Is there still a living choice between Necropolis and Utopia: the possibility of building a new kind of city that will, freed of inner contradictions, positively enrich and further human development? (Lewis Mumford)

Cities are always too complex to be captured in axioms . . . The close relationship between space and society, between cities and history . . . [results not in] the coherent spatial form of an overwhelming social logic . . . but [in] the tortured and disorderly, yet beautiful patchwork of human creation and suffering. (Manuel Castells)

Recently a fox was sighted in the mews at the back of our house, which is situated on a London square.footnote1 It was later suggested that the ‘fox’ might actually have been only a cat, since the eye-witness had been drunk at the time. Yet the sighting, real or imagined, is still significant, for in fact everyone in our neighbourhood confidently expects to see a fox sooner or later. We already have squirrels, an owl, jays, even a hedgehog, and all this in Camden Town, the centre of London. To live in this London square has made me much more aware than I ever was before of the extent of nature in the city. Nature penetrates the city, and it appears that the larger the city, the more plants and animals it will shelter.footnote2 This rather goes against the way in which, in Western thought, nature and the city (the rural and the urban) are positioned as incompatible opposites. Discussion of the way in which the built environment encroaches on the countryside is not unusual, but the urban seeping into the rural is certainly almost always perceived as destructive and polluting, and movement in the opposite direction is seldom mentioned at all. Perhaps it is also seen as an aberration, a transgression against the clear boundaries which seem necessary to our sense of order.footnote3

This is certainly the way in which Lewis Mumford viewed the relationship between town and country. For Mumford, the city was a container, that is to say it was and had to be a finite space. He believed that the ‘sprawling giantism’ of the twentieth-century city was leading inexorably to megalopolis and thence to necropolis, the death of the city. The sharp division between country and city no longer exists, he wrote. The original container has entirely disappeared:

As the eye stretches towards the hazy periphery one can pick out no definite shapes . . . one beholds rather a continuous shapeless mass . . . the shapelessness of the whole is reflected in the individual part, and the nearer the centre, the less . . . can the smaller parts be distinguished.footnote4