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December 04, 2006

The Ghost Map and the inevitability of cities

Traveling through Chile and Peru while reading Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map gave me a perspective on the book I would not have gotten had I read it in my comfy confines of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Quickly: the book chronicles the uncovering of the cause of a cholera outbreak in 1854 London. John Snow and Henry Whitehead prove conclusively the waterborne nature of cholera (in the face of the more conventionally accepted "miasma", or airborne, theory). There's a lot more to the story, and it reads a bit like CSI: Victorian London.

Comment: "The Ghost Map," is a remarkably misleading title. It refers to the map of the Soho neighborhood drawn by Snow depicting the proximity of cholera deaths to a particular well. The map was made famous in information design circles by Edward Tufte. For those of us familiar with the map, we want to learn more, and for those who are not, well, "The Ghost Map" is definitely evocative. Here's the rub: the map isn't mentioned until the conclusion (page 191), and, it turns out, the map was not an investigative tool--Snow and Whitehead had already figured out what was going on before they ever drew a map. The map was a means of explaining to others what they figured out. The map, frankly, is among the least important elements of the story at the time (though it became an icon of the story after the fact.) The title strikes me as a disingenuous ploy. Anyway.

Johnson's Thesis: At the time of the cholera outbreak, in 1854, the idea that a city of millions could sustain was debatable. Was it possible to cram all those people together, or was disease and decline inevitable, a la ancient Rome? Snow's discovery of waterborne disease transmission meant that systems could be developed to protect the populous, and this infrastructure, in turn, allows for large populations in relatively small spaces. Johnson finds this story important because Snow's discovery proves the viability of cities -- and Johnson is a self-proclaimed unabashed urbanist.

Urbanism: While urbanism can be seen as simply the study of cities, it's clear that for Johnson, it's like feminism or socialism -- it's a principle worth *advocating*. In the last chapter of the book, Johnson offers a paean to cities, citing such facts as people in cities are healthier, and that cities have less environmental impact. At the time of the book's publishing, the world had crossed the threshold of more than half of the global population now lives in cities (up from 2% in 1854).

3 billion people can't be wrong!

Like Johnson, I'm a fan of cities. When I travel, it often involves urban exploration, and I cannot imagine myself being happy living in anything other than an urban environment. However, having just visited Santiago, Chile (pop: 6 million) and Lima, Peru (pop: 9 million) it's clear that we have to set our pom-poms aside and consider the development of the modern megalopolis highly critically.

Another thing I read while traveling was a recent New Yorker article on Lagos, Nigeria, which the author depicts as something akin to hell on earth. The author juxtaposes his (miserable) experiences with breathless commentary from folks such as Rem Koolhaas, demonstrating the disconnection from reality that urbanist cheerleaders suffer.

Because when you look at Lagos, or when I looked at Lima, I really had to wonder: are such cities a good thing? Lima is a city built on fear. It's grown phenomenally in the last half century and, in doing so, has seen a marked increase in crime, brought upon by the economic disparity within the citizenry. Everywhere you go, you see armed guards. Boring middle class apartment buildings are ringed with electrified fences. In public places, chairs have straps to latch your purse. This all comprises a literal architecture of fear.

I'm typically not given to such moral judgments (good/bad) about such things, so I was surprised that was my first impulse. But it was brought into stark relief in the brief conversation with the driver who picked us up at the Lima airport to take us to our hotel. Finding out he had lived in Lima for 12 years (he was from a town just north), I asked, "Do you like it here?" and he said, without hesitation, "No." He lives in Lima purely for the economic opportunity, as, I'm sure, do many of the other 9 million.

The growth of cities in the 20th century make their development feel inevitable, and cities are clearly the world's primary economic engine, but when that inevitability makes people feel like they're trapped in circumstance, what have we achieved?

Posted by peterme at December 4, 2006 10:23 PM

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