A huge city makes you feel good for 70% of every second, leaving you right under the borderline of over-stimulation, but still semi-thirsty and wanting more. The big city pumps you up with pep and spits you out at the same time. That’s why it’s so wonderful. That’s what gives the city its momentum, and its addictive quality, its higher property prices, its commute, its work hours.
“The city is our metallic slap around the face, a bursting hormonal vending machine”
You see it’s all built on a paradoxical energy that’s attractive because it runs against human nature. The city sticks its fingers up to many of our deepest needs. The city is our metallic slap around the face, a bursting hormonal vending machine that exists for the rebels, for anyone who hopes to be surprised, for the danger-tasters, the masochists and artists, and for everyone else who wants to tag along for the weirdly good ride.
Our Second Skin
The case of the appeal of capital cities in particular is strongly arguable, but I want to peel back the skin further than we usually do when we think about the attractive factors of jobs, transport, entertainment and shopping. Amenities are only a small part of the psychological picture – of why we feel pulled by the big city, and why modern societies so revere it.
“In the city you can feel small, then big again in a nanosecond”
People like cities, or at least they’re magnetised by them. The magnetism of cities is a feeling that people enjoy experiencing like a boom-sugary subscription service. Let’s call it a centrifugal force felt in the guts. And it’s the capital cities that have the strongest pull, which is why property prices have the potential to grow at the highest rate within them. The bigger the city, the stronger the rope with which it heaves you in.
Some of my favourite writers of the 20th Century haven’t kept their feelings to themselves about the role of the city in their own lives, as well as the lives they see us living. Albert Camus, for one, revelled in being the anonymous man in the rapid stream of other pavement racers, valuing the potential for the individual to remain in obscurity within an area of huge population density:
“As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means” – Camus
Jean-Paul Sartre, on the other hand, appears more emotionally magnetised than Camus, drawn into the metropolis from the “lesser of two evils” camp:
“I am afraid of cities. But you mustn’t leave them. If you go too far you come up against the vegetation belt. Vegetation has crawled for miles towards the cities. It is waiting. Once the city is dead, the vegetation will cover it, will climb over the stones, grip them, search them, make them burst with its long black pincers; it will blind the holes and let its green paws hang over everything. You must stay in the cities as long as they are alive, you must never penetrate alone this great mass of hair waiting at the gates” – Sartre
There’s the added mystery of opportunity in the city. Because that constant stream of people offers the glimmer of a chance that you’ll fall into conversation with someone who takes your life in a new direction – one you couldn’t dream of before. For me, that’s the real possibility of the city, the chaos and promise of the chance meeting, and I believe this is a big underlying factor behind the magnetism of the cities.
Many people reason that they come to massive cities for jobs and other practical purposes, but the emotion beckoning from the back of their minds is the power factor; it’s precisely this that lets us walk the streets able to believe something fantastic is about to happen as long as we’re patient enough. And so people keep arriving in the metropolis every day with the same psychology, fuelling the growth in what people are prepared to pay to live, and belong, in the gravitational field zone.
“As a species we are not biologically equipped to cope with a mass of strangers masquerading as members of our tribe. [Yet] There is an intrinsic, biological property of the human animal that obtains deep satisfaction from being thrown into the urban chaos of a super-tribe.
That quality is our insatiable curiosity, our inventiveness, our intellectual athleticism. The urban turmoil seems to energize this quality. Just as colony-nesting sea birds are reproductively aroused by massing in dense breeding communities, so the human animal is intellectually aroused by massing in dense urban communities.
This keeps the system going despite its many disadvantages. […] The loneliness of the city is a well-known hazard” – Morris
The biggest currency of the city is novelty. Where novelty finds its home, perceived value always grows. The truth is, everyone is looking for something to surprise them, and the majority of people don’t believe they can find this in a rural area. So, like Camus inferred decades ago, the city is therefore doomed to dominate our aspirations in life. It can’t be ignored, and the obsession will logically continue in a generally upward trend, until the day when cities can no longer fuel our mystery or surprise us. Will that day ever come, I wonder? Prophesying that would be like betting in the opposite direction to the established motorways of the human mind. The case for cities continuing their appeal into the future is therefore a downhill ride. Whether the average human mind will ever tire of the city’s tribulations is a constantly cycling metaphysical question. But all the while the big centrifuge goes on sucking.
The Cult of Your City
For employers looking to attract people to work with them, then, doing so by operating from a city centre means people will certainly come. The loud whispering addiction of the city works for you. Ask any recruiter. But it’s important to be openly aware of the dynamic that’s at work – the truth that the brand of the city itself may be what pulls people in to work with you, rather than your employer brand, your salary levels, your subsidised staff canteen. For all but the most fired-up employers, the ubiquitous brand of a city itself can be difficult to get noticed above. This means that a greater humility is required about why a chunk of people are applying for work at your organisation.
“The ubiquitous brand of a city itself can be difficult to get noticed above”
Many people are still working for an employer just because they’re based in a city centre – they’d work for any business based in the city centre. They just love being called in by the centrifuge every day, to walk its pavements by any means possible. Life is charged up here, you’ll see the vortex of humanity from your window, screams out the cult melody of the office towers. Perhaps you could start your job adverts with something resembling that phrase; you’d predictably be inundated with new aspiring adherents – all rapid and banging at your lift button to take them up for a view over curiosity’s paradise.
I’m addicted to cities, and you probably are too. It’s just that I wanted to understand why. So together, armed with this new knowledge of our predicament, we can continue adoring the city for what it is: the sea of dopamine nature didn’t intend us to drink from (but of course we do anyway). One sip, and you’re locked in. You revel in the nonsensical fun of your evolution among strangers – people whose names you may not know, but people who are unified unspoken friends sharing one simple truth: you’ve all learned the steps to the same beautiful dance.
“If you feel dislocated, remember that we’re not yet done evolving as creatures of novelty”
Heading into the city smashes your stomach with a gleeful somatic effluvium. But all the smog, congestion, and elbow-bashing in the world can’t deprive us of wanting that next hit. It’s a paradox that has us on its hook. This is why people work in the allure of the cities. Because they seem to feel magnificent every day in our brains, cities have become magnificent. So don’t fight them. If you feel dislocated, remember that we’re not yet done evolving as creatures of novelty. In the city you can feel small, then big again in a nanosecond.
So enjoy it. Run through it.
Savour it, then forget it until tomorrow when the alarm goes off.
The sirens can be trusted to call you back.
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