Everyday Urbanism

Through Calvino’s eyes.

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I was introduced to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in a hostel room one rainy night. Four of us sat together and read aloud his ‘cities’.  The boundless imagination with which they were conceived filled us with excitement, curiosity and wonderment. It wasn’t as if I understood it completely, but that again added to its lure. I had forgotten the heights that imagination could possibly reach. After a long time, I found something that was this free of any boundaries or restrictions.

A few days ago, I came across this post and found it very interesting. It also got me thinking. Are his cities purely ‘imaginary’? Couldn’t you see that, in many ways, we have built around us, cities that are as chaotic, as wonderful and as strange as the ones Marco Polo speaks about? So, I decided to do an exercise –to try and look at cities the way he sees them, to try and find invisible cities within our cities. This is a bizarre thing to do, and I tried to be as open-minded and imaginative as possible while doing this.

The Phoenix City:

I have to talk here about the famous city of Boux. Around it lies the desert. As you approach the city, you find that the city has been born again, from destruction. The city stands in the midst of its own rubble. And like broken limbs are patched up with casts and plaster, its buildings show signs of wreckage. Every once in a while Nature comes in all fury and shakes up the city, leaving nothing, and every time, it rises again, not without wearing its wounds proudly for others to see.

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The Phoenix City of Boux
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The Phoenix City of Bhuj

This was inspired from the city of Bhuj, where I spent four months. Bhuj was the epicenter of the earthquake in 2011. The Kachchh region has always been susceptible to earthquakes and has been facing major earthquakes every hundred years. We have heard many stories of abandoned cities and cities that were totally destroyed by a natural calamity. But Bhuj is the Phoenix city.

 

The Excess city

With every single item you could possibly think of, this city forms a maze of streets, all overflowing. There is nothing you can’t find here- Sweets are sold in shops with a grand staircase and blouses laid with precious stones and lace are found on the street. In many ways this is a city of desire: The very desire that sages warn us from – material desire.  Everything is displayed and everybody is called in to touch, feel and buy. It is a city of overwhelming excess.

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The Excess City

This city was born from roaming around Commercial Street in Bangalore. There is literally nothing that you can’t find there. And while that may sound nice, it was an overwhelming experience for me.

The city of Surveillance:

Everyone walked as if they knew where they were going. Confident, smiling and greeting each other warmly. Every now and then someone or the other stealthily looked up towards the ‘eye’ and quickly looked away from it. It is hard in this city to not be aware of the ‘eye’. These are everywhere. They follow you out in the street. They follow you out in the office, when you go shopping, in the restaurant, everywhere. I can’t casually state that I think this is unnecessary. It wasn’t the most comfortable city. Everyone stole moments away from the ‘gaze’ and relished them, while acknowledging that the surveillance gave them ‘security’.

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The City of Surveillance

The city for Anyone.

Leaving the city of surveillance to come to the city for Anyone was a contrasting and liberating. Here you could find  the ‘liberals’, the lovers, the drinkers, the social deviants, the outcasts- anyone and everyone. There weren’t many rules. Nor were there any responsibilities. The city lived by accommodating these ‘outsiders’ who found this haven. Well, for them, it was haven. But a person from the surveillance city would feel like a fish out of water and wouldn’t know what to do.

It was the ultimate freedom city, where no restrictions of any sort were in place. Here most common ‘illegel’ things were legal. Cities like these crop up when the existing ones squeeze out of them the people whom they consider as ‘undesirables’.

The city of Signboards:

It was hard to focus here. My eyes wandered restlessly, trying to settle, but that was impossible. There were signs on roads, on buildings, set in, jutting out….there were even people walking about with sign boards on their backs. Where they felt signboards didn’t do the job, they resorted to flyers or shouting. The city, to me seemed to have an excessive attention seeking character. But that was the way its people survived, competing with each other, to have bigger, better ways to capture the attention of passers by. Sometimes, I felt they were descending into madness, trying to come up with new ways of capturing attention. The kind of madness that made them hang a board on a human and made him walk up and down the road.

