As a paleoanthropologist you have studied the history and development of cities in relation to the development of the human species. Considering the historical depth of this view, do you have the feeling that we are facing a pivotal moment of crisis or of acceleration of urban challenges?
This long-term vision specific to paleoanthropologists is difficult to share, as we are speaking of thousands and even millions of years, temporal scales that are complicated to grasp. History with a capital H began with the first cities of the Metal Ages in the Middle East around six thousand years ago, whereas our species has been wandering the Earth for at least three hundred thousand years. Our understanding of evolution has been characterized by models inherited from the nineteenth century, where ideas of progress and evolution became consubstantial, with the underlying idea of a steady, major transformation over a very long, cumulative, primarily positive period of time and with a clear goal: the advent of our species of Sapiens and, for history, of our Western civilization. However, evolution has more to do with what is called punctuated equilibrium, a theory developed in the 1980s, particularly by Stephen Jay Gould. We have understood that evolution is not like a long, peaceful river; it can cover long periods of relative stability and quite regular periods of change, as well as the multiple divergences. For cities, from Jericho to the current megalopolises spread across the world, it is difficult to speak about a linear, regular, and progressive history, if only in terms of the quality of the buildings and urban planning.
I was speaking recently with some executives who explained to me to what extent they feel that everything is moving fast today. But, given my age, I reminded them that in 1964 a single council of ministers decided to develop the TGV, Airbus, and nuclear power. Four years later May 1968 took place, followed by the election of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing six years after that. France had shifted into modernity within the space of twelve years. I am not saying that things are not moving fast today, because this is certainly the case. Let us not forget that only ten years separate the first smartphones and the idea of the smart city. Cars were part of the cities of my youth, today they are being pushed out of the city. The main point is that these changes are now taking place simultaneously and on a global scale. However, there is no acceleration during punctuations, but rather in the periods between punctuations, in periods of relative stability or gradual development, as in the last half century. We feel the shock of the changes that we participate in, but shifts into another civilization generally take place over periods of one or two decades. A fact as difficult to explain in terms of the evolution of species as it is in the history of human societies, however there are adaptive convergences in independent and geographically distant civilizations and lineages. Around the first millennium BCE, great nation states emerged in the Middle East, then in Europe, India, China, Africa, and Mesa-America, at the heart of new civilizations, with systems of theological and philosophical thinking that are still present in our contemporary societies. One speaks of an Axial Age, that of the great cities of antiquity.
And before the Axial Age? It is troubling for example to note that the arrival of the Metal Ages, especially the Iron Age, in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world, signaled a profound historic change in a few short centuries, and yet very few archaeological traces remain. This was a punctuation. For Stephen Jay Gould and others who have contributed to this new approach to general evolution, the idea of punctuation suggests that the absence of data doesn’t necessarily imply that no transition took place, but simply that it represents periods that are so short that it is very unlikely we will find any traces of it. And yet, in these few short centuries, notably in the Middle East, there was a sudden emergence of cities, of towns, with economic and political influences on the scale of a half continent, which cannot take place without profound economic, philosophical, political, and religious changes. This is the question that we must ask ourselves today: What fundamental changes are we currently living through? What new Axial Age?
I think what is currently emerging is a new consideration of the way that work and its organization changes the city. The city and urban planning have always tried to catch up to the transformation of work, and it seems to me that this is what we are seeing, which is actually the opposite of a classic utopia, with its narratives that tended to strictly organize things—everyone in their place in terms of their activities and living spaces. From this point of view, my generation has almost passed from the Neolithic period to a transhumanist one, and I often explain to people under fifty that their generation is the first to have experienced such a total separation between where one works and where one lives on such a massive scale; the triptych of “subway-work-sleep.” They are also the first generations to live in dwellings with basic sanitation. This model is not even fifty years old. From now on, if we place ourselves within a broad perspective, I think that the mechanisms for evolution are in place. Unlike futurists, evolutionists do not say what will happen. However, we know that change occurs once a certain number of conditions have been established. This is what is called an algorithm; there will necessarily be a result but we do not know which one. And cities are at the heart of the current transformations.
I think that this is what we are currently experiencing, the algorithm is running, everything will change, accelerated by telework, and more broadly forms of remote work, as well as the many service platforms. But not all professions are concerned by this, including local businesses, whose employees were put to the test during the pandemic and who all too often live far from their places of work, due to how costly it can be to live “in the city.” Compared to the prospective studies of recent years, it seems that the crisis of the pandemic has allowed us to “gain” five years in terms of the changes that we will experience in society linked to new ways of working. And obviously, the city will be completely shaken up by this. We have already entered a new period of humanity’s evolution since 2007, since the majority of sapiens populations have become urbanized.
