streets, buildings and people. What you have is a particular place, or at least an idea of one. The better you know it, the more specific and less abstract it is. And most of these details you are picturing have little to do with cities in the abstract: what gives Edinburgh or Alexandria their particular flavour is their individuality, not the things they share. So while cities might share in the process of urbanisation, the things that really stick with us when we think about any given city are its idiosyncrasies, precisely those things that cannot be abstracted. Not only is a city made by real, material processes that make it individual, but also its cultural life and image are distinctly its own. So when we think of a city as a bundle of threads, we should also be alive to the particularities of the threads involved and their unique arrangement in this specific place.

How does exposing this lie help us? Is this not a matter of interest only to planners, architects and engineers, the makers of the city? Shouldn’t we leave city-making to experts such as William McLean? To answer this, we should return to Alexandria.

The delta coast is now in retreat and, of all the cities in the world, Alexandria is among the most vulnerable to rising sea levels. By the 2070s, it might house a population of more than 4 million people at high risk of flooding. The thin strip of land between sea and lake is shrinking as the sea takes back the delta. This is not only part of a global history of climate change driven by fossil fuels, but also a regional history of changes to the Nile that have reduced the power of its flood and the quantity of silt it carries to the delta each year. The river’s ability to build the land has been cut off by repeated attempts to re-engineer its flow into something more predictable and, without the full riches of the flood, the delta is changing. The cities of Egypt are tangled in this developing environmental history, as part of the land- and waterscapes of the delta. Imagining a boundary between the urban and the environment can only serve to blind us to these relationships. The walls of our imagined cities cannot hold.

To open ourselves to the multiple forces making cities is not to abandon any sense of responsibility to the world around us. Indeed, only the lie that we are separate from it can sustain an extractive attitude to the environment. If our cities are as much a part of natural processes as our farms and fisheries, then we should learn a new awareness of how these relationships work. Stripping back the lie will show us the damage done by human action more clearly than we ever will by continuing to cling to it.

If we are to live in the world, we must see our cities for the complex environmental assemblages that they are. By learning to see the ways in which land, water, climate, other lifeforms and materials have made cities alongside humans, we can begin to understand how to live better with the creatures around us. Dreams of a future in which technology saves us from ecological collapse seek to preserve the firm boundary between people and environment, city and hinterland, urbanisation and wilderness. But these binaries don’t reflect the multiple, intertwined ways in which cities, habitats and people are made. It is time we left them behind, and began to learn new ways of sensing and thinking the city.