Metropolis by Ben Wilson – review: a new history of humanity

Cities are vibrant places of talent and opportunity, explains historian Ben Wilson in Metropolis. Yet they are rife with violence, perversion and corruption. Nevertheless, by the end of this century, Wilson predicts that humanity is likely to be an almost entirely urban species. He explores the growth, diversity and evolution of human civilisation in this enchanting and meandering book.

This is a history of the world told through its most buccaneering units. And a city is defined by more than just its buildings. It is about people and the lives they are able to lead away from the monotony of rural life. Wilson begins with a description of the essential characteristics of cities as diverse as ancient Rome, modern Paris and Abbasid Baghdad. Diverse populations hold specialised jobs like artisans, accountants and administrators, while public spaces like baths, theatres and coffeehouses create a sense of belonging. The raw power of cities as competitive units is then made clear.

Cities grew through entrepreneurialism, but also through violence and disease. Lisbon, although poorer than many Asian states, was forged in the crucible of bloody European warfare and came to dominate the spice routes. The role of bright, tenacious and ambitious people within cities is also explored. This includes the Sephardi Jewish refugee who devised the classic British meal of fish and chips, the trader from Mecca whose teachings spread over three continents and the Amsterdam financiers who developed modern capitalism.Each chapter looks at a key theme taking a world city as an example. Three stand out. The chapter on gastronomy and Baghdad in the Middle Ages paints a picture of a sophisticated and refined society at the crossroads of academic and culinary innovation.

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In the chapter on Baron Haussmann’s Paris as a city of human spectacle, Wilson captures the uneasy feeling of isolation in a crowd, using Impressionist art to demonstrate how cities can alienate and separate people. And in Annihilation, he looks at how to kill a city. He draws on Carthage, which the Romans scrubbed clean from the earth and at Hitler’s genocidal war in Eastern Europe. The Nazis were defeated by the city: they failed to conquer Stalingrad, and Warsaw rose again from the ashes after they destroyed it.

A special place in the book is reserved for Britain, the first state in history to become majority-urban. And it is full of quirky facts about London. Who knew that the mosquitos on the Piccadilly line are genetically distinct from those on the Bakerloo? The tone in the modern chapters on Los Angeles and Lagos is more prescriptive. As the climate crisis and another pandemic force us to rethink our urban environment, the author takes a view that we need more urbanisation rather than less. Sprawling suburbs threaten what it means to live in a city, and only increase the demand for climate-killing cars and space-killing motorways.

The model of the future is the ‘decentralised metropolis’. Take Tokyo, which expanded without central planning, managed by neighbourhoods and locals. It is a collection of organic, dense villages that form one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas. Soon we will all call one city or another home. Wilson tells us we should not lose sight of how radical this idea was, or how much has been achieved as a result.

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Metropolis: A History of Humankind’s Greatest Invention by Ben Wilson (Cape, £20), buy it here.


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