Could you paint a broader picture of this evolution of sapiens with regard to their habitat?
Let us place this evolution within a broad temporal perspective: in the beginning we had populations who hunted and gathered. We now know that women hunted and men gathered, that social organizations were much more diverse than one might imagine. These populations settled somewhere, with the women remaining closer to the habitat and the men with more centrifugal activities. But beware of the clichés inherited from the nineteenth century—with women in the home and the men at work—that have barely shifted over the last two decades, whether for past or present societies. In economies based on hunting and gathering—I am avoiding the term “hunter-gatherer”—the habitat is not residential, it shifts depending on circumstances, and especially depending on seasons and resources. Among these economies of predation of natural resources, some possessed abundant resources and became sedentary, even developing into real civilizations. We typically think that civilization is synonymous with the city, but over the last thirty years we have realized that this is not the case. This does not call the importance of the city or urban civilizations into question, but it is important to remember that civilizations without cities do indeed exist.
We say that societies whose economies are based on hunting and gathering often benefit from quite particular ecological conditions, with a highly productive season of vegetable and/or animal resources—for example, the Amerindian peoples of the northwestern United States and the migrating salmon that they would prepare by smoking. These were societies that were able to conserve food, stocking it, creating wealth, and becoming increasingly sedentary. They had extended zones of activity that led them to carry out pillaging, wars, and also slavery of men and women. What is interesting is that they had a more concentrated, more enduring, almost sedentary habitat. This kind of economy could still be found among certain populations up to a century ago.
For us Homo sapiens, called Cro-Magnon in Europe, these are the societies of the Upper Paleolithic, with their decorated caves, even though it was mainly the entrances of the caves that were organized and decorated. There were also large villages with places of specialization, similar to the villages of the Amerindians with their teepees or huts, especially on the Plains of Ukraine where wood was scarce. This was the beginning of architecture, with absolutely extraordinary constructions made of shin bones, femurs, shoulder blades, and mammoth tusks, magnificent structures, with some huts much larger than others, which we think were buildings dedicated to collective, cultural, and/or political life.
Why do I mention this? Because like with the Axial Age and our era, these constructions responded to new conceptions of the cosmos and society; to new representations of the world. Following the end of the last Ice Age, we had the Mesolithic, a period that was neglected for a long time, as it was considered to be an intermediary period between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic, with hunting and gathering societies whose importance has been misunderstood. We now know that there were civilizations stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals in the time of Lascaux, not to mention those for whom we have little or no data. In the Middle East during the Mesolithic—not that everything was invented in the Middle East, but this is where things seemed to have begun, and the place that provides us with the most data, where there have been the most digs—we saw major monumental centers established, notably in Anatolia, like at Göbekli Tepe, with its large constructions, like temples almost as impressive as those of Mycenae. It is very geometrical, with quite beautiful representations of animals. This was around twelve thousand years ago, and so agriculture had not yet been invented. This has led us to reconsider the history of the city because—just like in the Amerindian cities, those large cities with their pyramids—there were no dwellings in the vicinity. They were places of expression of beliefs and cults that created cohesion within these societies of fission-fusionIn ethology, a fission-fusion society is one in which the size and composition of the social group evolves according to the period or environment in which the animals move: animals group together (fusion), for example to sleep together, or split into subgroups (fission), for example to search for food in small groups during the day. In this type of social organization, the composition of the groups is constantly changing., between their components of groups whose economy was still based on hunting and gathering.
The favorable ecological conditions of the post-glacier period are certainly at the root of the myth of the paradise lost, with abundant harvests of wild grains that were prepared, stocked, transformed, and distributed, and all of this well before the model of the farmer-priest-warrior and its pre-state rules. For the Amerindians in the northwestern region of North America, once or more each year, these societies would come together in a formidable ceremony of giving, exchange, and consumption. We thus discover that, over ten thousand years ago, these rituals accompanied social organizations that were capable of erecting large monumental complexes for this purpose.
