Receive free House & Home updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest House & Home news every morning.
“San Francisco died, again” was the deadpan headline for an article in SF Gate, the city’s news website, last month. There followed a list of its previous “deaths” — in 1906 after the earthquake, again in 1939 when commerce and the population shrank, and during the Aids epidemic. And yet, its cable cars keep running, its tech industry keeps piling in the dollars.
What does it mean for a city to die? The end of its industry, its culture, its people, its buildings? Troy, Persepolis, Pompeii may no longer be there but no major western city has perished in modern history. Do we need a doom loop story every so often because we need to prove that death can happen, to make all the work we do keeping a city alive feel like a worthwhile exercise?
The epitaph for London has been written many a time. My favourite is in the introduction of Roy Porter’s Social History of London, published in 1994, which begins with the line: “London is not the eternal city; it had its hour upon the stage”, before casually mentioning the long-gone Babylon in the same breath as the capital. (Its death was Margaret Thatcher’s fault, in case you were wondering.) I first read the book 10 years too late, in 2006: it bore little resemblance to the reality of the thrumming city I lived in then. I read Porter’s introduction again last week. Maybe, after Brexit blunted its financial prowess, it became true again — at least temporarily.
It is easy to home in on details and statistics that create the idea that a city is collapsing. Currently New York is suffering from an exodus of large retailers — 675 national chain outlets since the start of the pandemic. How will it survive? Johannesburg’s Central Business District is in a deep malaise, brought into sharp focus by a deadly fire in one of its “hijacked” buildings, taken over by gangs, rented to the poor by the square foot. The lost dreams of a post-apartheid South Africa are told through one district.
But the complexity of a modern city means it is difficult to pull out one particular symptom and say, “This is it, it’s terminal.” A city is a self-correcting mechanism. It may take 100 years or five. But it is immovable in geography and history, which means that, even when half-abandoned, life finds its way back into the structures of it and finds a new way to use them.
Cities exist in a cycle, not unlike that seen in the uncultivated spaces outside cities. Sometimes change is dramatic. Nero cleared out the slums of Rome. London’s Great Fire lasted five days. Paris was rescripted by Haussmann. Wooden Tokyo was burnt out by US air raids and Warsaw flattened.
But the land itself was always destined for dense human habitation. These disruptions are the equivalents in the natural world of forest fires or floods. Life flows back, even if differently. Regeneration is a term that was used in biology long before city planning. What San Francisco is going through now is a blight, but it is part of the wider problem of Covid emptying out the hearts of cities, the opioid crisis and its inherent homeless problem. It sets in slowly; it will be fixed slowly.
Cities are also at risk of dying through success, through unaffordability. Now rents in London and New York have gone through the roof as demand returns and mortgage rates leave prospective first-time buyers locked out of the housing market.
Unlike nature, which has its own inherent life forces, we believe we can control cities. After all, humans built them. We can change policies on street cleaning, zoning and policing. But if it is a creeping demise that’s come about through lack of innovation or care for the societies within them, it is a mark of human failure: if we cannot control this human-made ecosystem, what hope for the others?
One could turn the question round and ask, rather than if a city is dying, how do we want it to live? On an endless upwards trajectory, cutting edge, clean, rich and efficient? Or can it just be, as it is and we are: striving but fallible?
One definition of a successful city cited by Herbert Lottman, author of How Cities are Saved, was that it is a place where people go “more often than is functionally strictly necessary”. It attracts people beyond the need of visiting elements of banks and shops and jobs. It has its own life.
By that account, San Francisco is still OK. A satirical “doom loop” tour was organised by a city commissioner, anonymously, in August. There was an outcry, the tour was cancelled, he resigned. But, at $30 a pop, tickets still sold. Residents of Tenderloin organised an alternative positive walking tour of their neighbourhood. Seventy people showed up. There was no “need” for them to do so, other than proving the city is still alive.
Find out about our latest stories first — follow @FTProperty on X or @ft_houseandhome on Instagram