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The City of Signboards

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We live and work in cities. Everyday, we travel through the same roads, and it becomes easy to take things for granted. Yet, is that all? Aren’t cities man-made wonders? Aren’t they like huge machines, chugging through the centuries? Cities today have grown, with them new habits and lifestyles have formed and this means what we take for granted now might have been a very surprising, even laughable phenomenon at another place and time. I would like to leave it there, and hope you will find ways of looking at the place and the time we live in, through a different lens.


[Divya RV, the author of this beautiful interpretation of Italo Calvino’s seminal work, “Invisible Cities”, is still grappling with the process of becoming an architect while juggling with writing, traveling and adjusting to the ubiquitous ‘PG’ life in the city. ]


 

 

 

 

 

Millennials and the Chennai Vardah Cyclone

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We are the so called millennial generation. We like to feel special, we have earned a lot of resentment against our generation—the notion that “we’re a spoiled, entitled legion of precious snowflakes who expect prizes just for showing up, pout when we’re insufficiently petted, and never go anywhere without slathering on creamy layers of self-esteem.”

We seem to want/need instant gratification and possess a disturbing penchant for capturing instant moments, frozen in time, in the numerous selfies that flood the picture galleries on our phones.

Sounds familiar?

But to sum it all up, we are a generation that seems to think we can get what we want, WHEN we want it. Instant gratification. Now. Right Now. NOW!

But are we so consumed by the present that we are unable to sustain the momentum to last into the future?

We are the generation that has started countless things but not finished them. These days, it’s funny; we snicker, when we come across a meme that talks of broken New Year resolutions. But it’s scary to think that has come to define our entire generation.

What does all this have to do with Chennai, Cyclone Vardah and Trees, you ask? Everything.

While enough has been said about the recent loss of trees in Chennai due to Cyclone Vardah, and the initial enthusiasm and zeal to plant trees is noteworthy, it is the subsequent discipline, upkeep and sense of duty in continuing the movement, which will have lasting impact on restoring Chennai’s tree cover.

While we may piggyback on the efforts of previous generations to initiate planting of trees in Chennai, it is the Millennials who are going to have to sustain it, continue it, and fight for it in the future.

Watch this space to know how. Watch out for our city’s Millennials.

#chennai #cyclonevardah #trees #planttrees #hashtagurbanism#millennialmovement #jointhemovement

Graphic by Keerthana Udaykumar.

9 Cycling Routes to explore Chennai!

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Cities are inevitably judged by the efficiency and inclusiveness of their transportation systems and networks, them being vital veins for the city’s functioning. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Transportation sector has progressed immensely over the past few decades, so much so that the pioneering two-wheeled human-powered transport system – the cycle – has little, sometimes no space on the roads any longer. To this inescapable conundrum, Chennai is no exception.

From vital transportation to fitness and recreation, cycling is a greener and cleaner option for all needs – and of late, the latter aspect has been on the rise in the city. And why not? There is a certain wonderment experienced when you get onto that saddle and pedal yourself forward – the joy of your leg muscles’ pull as forward you’re pushed; the wind in your hair and a song in your heart – there is a certain wonderment when you get onto that saddle and explore the city and all the joys it has to offer. But then, there’s a catch – inside the city, cycling is almost fatal; you’re bullied by the motorised vehicles, the unfriendly lorries and mean horn-blasting cars. To experience the joy of cycling, we are forced to escape to the outskirts, or to the really early morning hours or late nights.

Travelling is a way of experiencing new things, of exploring new places and feeling new things; it broadens the mind and makes some peace. And travelling by a cycle only makes the whole experience even more fulfilling. The trick is, it’s just fast enough to keep you moving ahead, and just slow enough to let you savour and enjoy each moment, each scene you cross – the birds on that tree, the lone pink flower in a sea of green, the smiling old shop lady who hands you bottle of water while you try to catch your breath, “Where are you cycling from? All the way from there?!” That’s something you do not, and CAN NOT, get from any motorized vehicle- bikes are too fast, cars too closed, flights too detached, and walking, well, unless you have a lot of time on your hands.

So in case you’re not already on your cycle, here are a few routes around Chennai to get you started! As a general rule, all routes mentioned here are safe for cyclists at the following timings;

04.30 am to 07.30 am
10.00 pm to 12.00 pm (Main roads only. Front and back cycle lights, helmets mandatory.)