These semi-nomadic populations were nonetheless capable, for two or three thousand years, of organizing their society for the purposes of establishing a structure of work and objectives, based on economies of hunting and gathering, that led to the mobilization of a considerable number of men and women for the construction of these edifices. We have always considered the origins of the city through major economic changes and their consequences, but we have completely neglected the aspect of collective representation such as religion, which literally means “to connect.” What is interesting is that up until around the Neolithic period, even though they were capable of erecting tall buildings, and of organizing societies on the scale of a large region, people employed few solid materials such as stones, etc., for their habitations. They continued to be relatively nomadic. During the Neolithic era, societies began stocking and conserving plants and vegetables, etc. It was only at this moment that we saw the appearance of a concentrated habitat for protection from the outside world, like the pueblos, or bastides in France. Encircling walls then appeared quite quickly, with socio-economic activities being organized around this core.
After the long period of the Neolithic came the sudden revolution of the Metal Ages, and soon after the Axial Age brought with it the cities that we continue to inherit today, where religious and secular powers settle in the center with their ostentatious edifices. Cities were often protected by walls. They exercised control over the surrounding resources while at the same time developing commercial networks and alliances over long distances. This would continue for almost seven to eight thousand years in the Western world, with urban forms and social organizations that would remain almost completely unchanged up until the bourgeois revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century and the industrial revolution.
Starting in 1765, near Birmingham in the Midlands—pretty much the middle of nowhere at the time—a number of individuals that were completely impregnated by the spirit of the Enlightenment decided to meet once a month around a good dinner to speak and exchange (I often say that innovation is first and foremost a good meal, which gives pause for thought when one considers remote working). They met on the day of the full moon which gave them the name for their Lunar Society, with no hint of any spiritualism, as would have certainly been the case a century later. One of the participants was Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, the first modern doctor, who corresponded with the great minds of his time, a friend of Adam Smith and of William Godwin. Another of his friends who came to see him during his visits to Europe, by sailboat at the time, was none other than Benjamin Franklin. They published a number of texts together about electricity. Another member of the group was Mathew Boulton, who would organize the world’s first mechanized factory in collaboration with James Watt who would join the group later on. They developed steam-powered machines, notably to solve the problem of flooding in mines, and would go on to design machines that would produce mechanical power in factories for the first time. Contrary to popular belief, this did not begin in the textile industry, nor in blast furnaces, but in pottery, with the pottery and earthenware of Wedgwood, run by Josiah Wedgwood, Charles Darwin’s maternal grandfather, and the inventor of management and marketing.
They created the first worker’s housing estate in Sheffield, near Birmingham, the first urban police force, urban lighting... as they had understood that by inventing new means of production they were changing society, something theorized by Marx a century later. They understood the scale of the changes in the economy and the means of production. They ultimately understood that they were transforming society and politics, which explains their social policy. With the Lunar Society, we were witnessing the invention of the suburbs and worker housing estates, where habitation would be established around the places of production like mines and factories. This organization would last for almost fifty years, maybe a little more, with the rural exodus and the expansion of the suburbs right up until the 1950s, always against a backdrop of rural exodus—one “moves up” to the city—and the emerging tertiarization of the economy.
Then came the changes that we have experienced since the 1960s, with the invention of the suburbs and the French expression “metro, boulot, dodo” (subway, work, sleep). The quality of housing improved, but commuting began to eat into living time and the atmosphere. Though work time had been reduced, this gain was completely absorbed by the time spent commuting. New cities, dormitory towns, etc., would radically change the nature of the city, notably imposing an urban planning dictated by transport networks that were primarily focused on the car. This is what we have inherited today, a completely saturated model, as in the Paris region and the areas surrounding the world’s major cities. We clearly know that we cannot go on like this, the pandemic and lockdowns having brutally confronted us with this civilizational crisis.
How do you view these changes that are coming? In the wake of the pandemic—which is not over—we hear a lot about the exodus from large cities to smaller towns, to more rural areas.
Will remote work and different forms of work change things? Perhaps, but we have to be careful because it cannot be applied to every profession or to every generation. There will probably be a rebalancing of the city-countryside relationship, with the arrival of executive business people into and around mid-sized towns, rather than in truly rural areas. We are of course aware of the often harmful effects of “gentrification” on the inner suburbs, and the question arises as to whether this might be reproduced in small and mid-sized towns? Social diversity cannot be decreed. Politicians, urban planners, and architects speak about this, but I don’t know a single successful top-down example that starts by telling people how to implement a social organization. The evolution of cities takes place between the utopias of urban planning and housing inherited from the Renaissance—up to the functional architecture of Le Corbusier—and the dystopia of the cities of science fiction. The major issue will then be to intelligently accompany this movement, these population flows, some inverted, between large cities, smaller cities, and more rural areas.
