When it comes to travel, there’s a pervading feeling that in order to be transformed you need to lose yourself in the wilderness – that solace and surrender can only be found at the top of a mountain, in the depths of a forest or in the whisper of the desert sands. To travel is to be absorbed in the exotic and the unfamiliar – to dissolve into the grandeur of nature and remove oneself from the drudgery of the everyday. In contrast, the hard edges of the modern city can appear unromantic and uninspired, a stained and sinful backdrop to our humdrum, unremarkable existence.

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However, as much as cities can be easy to dismiss and disregard, when we cast them in this role we overlook the central character they actually play in the ongoing theatre of our lives – as the pioneering urban planner Patrick Geddes remarked, “a city is more than a place in space; it is a drama in time”. The way we talk about cities is akin to how we describe our lovers – we give them pet names, write songs to serenade them with, and map out our lives through the years we spend in them. Some are mistakes we never wish to revisit, some are brief, full-throttle affairs, and others are lifelong romances. They can be decadent or they can be disappointing, but they are rarely dull or leave us untouched.

The majority of us reside in cities (and even more will migrate here in the future) and they inevitably shape how we evolve, as much as we shape how they evolve in return. The anonymity and variety afforded by existing within each great swell and hustle of humanity allows us to lose ourselves and emerge reinvented, our imaginations free to roam multiple pathways through the unknown. In the words of the writer Italo Calvino, “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours”.

Yet as much as a city can feel like yours, it is also ours: a collective promise for the future where people collide and new cultures grow from the rubble. The sedimentary layers of their history signpost the decisions that civilisations before us have made, while their cracks signal the challenges ahead. As the climate crisis accelerates and traditional politics splinter, cities will be the battlegrounds where the environmental and ideological wars of our times are fought – sustainability, inequality, survivability – and where we define whether we want our future to be utopian or dystopian.

And this is the crux of our relationship with cities – they are our portrait in the attic, the symbol of who we will become. They reveal our contradictions and challenge our assumptions; force us to encounter those unlike ourselves; and spur our imaginations to more dynamic modes of being, both on a personal and collective level. As the writer and activist Jane Jacobs surmised in her 1961 polemic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by travelling; namely, the strange”.

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Volume 28: The Cities Issue

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City Guides

You know how you have that one incredible friend who knows their city inside out? That’s us. We take the world’s most dynamic destinations, hand-pick the best bits and give them to you in one place. This is the kind of guide that you don’t need to run by a local – it was written by one. Eat your heart out, shop until you drop, drink like a fish, dance your socks off, sleep – then repeat.


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