"Dear, damned, distracting town."
-Alexander Pope on London
It was only fitting to go to the Global Cities exhibition at Tate Modern after having talked about being ordinary in London. Crowds by Eva Koch captured exactly what I was trying to explain.
The exhibition was really inspiring. It gave a good glimpse into the life in far away cities, and showed that the problems are very similar across the board. (I thought it was a good glimpse because the videos of Istanbul really felt like home.) Cities guarantee exciting lives. Large numbers of people lead to multiplied possibilities: Possibilities for all kinds of jobs, different people, art events, festivals, clubs, restaurants, neighborhoods. The freedom brought by anonymity. Big cities continue to attract people like magnets.
But the diversity and size that makes cities so exciting is also what makes them overwhelming and dangerous. As new people from different socio-economic backgrounds come to the city, they struggle to survive. Some of them have no choice but to live in slums, creating circles of poverty around the city. Some of them are pushed inwards because the well-off want to live in their own segregated paradise in the suburbs. Public transportation and sewage systems are pushed to their limits, and there is no open space to get away from the hustle and bustle. As inequalities rise, some neighborhoods become no-go crime zones. Middle class tries to protect themselves by bullet-proof cars, picket fences and alarm systems. Surviving in the city is an occupation and challenge in itself, taking much energy. But it also seems like the best thing anyone can do with one's time in this world.
I see this as an example of how individual rational choice does not lead to socially optimal outcomes. The individual choices add up to something diverse and exciting, a spontaneity and variety that couldn't be planned by any central planner, but also to something ugly and overwhelming. The city as an organism may seem very exciting and inspiring. But each individual in it, while contributing to it and enjoying it, also suffers from being a teeny weeny particle in this mighty organism. A cell in the blood circulating through the streets. The organism doesn't really care about you, you have to go by its rules to survive. Each city comes with its own terms and conditions that limit its constituents' freedom. But again, it's the price we all pay for constant stimulation.