When we speak about remote working we always think about working from home, but we are also seeing new nomads moving from city to city, or from region to region, from city to countryside, completely integrated into this new configuration. This promises extraordinary changes. I think we should reestablish nomadic habits in the city, in terms of housing, with people coming and going, changing, and nomadic habits in terms of ways of traveling. From an ethological point of view, I think that we should move from a form of life organized in a sequential home-work-leisure way to fission-fusion organizations, as chimpanzees do very well. Coming together for reasons that require our presence, fissioning in various ways that depend on people and places for more specific relationships or tasks.
Going back to social diversity, the big question that remains is housing and mobility, and I find that not enough progress has been made on this level. As we saw with the pandemic crisis, people who had pursued higher education immediately knew how to organize themselves in an efficient enough way to be able to work, but the problem remained unsolved for people working in often wonderful professions, the famous “front line,” who earn less, live far away, often working fragmented hours. The question is then to find out how they could move back into the city? How will the city of tomorrow be able to integrate these new phenomena of fission-fusion if, for income reasons, these people unfortunately find it increasingly difficult to gain access to the city? Because obviously we do not wish to fall into the excesses of major Asian cities where people live in cells. This is happily not even an option, which doesn’t mean that we don’t have substandard housing.
The first lockdown was so sudden that people managed, they pushed the books out of the way, set up on the living room table, in the kitchen, not always with the best connection. But over the long term this will raise a number of problems for the city, in terms of architecture, efficiency, connectivity, organization, etc. How will the city integrate these changes into the work and sociology of tomorrow? This is a real problem. The error to be avoided in every domain, and we can see this with the model of smart cities, is solutionism. We have real problems, but we cannot be satisfied with thinking that we will solve every problem by throwing technology at it. Incremental innovation is useful and necessary, but not everything can be limited to this, otherwise we fail to understand the profound challenges of a society in transformation.
For me, the challenge would be for ethology and anthropology to enter the city, that is to say, to question the fundamental relationships of all human societies, that we share with chimpanzees, which would allow us to organize ourselves and adapt to all these changes. The complicated but exciting challenge for urban planners, architects, and other players in the city, will be to help the inhabitants and users of the city appropriate and transform it. Beyond the citizen aspect, we are talking about direct democracy in urban planning, which does not yet exist, and I think that this is the major political, economic, and anthropological challenge that lies ahead. To summarize a little dramatically, either we are moving toward ghettoized neighborhoods for the most destitute, with the rich isolated in their gated communities, as in the Americas, or we are moving toward a dynamic of transformation of the city that favors the initiatives of neighborhoods and their inhabitants—like the downtowns repopulated by the younger generations thanks to the use of digital networks—in consultation with the city’s officials; in other words, a policy of coevolution.
What would be your vision of the future evolution of our cities? Do you advocate the adoption of ecosystemic approaches?
I like to keep in mind that in Western Europe we are incredibly lucky to not have any megalopolises. Our largest metropolis is London, then Saint Petersburg, and only then Paris. We still have cities on a human scale, which makes it difficult for us to imagine what São Paulo, Lagos, Chinese cities, or even the agglomerations of cities such as SanSan—San Francisco/San Diego—or BosWash—Boston/Washington—in the United States. Hundreds of kilometers of uninterrupted conurbation and two or three generations who have never seen either sea or countryside. One of the luckiest things about Europe, beyond tourism, is that we have preserved historical city centers and we continue to have the capacity for an extraordinary experience that megalopolises can no longer provide, which is to create balance between large cities and the surrounding areas. The challenge at the European level is then to contain the regions that are already engaged in a process of conurbation.
We would like the city to be completely involved in a circular economy, but this is impossible, as cities have always been designed as places of housing and for concentration of power, with resources coming from the outside that we then expel. We are in the process of abandoning this model in order to adopt an ecosystemic approach, but this is very recent. An ecosystem requires an organization that implies a maximum capacity for production and biodiversity, and an ecosystem must be bio-inspired, even if not completely. For example, people are generally unaware that modern artificial intelligence, notably that of big data and machine learning is completely bio-inspired. Bio-inspiration goes beyond biomimicry which imitates forms, structures, and materials, it rather draws inspiration from natural processes. Today the ecosystemic challenge is really to look for functional, feasible analogies. And systemic thinking is based on codependencies and flows of information, which means that we need to stop fragmenting the city into sectors of use.