CYCLING ROUTES
A. Beginner Routes – Below 20 km

Route 1 – Koyambedu – Anna tower park – Koyambedu

Short and easy, a route in the centre of the city – if you want to add a challenge ride up the Koyambedu flyover and cruise down. A stop at Anna tower park is great in the mornings, walk a circuit or two to stretch the muscles before getting onto the saddle again. The avenues of Anna Nagar are mostly residential streets so less traffic can be expected.

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Cycle to the park, and spend some time at the famous skating ring there!

Total distance 10 km. Duration (max.) 1 hour

Route 2 – Madhya Kailash – Besant nagar beach – Madhya Kailash

Who doesn’t love the beach in the mornings – the fresh breeze and gorgeous sunrise. The roads are hard and neat, speed cycling is great, especially tree-lined Besant Avenue close to Theosophical society.

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Watch the sunrise at Besant Nagar Beach, and relax on the beach before cycling back!

Total Distance: 10.1km. Duration (max.) 1h 30 mins

Route 3 – Madhya Kailash – Pallikarnai – Madhya Kailash

OMR is every cyclist’s dream – wide and pleasant to ride. Cycling along the Pallikarnai marsh is a beautiful sight in the morning, you can spot flocks of birds in amidst the greenery. There are small gazebos off the main road where one can sit and take in the beautiful scenery.

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Spot some beautiful migratory birds at Pallikaranai, Chennai’s Freshwater Marshland.

Total distance 21 km. Duration (max.) 1h 30 min



Intermediate Routes – 20-30 km

Route 1 – Anna university – Marina beach – Anna University

Right along the main roads, it is advisable to get on the saddle real early to avoid 8 am traffic. Also, this is one of the best night-cycling routes in the city – well-lit streets and good safety for the night rider. Marina beach is a treat in itself – mornings mean beautiful sunrise and fresh air; nights mean a mid-ride ice-cream at the beach!

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Count the arches on Napier’s Bridge on the way to Marina Beach!

Total distance 22.4 km. Duration (max.) 1 h 45 min

Route 2 – OMR to ECR loop

OMR is another great night-cycling option owing to the bright streetlights and around-the-clock police patrol. The connection from OMR to ECR at Shollinganallur junction is a great spot to cross a wide and clean Buckingham canal – you can stop at the corner of the bridge for a break from pedalling. Another add-on is a brief detour through any of the side streets on the ECR to an isolated and silent beach.

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Cycling down Chennai’s incredible coastline along the ECR-OMR stretch.

Total distance 29 km. Duration (max.) 2h 15 mins

Route 3– Velachery MRTS – Ottiambakkam quarry – Velachery MRTS

After Perumbakkam, the route is mostly through winding tarred village roads, so peaceful and silent in the morning hours. Ottiambakkam stone quarry is an abandoned quarry which has accumulated rain water over the years and forms a beautiful pond – swim with caution, though. You can take a brief 15-minute hike to the top and spot eagles or other birds, and experience a panoramic view of the city far beyond.

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Riding your cycle all the way to Ottiyambakam Quarry is well worth the view in the end!

Total distance 30 km. Duration (max.) 2 hours 30 mins



Expert Routes – 30+ km

Route 1 – Porur junction – Chembarambakkam lake – Porur junction

Small winding tar roads through small towns lead to one of the biggest lakes in the city – Chembarambakkam lake. One uphill and you’re onto the small path just adjacent the large blue water mass. Great for those who love solitude and water. During the return, you can take a short fun detour to Decathlon, every sports-shoppers paradise.

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Cycle around the Chembarambakkam lake’s cycle friendly perimeter

Total distance 32 km. Duration (max.) 3 hours

Route 2 – Padi flyover – Puzhal lake – Padi flyover

From Padi flyover, taking the city route in the morning is better due to less vehicles. Puzhal lake is another beautiful morning spot – during summer the lake is dry enough to walk on some parts of it, mind the sinking mud spots though. During monsoon, the lake is full and if you have the knack of it, you can ask fishermen to lend their canoes to you for a few `bucks. The National highway route back has good ups and downs to train your calves and is mostly free at all times of the day.

