Why cities “flow”: an extract from Cities, a new book by Monica L. Smith

London from a hot air balloon. Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

The whole point of maps and signposts is not to anchor us in place but to give us markers for movement. And movement is the hallmark of cities: people moving in from the countryside, visitors moving through the city on their way to somewhere else, and people moving among the city’s dispersed spaces of residence, work, worship, shopping, exercise, education, and intimacy. Even within a single neighborhood, there are many diverse places and pathways, all of which provide the opportunity for people to engage with constantly updated information inputs about goods, services, and events. Just being out in the streets provides, every day, the opportunity to do things slightly differently through changes of pace and direction. We walk straight and then turn left and right, or right and left, all of which lets us end up at the desired destination by picking our way through city streets with confidence.

The social theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has suggested that our sense of well-being comes about from the mastery of our surroundings and from the confidence of knowing the constraints through which we channel our energies. He calls this concept flow, in which optimal experience and happiness are gained through focused concentration. Interestingly, people achieve flow not when they are in a completely unfettered environment but because of the opposite: constraints actually enable people to concentrate their energies, resulting in an intensely focused outcome. Examples of flow-inducing activities range from rock climbing to surgery to playing games with one’s own children, in which people are “in the moment” in a way that supersedes perceptions of time and place, resulting in deep fulfilment. The fulfilment comes from negotiating mental constraints like the rules of a game, a musical score, or the logical steps of a complex operation. As Csikszentmihalyi states, “By far the overwhelming proportion of optimal experiences are reported to occur within sequences of activities that are goal-directed and bounded by rules—activities that require the investment of psychic energy, and that could not be done without the appropriate skills.”

In cities, we can think of flow as something that results from the physical constraints of the streets, bridges, and subway lines that channel our forward motion. The narrowing of passageways and the greater number of people traveling through them accelerate the very physics of what it means to be alive in a city, like a conduit that increases the speed of water as the diameter narrows. Cities have as their essence a continual sense of movement, starting at the very moment of urban formation when rural people move into the metropolis. From that initial settlement, the people who come into a city are joined by other kinetic forces. Itinerant traders loop in and out of the city with fresh vegetables from close-by farms and fields, while longer-distance traders come with grain and other food staples on a seasonal basis. Haulers bring in raw materials for urban workshops and take out bulk waste and recyclables. Suburban professionals—scribes, lawyers, accountants, middle managers—come in and out of the city on a daily commute. Weaving in and out from those pulsating waves are the urban residents who move around from home to work to recreation to food sources within tightly circumscribed neighborhoods. And the people themselves create a kind of constraint that adds to the creation of flow: coming into a city, you feel the clip of urban walk-worlds as something faster than a rural gait, and you find yourself stepping up the pace.

The physical constraints of cities have a spillover effect on social interactions in other ways as well. In a village, you can pick out a pathway depending on a few simple factors: Are you on good terms with that neighbor? Do you feel “at home” crossing that other person’s yard? By virtue of the village size and the fact that you had lived there for years, you’re likely to know quite a bit about those neighbors (including whether there was a large unfriendly hound in the yard). By contrast, people in cities are absolved from creating face-to-face relationships through the mute abstraction of the built environment and the sheer number of people. In a city, one needs to get from points A to B without having to personally know everyone else in the vicinity or without having to remember all of the social networks sustained among all those households. That anonymity of the greater urban realm removes the necessity for sustained social interactions and explains why you might look up and smile at passersby on a rural lane but rarely on a city street. The physical structures of cities—their formal routes, roads, and pathways, along with the written and unwritten rules for empty spaces like parks and plazas—all provide containers that simultaneously constrain physical opportunities and paradoxically free people from the cognitive overload of what would otherwise be an overwhelming number of social obligations just for the sake of movement.

Constricted spaces—crowded bridges, narrow streets, and narrower alleyways—were part of ancient cities, too. Excavations at places like Pompeii in Italy and the ancient Indus city of Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan have revealed a pedestrian cityscape that enables us to walk in the footsteps of our urban ancestors. Under the intense sun of midday, we can appreciate the shade cast by tall buildings while dodging the mad-dog blind alleys that abutted the major thoroughfares. At the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan, a century of digging has revealed grand boulevards as well as intricate little bylanes and courtyards within residential compounds. In those differentiated spaces, the ancient residents would have threaded their way through a maze of interconnected paths and experienced different rates and scales of flow as they moved about from day to day. Visitors today can still experience those spatial elements and retrace movements from the most intimate realm of the family hearth through the passageways of densely occupied neighborhoods to the massive pyramid complexes and the Avenue of the Dead.

