Deyan Sudjic: The Sense of a City

Secondo l’ONU più della metà della popolazione mondiale vive in città. Questo nucleo è molto più di un insediamento urbano: è un organismo vivo in continua trasformazione che cambia anche i suoi abitanti. Il giornalista Deyan Sudjic propone una stimolante riflessione su come viviamo.

Toby Saul

Bandera UK
Sarah Davison

Speaker (UK accent)

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There is an old-fashioned definition of a city in Britain that it must have a cathedral or a university in it. This has resulted in remarkably small settlements being labelled as cities. At the other end of the scale, no one can doubt that Tokyo, with its population of forty million people, is a city. But is it so large that any idea of it as a unified entity is meaningless? Will other such ‘megacities’, as they have come to be called, eventually disintegrate and break down into separate towns?

the language of cities

These questions and many more about the environments in which the majority of human beings now live are addressed by Deyan Sudjic, writer, broadcaster and director of the Design Museum in London, in his book The Language of Cities.

choosing a place to be

A city, according to the author, is a place that is built on the idea of tolerance. A village may be a beautiful place, but it may not be a good place to be different or unconventional. Anyone can choose to be a Londoner, or a New Yorker or a Muscovite. Other forms of belonging, such as national or ethnic identity, cannot be chosen.

the mexico paradigm

So, how do we build cities and can we change them if they start to go wrong? Sudjic takes a tour around some of the world’s greatest cities and discovers how they can transform themselves, sometimes in the face of great adversity. However, the opportunity for corruption and self-inflicted disaster is equally large. For example, in the 1980s Mexico City was a place deeply scarred by corruption and violence. This was compounded by a series of avoidable catastrophes that claimed thousands of lives, such as massively devastating fires, or the 1985 earthquake which took at least five thousand lives.

The Sense of a City Mexico

static yet dynamic

And yet by the 1990s Mexico City had managed to transform itself. According to Sudjic, the essence of a city is that it is dynamic, it always changes, but somehow still stays the same place.

METROPOLIS in progress

Deyan Sudjic is a British journalist, teacher and writer, and, since 2006, the director of London’s Design Museum. His latest book The Language of Cities is a kind of manual on how to think about 21st century urban spaces. Drawing on global examples, it includes chapters that address how a city can be created and how it can be transformed, how it should be governed and what to do if it becomes ungovernable. Sudjic also contemplates the concept of a city, and the crowds that have become its defining feature. Speak Up met Sudjic in London. We began by asking him what constituted the ‘ideal city.’

The Sense of a City Duyan

Deyan Sudjic (English accent): Someone much more intelligent than I am made the observation that a city is not a work of art, in the sense that a city is never finished. And, of course, there are cities which are remarkably beautiful, which the world wants to go to experience that sense of what the ideal city might be. People go to Venice, people go to Florence, they go to Siena and their very presence, of course, tends to stifle what they’ve come to see. We kill the things we love. Venice is now turned into a museum, overwhelmed by the shadow of gigantic cruise liners. Barcelona is suffering the same kind of thing. But the book I wrote, The Language of Cities, is a reflection on how we might come to some definition of what a city is, and it reflects on: is it possible to change a city? Does the idea of the city still make sense at a time when there are cities like Tokyo of around forty million people which are far larger than most European nations?


And, Sudjic suggests, what makes a city different from a town or a village is the spirit on which it is built. 

Deyan Sudjic: In Britain, particularly, we have this idea that the village is somehow a social utopia in which everyone knows everybody else and looks out for each other. Well, that might be true but it’s also the case that a village is not a place to be different. My own family comes from a small fishing village in what was once Yugoslavia on the Adriatic coast, and, yes, it’s beautiful, but as I say it’s not a place to be different. Whereas cities are built on the idea of tolerance, and there’s always been a tension between the cosmopolitan nature of a city where people identify as belonging to the city, and the nation-state in which they might be in or of which they might form part.


Up until now, cities have evolved ‘from above,’ says Sudjic, with the efforts of influential visionaries such as Robert Moses, the controversial public figure who had a huge impact on the urban development of mid-20th century New York.

The Sense of a City Moses

Deyan Sudjic: The roots of cities are in strong authoritarian figures. One can see that Paris was created by an alliance between Napoleon III and Haussmann, the consul he appointed to rebuild Paris in a grand manner. And that idea has resonated throughout the decades. One could see Le Corbusier’s idea of creating La Ville Radieuse, which was basically to exterminate what he called the fungus of the traditional street following on in that tradition. And that sense, that cities are created by strong visionaries with a sense of power, has been one of the underpinning strategies behind the emergence of cities in the 20th and 21st century. But there’s another one, which is citizens’ resistance and the sense that “No, we live in the city, we should be in command of our own destiny and we will not move to make way for your bulldozers.” And that really came to a head in the New York of the 1960s, which had been shaped for decades by Robert Moses, an extraordinarily influential, powerful, but never-elected figure who intimidated mayor after mayor in Manhattan because he knew where the levers of power were.


But, he says, the resistance of ordinary citizens – in New York’s case, the writer Jane Jacobs who mobilised the community against Moses’ plans – can and should play a role in shaping their city.
Deyan Sudjic: For many years London and many other cities had that sense that we must be more careful, we must be much more sensitive, that cities are shaped not just by politicians or planners or transport engineers, but people who live in the city are an essential part of that conversation.  

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