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Total distance 35 km. Duration (max.) 3 hours

Route 3 – Padi flyover – Sholavaram lake – Padi flyover

A little farther down from Puzhal is this out-of-the-way Sholavaram lake. When the lake is dry, its full of green grass presenting a whole other beautiful scene. Expect to be completely on your own here, very few people wander inside from the main road.

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Total Distance 48 km. Duration (max.) 3h 30 mins hours


* All distances measured are nearly accurate

* All ride durations are approximate and are inclusive of an average 15 mins break/stop at the destination mentioned.


[This article is by Abinaya Kalyanasundaram, Co-Founder of Saddle Addicts, a Chennai based Cycling group, in collaboration with Hashtag Urbanism. Check them out here!]

…joy of being lost #3/6

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Throughout college, I had to travel from one end of the city to another. Avadi to Adayar every day. Peak time traffic was so bad that I used to get nightmares about being stuck for hours on a crowded bus with hardly room to breathe. That being said, sometimes I took the auto to reach college faster, but mainly for the myriad shortcuts through the city that an auto driver invariably knows, to bypass the traffic.

Now these shortcuts meant I had to venture into places and streets I didn’t know before, routes that were alien to me. The watchdog inside of me was constantly on alert, looking out for any deviations from the usual route. The first time this happened I spotted it too late. We were already in the middle of nowhere. Lost for all I knew! I instantly went into panic mode, imagination on overdrive, desperately searching for signs, clues, anything at all to figure out where the auto driver was taking me.

Then, I spotted it. Rows and rows of nameboards outside shops with one thing in common – Addresses written proudly beneath their names, showing exactly where I was.

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Small shops throughout the city continue to display their location on their nameboards. Seen at Myalapore.

Urban wayfinding

Navigation and way finding issues have been largely ignored when it comes to urban planning and design of Indian cities. Yet they are fundamentally important in orienting ourselves in a new place and makes acclimatizing to unknown contexts easier. Our brains subconsciously map and keep track of the routes, taking orientation cues from the surrounding contexts like street signs, buildings, and landmarks, anything that triggers memory of a place. Cities that make this process easier are naturally easier to navigate.

Google Maps and the Smartphone Revolution

Without a doubt, wayfinding is certainly much easier than it was before. But, here’s the thing- nowadays we are so dependent on Google Maps for finding our way through our cities that it is hard to remember that there was no Google Maps before 2005. We find it hard to get out of our houses without consulting our phones and plotting our route inch by inch. Traffic analysis, time-distance appraisals, travel mode comparisons are all put together to give us the ‘recommended (read safe) route’. We let artificial intelligence make the judgements for us (“Google shows this, so must be right”); wayfinding through the city is largely enabled by, and limited to our phones.

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We are presented with multiple route options based on traffic analysis, time-distance mapping, giving us the “best” route.

This type of Google-based route planning is radically different from how our parents found their way through cities, using their own internal cognitive map of random points and landmarks in the city, both familiar and unfamiliar, like that cousin’s house here or that temple there, and form a sequence of these landmarks to reach their destination. This might have been less accurate, but this was when travelling and navigating was enjoyed for the joy that is itself, when they actually saw the city and were guided by the city.


In this constant point-to-point travel, we forget to enjoy the actual experience of travel.


Wayfinding is essentially a mix of logic, accident, and most importantly, our basic human navigational instinct. But Smartphone navigation narrows our perspective of the world, reducing it to the singular route between the two points of travel, leaving nothing to chance. In this constant point-to-point travel, we forget to enjoy the actual experience of travel. In the guise of exploring the city, we see less of the city and more of the tiny map of the city inside our phones.

The charm of wandering through the city, lost in reverie, can’t be predicted by an app nor can it be calculated by any algorithm.

Intuitive wayfinding

Most cities abroad invest millions of dollars on installing way finding systems like signage and maps to aid in moving through an urban landscape. The best part about Chennai or any Indian City, for that matter, is that we already have one! A system that has organically evolved over the years, to become the quickest, most original way of orienting ourselves in the city – the nameboards. This curious practice prevails in shops big and small, and has unconsciously played a major role in making places more legible.