Our understanding of the realm of motion in ancient sites comes from more than just appreciating their architecture. In moving along the pathways through neighborhoods and markets and temple plazas, ancient people left traces that we can actually see at the microscopic level. At the archaeological city of Kerkenes in Turkey, the archaeologist Scott Branting and his colleagues used an innovative sequence of techniques to show pedestrian movements. It would have taken centuries to excavate the entirety of Kerkenes, but a high-tech mapping process let them look at the layout of the buildings and streets like a geophysical “X-ray” in just a few summer months of fieldwork. The team made use of a survey method known as magnetic gradiometry, which reveals differential subsurface densities and results in a computer-generated map showing the outlines of structures in a ghostly version of the Nippur map or the Severan Marble Plan. Branting’s team then conducted surgically precise excavations in some of the streets. They collected materials from vertical slices of the street deposits that showed the layering effect of dust accumulation over time and looked at samples of the layered sediments under a microscope. The more rounded the sand particles, they reasoned, the more the pathways had been traversed. Every footfall rounded the grains of sand just a little more, and the cumulative effect of all that walking enabled the team to identify which streets were more popular than others and which ones carried the most traffic.

In Kerkenes, pedestrians flowed through networks of streets that crisscrossed the urban sphere, and evidence of that flow was right there under the microscope. Similar patterns of movement can be envisioned for every ancient city, in which the impact of each individual person could, in theory, be measured at the molecular level. The collective pattern of all of those individual interactions created a personal sense of flow but also resulted in a collective pattern of movement. High-frequency streets are places where we envision the presence of shops and market stalls, while low-traffic lanes wound their way through houses and alleys where few people had the need to be moving about. People going from high traffic areas to low traffic ones and back again took in the world around them as they walked or rode from one place to another, choosing their ways from among the many combinations of streets that would lead them from their residences, through their neighborhoods, to the monumental temples, palaces, and plazas of their metropolis.

Sometimes street layouts in ancient cities were the result of powerful decree and enforced consensus. We can see this thousands of years ago, when the gridded plan of the archaeological site of Sisupalgarh in India laid out a command of place that directed the flow of movement, just as we see the evidence for planning in relatively new modern cities like Washington, D.C., Brasília, and Chandigarh. Most often, however, the layout of ancient city streets was the result of incremental growth. This was particularly true at the start of urbanism six thousand years ago where the first inhabitants arrived with only their village experiences of ad hoc juxtaposition, as though plenty of space would always be available. Even after the organizational pattern of a city’s central area was well established, there was still a tendency to make new constructions with reference to the geometry of the nearest adjacent structure. The scholar Jeremy Till has called this the phenomenon of “architectural dependence,” in which there are few opportunities for entire built environments to start over from zero. Instead, the patterns established at the beginning of the construction process are the ones that continue to shape the creative potential of every subsequent generation.

In cities, the notion of architectural dependence constrains the near-constant sense of motion that is an essential part of urban life. From the time of the very first city, movement was channeled by the built environment; for the purposes of making one’s way through a space, a temporary building was just as much of a barrier as a permanent one. The resultant distinct flow within a city was thus neither mindless nor incidental but embedded and expressed in each architectural gesture and every pedestrian gait. In Chang’an, a great ancient capital of China that is just outside the modern metropolis of Xi’an, pathways and constructions provided not only an allowable flow but also moments of interrupted flow through structures that conveyed political authority. The palace, for example, sat athwart the traffic like a giant rock in a stream that otherwise passed to one side and the other. At Teotihuacan, the Sun Pyramid and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid were both very important structures, but their compounds were visually subordinate to the grand axis of the Moon

Pyramid and the Street of the Dead. In the Roman period, it was not just in Rome but in every city around the Mediterranean that “the street became a substantive building, a public building with a skylighted central tube of transit and shadowed aisles, that fell into uniform bays of pause. As such, it assembled the economic life of the city in shops and offices ranked behind its porticoes, subjecting to its spatial laws another of the daily routines of living.”

From the perspective of the thousands of ordinary people who took up residence in urban centers, it was those “daily routines of living” that made cities new and distinct and compelling. Compared with the dispersed landscapes of rural life and the intense family spaces of villages, the architecture of urban centers provided the opportunity for people to create close ties of their own design. Cities provided channels of movement in and around the many new types of buildings that had never before existed in permanent settlements: plazas that were larger than entire villages, and neighborhoods that mimicked the size of a village yet constituted just one tiny building block of an entire urban realm. Crowded streets of buildings and passageways provided new horizons that supplanted the natural skyline, making cities an anthropogenic maze. New verticalities of architecture, created for the first time in cities, invited people to look up. Just as for us the linearity of the internet has opened up an entire network of interconnected opportunities when one hyperlink leads to another, the built environment of cities resulted in a new circuitry of connections. Both the literal and the social flows of people were physically inscribed into the landscape, leaving us with the tangible remains of the past in the form of archaeological evidence.

Extracted from Cities: The First 6,000 Years by Monica L. Smith, £18.99, published by Simon & Schuster UK,


What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.

Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.