The Life and Death of Ancient Cities by Greg Woolf review – why cities are ‘natural’

Cities may have seemed more fragile during lockdown, but as this impressive study of early urbanism shows, they have been re-invented many times

In the world of Covid-19, many city dwellers have felt alienated from the large, crowded, human nests in which, in common with half of the world’s population, they live. As so many urban pleasures – restaurants and shops, theatres and concert halls, universities and museums – became dormant, British newspapers burgeoned with articles about escaping to the countryside. (“The countryside” is a concept that only exists in opposition to the city – pastoral poetry was invented as a literary genre in the third century BC by sophisticated urban Alexandrians exoticising rural life.)

During lockdown, city centres transformed overnight from noisy, infuriating, but purposeful places into unpeopled architectural museums, stone without flesh. As the months drag on, illegal block parties and raves in some British cities are signalling a sense of swelling dissatisfaction, a hint of anomie. Most of us take the functioning of cities for granted most of the time, but under current conditions their basic reliance on what is usually regarded as low-status labour – supermarket employees, delivery drivers, refuse collectors – has become more visible. Cities have seemed a little less familiar, a little more fragile, their inequalities less ignorable. For many, tragically, they have become deadly: it has been urban centres like New York and Madrid that have suffered most grievously from the coronavirus.

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