All this fuss about a nameboard, you ask? But it’s not just a nameboard of a shop, it’s a crucial marker in the wayfinding process. With changing times, there has been an increasing shift towards fancy, minimalistic nameboards without the addresses. The important thing to realise is that despite all its good looks, it doesn’t add any value to the urban environment. The legibility of a city largely depends on the intuitiveness and creativity of the wayfinding systems. Of course, there’s a lot more to wayfinding than just these nameboards. But preserving this practice is a start to making Chennai coherent as a whole.

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I realised the extent to which this influenced my perception of the city when I moved to Bangalore last year. The first thing I noticed was the lack of address on the ‘modern’ nameboards, in some of the posh, commercial areas like Indira Nagar. I had become so dependent on them for orienting myself and tracking my route that I was lost everytime I stepped outside!

There is a lot of joy in being lost in the city, and chancing upon hidden streets you didn’t know existed, exploring less known routes that take you to new places, new sights. Nothing can compare with the moment of revelation when you connect the dots and think “Oh! I know where I am now!” A good wayfinding system gives us the confidence to chance getting lost. It makes us feel like we belong.

All we need to do is look outside the window.

 

 

 

Art and Urban Public Spaces #2/6

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When I was in school, we were taken to the Egmore Museum for one-day picnics four times in as many years. Four times! I absolutely hated it. Even as a kid, I didn’t quite get the idea of piling all art under one roof and deliberately spending a whole day to see them. Naturally our entire class rebelled, fought, threw tantrums, passionately declared we’d boycott the whole picnic, tried every means possible to get out of it, but to no avail. Resigned to our fate, we’d ultimately just sit and stare at the dinosaurs the whole day, pretending we were at Jurassic Park. The point is, museums are just as unpopular now and its main visitors are still school kids dragged against their will.

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Art in the city continues to be housed in enclosed spaces that cater to a niche interest group and not the average urban dweller.

Why is that we need to go in search of art in a city? Why have museums evolved to be a model of academic and social exclusivity?

We need to understand that spaces can be both constricting and liberating. By demarcating spaces for art, we limit their public outreach and seeing it becomes a tiresome effort, a chore. For urban art to be inclusive it needs to come out of its spatial boundaries, it needs to become a part of our everyday experiences. It should be present at the oddest of places and the most common spaces, from a bus stop to a traffic signal, from a shopping mall to the open beach, where encountering it would be a part of our daily routine!

Inclusive Art in Public Spaces

This is why the Phoenix Market City stands out amidst the plethora of malls mushrooming in the city. There is more than just the overload of commercialism and entertainment; there is also a liberal sprinkling of art and other installations that make use of the dynamics of the enclosed space! Art greets you at every corner on every floor, and it is surprisingly well organized and mapped. Similarly the VR Bengaluru Mall has very well curated, attractive art installations that stand out amidst the stark black and white interiors of the mall. What makes it so appealing is that I don’t have to go somewhere in search of art, it is interspersed with my shopping experience. If finding art in malls can make such an impact, think about how wonderful it will be to find art in open, public spaces like the Marina beach or our neighborhood parks!

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Art Installations at VR Bengaluru Mall.
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Art in the middle of traffic, Stella Maris Road.

Every time I drive down Cathedral Road, I wish for a red light at the Stella Maris signal just to admire the murals on the walls. There is just something incredibly relaxing about soaking in the colourful expressions in the middle of a tense traffic situation. It makes driving more pleasurable. All this points towards an effort to take urban art outside the walls of institutionalized spaces, to make it more open and accessible. By far, the streets of Chennai have the most potential in transforming the way art in a city is perceived. Every traffic signal, every bottleneck on the roads can be vantage points of an urban arts program.

When I heard about the ‘Conquer the Concrete‘ urban art festival, I rubbed my hands in glee. In a city where street art is nothing more than political and commercial publicity, it was encouraging to see the Egmore Railway station spruced up with murals and graffiti work by a diverse range of local and international artists. It garnered a lot of interest, and was successful mainly because of the support of local bodies like the Chennai City Connect, Corporation of Chennai and Southern Railways. This urban intervention paves the way for a different kind of dialogue between art and the city. Art is more than just a piece in a museum with a ‘Do not touch’ board next to it. It has become a medium of interaction, expression and a symbol of inclusivity.

