Much has been made of a putative Covid-induced flight from the world’s most prosperous cities. A survey carried out in August found that one in seven Londoners was considering leaving the city for good. And why wouldn’t they? The virus is, after all, a product of city life: born in a crowded market, moving through crowds ever since, flourishing most wherever populaces are forced to cram themselves into the narrow confines of dense housing, public transport, and office blocks.

While the Black Death hollowed out Europe’s cities in the 14th and 17th centuries, back then people had to come back: no Zoom, Slack, or Microsoft Teams for them. Now, with remote working the new normal, plenty of city slickers can do the same jobs they always did, and live the virus-secure countryside good life, never paying the traditional penalty of the daily commute.

But Ben Wilson disagrees. In Metropolis, the author eloquently illustrates the lure and the benefits of city life. The book’s opening statistic encapsulates it neatly: "Today, the world’s urban population grew by close to 200,000 people. It will do the same tomorrow, and the next day, and so on into the future." Even if the tertiary-sector urbanites of London and other metropolises pack up their laptops and swap upward mobility for outward mobility, the tide is in the opposite direction. By 2050, two-thirds of us will be city dwellers.

Depending on your own experience of cities, you may regard this a prophecy of some horror.

Even at its most utopian, our vision of the city seems to be underwritten by an inevitable mess of human suffering: in the Fritz Lang film that shares its name with Wilson’s book, the shining futurescape above is powered by Molochian machines below, devouring the workers that run them. Cities are regarded with suspicion, as the homes of "rootless cosmopolitans" and "metropolitan elites", incapable of understanding the "real world" beyond the ring-road.

Metropolis is a compendious and fascinating antidote to such negativity. Though Wilson makes plenty of time for the darkness of city life across history, his is a book that explicitly frames the city as "Humankind’s Greatest Invention".

Tracing the city, as idea and reality, from the foundation of Mesopotamian Uruk around 4,000BC to the present, Wilson argues that city life has been the crucial catalyst for the ideas and inventions that have made mankind what it is today. Though until 1800, "no more than 3 to 5 per cent of the global population lived in sizeable urban areas", he writes, cities are "forcing houses of history", where humanity’s fortunes have been, and continue to be, written.

Wilson’s case is easily and clearly made, focusing on one or two cities per chapter to illustrate stages in urbanism’s development. Thus Athens and Alexandria exemplify the dawn of cosmopolitanism; Rome, imperialism; Lisbon, Malacca and Tenochtitlan, the post-Columbian age of globalism; and so on, via 1940s Warsaw’s tragic place in the annals of urban annihilation, up to the bustle of the developing world’s new mega-cities. It is a truly global list, and much of its interest lies in the names least known to Western readers: Quilon, at the heart of the maritime silk roads; Palembang in Sumatra, at the centre of a city-state confederation that dominated trade between the Middle and Far East.

Like any city worth its salt, Metropolis is crammed with local colour; and what gives the historical schema its real flavour is the deviations it allows. For instance, Rome gives an excuse to talk about bathing throughout history; Baghdad, an occasion for mouth-watering lists of foods that tickled the palates of the city dwellers.

The book makes you understand why we opted for cities in the first place, and why, despite the doom and gloom, I doubt we will be quitting them any time soon.

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