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Work done as part of ‘Conquer the Concrete’ Festival in Chennai. [Source: Street Art Chennai]

Engaging the Community

Moreover, public art is a communal activity, whose reach can be powerful for communities and neighborhoods. Artists realize a democratic ideal in outdoor settings that are free to all viewers. The public role in public art is essential to the artist. People enliven a work, are inspired and intrigued, motivated and provoked.  [1] Street art also attracts attention to specific causes and socially relevant issues as a form of “art provocation”

Urban art in public spaces have the potential to reflect the local cultures and be a part of narratives forged with the context. It can revive troubled spaces in the city that are struggling for recognition and identity. It could also prevent public vandalism and keep a place clean. A few days back, somewhere in Royapettah, I saw a wall plastered with huge murals of various gods and goddess with the ‘Do not urinate’ sign below it. Not surprisingly, it works! Whatever the motive, whatever the form, one cannot deny that the changing urban art scene in Chennai is transforming the way our city looks and feels. And I, for one, am glad that I don’t have to go to a museum to see art. A red-light at a traffic signal is enough.

Sources:

1. [With inputs from this NYT article]
2. Photos and Graphic by Siddarth PT

Open Streets, Bangalore

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Last Sunday saw MG Road in Bangalore transform from a noisy thoroughfare to a lively, bustling public space, free from cars and traffic. ‘Open Streets’ , orgranised by Department of Urban Land Transport (DULT) and Bangalore coalition for Open Streets, was a landmark event in Bangalore’s struggle for pedestrian friendly streets. Parking lots were replaced by nearly 120 stalls, flea markets, art installations, and dance performances, attracting more than 50000 people in the course of the day.

From 9am to 9pm, MG Road was jam packed with people strolling, children playing badminton and speed ball, college students painting and singing, with the atmosphere of a carnival. Fun and frolic aside, this event drove home the invaluable importance of pedestrian spaces on streets, popularized public transport  and called out to the people to reclaim the streets as their own!

Here’s a time-lapse video which captures the spirit and gaiety of the event that brought together people of all ages, cultures and even nationalities. And here’s to more such events on busy roads that ought to be reclaimed by the people. Share to show your support for Open Streets in your city!

[Video shot and edited by Siddarth PT]

The World from Above

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Are you one of those people who love looking down from air planes at the world, as it shrinks? Or do you spend hours zooming in and out of maps, gazing at the patterns and forms? Did you love the movie UP for daring to fly ‘up above the world so high’? Are you someone who simply gets the thrill of discovering an amazing view? Then read on.

Humans have always been fascinated with the view from up above, something that was out of reach till the advent of Google Maps and Google Earth, one of the greatest achievements of mankind. (How it has changed the world is a fascinating story by itself. More on that later). Coming to the point, this was the idea behind Daily Overview, an Instagram account created by Benjamin Grant, inspired by the Overview Effect. The Overview Effect is the cognitive shift in awareness, the feeling you get while viewing the Earth from above- a feeling of awe, a profound, deep understanding of life and existence, and most importantly, a renewed sense of responsibility towards the planet.

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Everyday the Daily Overview posts high resolution images of the Earth from above, that highlight the effect of man’s activities on Earth. Devastatingly beautiful, their images cannot fail to evoke a sense of disbelief that these places actually exist.

To put it in their own words, “From our line of sight on the earth’s surface, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the beauty and intricacy of the things we’ve constructed, the sheer complexity of the systems we’ve developed, or the devastating impact that we’ve had on our planet. The Overviews focus on the places and moments where human activity—for better or for worse—has shaped the landscape. Each Overview starts with a thought experiment.”

Now, these posts have the potential to teach us a lot about cities and look at it in a new light; some distance is all that one needs to gain some perspective on things. Every image is accompanied by a thought provoking caption on context the human impact over the landscape. The flatness of the image seen from this vantage point is almost graphic with the vibrant colours and throws us off with the massive scale. Here are few of the most interesting Overviews of cities and city life.