In evolution, when the world changes we do not need to invent everything as many things already exist. We can see initiatives particularly among the younger generations who are capable of reappropriating a part of what the city cannot do—collecting children from school, organizing childcare, etc.—by relying on digital capacity to connect to networks. But between the reality of the physical and social city and the growing presence of virtual reality, it is important not to fall into a dystopia like the one depicted in Spielberg’s excellent film, Ready Player One, where people live in completely ruined cities and can only escape through avatars in the virtual world. The digital exists, but so too does ancestral knowledge, natural cooling, systems of passive shading, etc. One of the pitfalls of the idea of progress is to think that we are more intelligent than others and that we will be even more intelligent in the future. No, others have already invented a number of solutions. Today we are surrounded by a broad range of solutions in a synchronic and diachronic manner. I am thinking for example of the greening of roofs and facades with rapid transformations in Milan and elsewhere.
Until now, the idea of progress in every field—and thus for the city—was to plan and design a major project by imagining that people would be happy there. But today, we must really find the ability to implement forms of co-construction, to consider the challenges together, not forgetting that, as with evolution, it is not necessary to invent everything and that in adaptation there is never only one solution. The changes made in Paris will not be those of Bordeaux or Toulouse, and even less so those of megalopolises. However, we can learn just as much from megalopolises as we can from small towns.
The baby boomer generation is that of an unprecedented development of cities. Will they continue to live there when they retire? We already know the answer. But this brief, recent period of the last fifty years marks the end of a historical trend which pushed hundreds of millions of people toward cities, the increasingly sclerotic lungs of promises of work, pay, and leisure. Of course, we will never experience a movement in the other direction, but rather new urban dynamics entrenched within ecosystemic issues.
The city is not dead, then. In your opinion, it should no longer be satisfied with evolving in response to societal and economic problems, but also as a function of the evolutions of our environments and anthropological changes. Is anthropology in the city a new phenomenon?
If one looks at recent polls, people do not want to abandon the city. Three successive generations who have never lived in the countryside are not going to just go there. We know that more and more people are leaving the Paris region, because life there is hellish, particularly when it comes to transport, with pollution and civilizational illnesses caused by the pathologies of city life. But people want mid-sized cities, with all the necessary services as well as a real cultural, social, and political life. I think that we Europeans should act on this, provided that we are capable of being more than countries for tourism, but to also have a significant dynamism in terms of innovation and economics. For example, and contrary to what occurred with the industrial revolution, how can we integrate the new means of production into cities by accompanying the major societal and environmental transformations of businesses? How can we find new approaches between stores in the city center, essential to its dynamism, and the shopping centers on its outskirts, that spoil the views on the edges of city. I’m thinking in particular of the phygital and other ecosystemic initiatives between all of these players.
There is one very important thing that we haven’t spoken about: as anthropologists we are worried about something that may surprise you. It is not the eight or nine billion individuals that will be living on the planet in 2050, mainly in cities, but rather what is going to happen afterward. We are not certain that the human population can renew itself demographically. I am not chanting “after the baby boomers, the flood” but the demographic profiles of cities will change. Once again, the pandemic has shown that what people expect from the city varies greatly for the younger population, notably those in the so-called “creative” classes, for families with small children—who tend to leave—for more affluent seniors without children. We can expect considerable changes in terms of professions, activities, and age groups.
However, the city has fallen ill. We will have to find a way to deal with this question of civilizational illness. The WHO has noted that pollution has become the principal cause of mortality in the world. We are experiencing a true inversion: up until the 1960s and ’70s, and even the ’80s, people living in cities had a longer life expectancy for different reasons linked to housing, sanitary hygiene, an access to comfort, culture, and obviously healthcare. Unfortunately, life expectancy is now on average lower in large cities than in rural areas. And in my opinion, there is not enough thought being devoted to these subjects.
I have a twofold anthropological vision for the city that might seem utopian, but is actually the reverse of the utopias that we have known. My idea is to allow biodiversity, whether it be plants or animals, to reappropriate an area of the city, notably by creating corridors, large avenues that allow many species, insects, birds, and even mammals to circulate. This is what I call the paradox of the paradox of Alphonse Allais, who said that we should place cities in the countryside where the air is apparently cleaner. Today, the paradox of the paradox is that it is the countryside and biodiversity that are making their way into the city. We must be able to leave it to develop at its own pace, for us to observe it, but not a garden in the Lamarck style, or the French style, but rather an English cottage garden with spaces that can be given over to nature. I am thinking for example of the development of a large stretch of abandoned land in collaboration with the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in Toulouse.
And then there is the peripatetic city, the city where we walk. We need to imagine cities where children can run freely, because this is not the case today, and that is dramatic. We have mentioned the evolution of the human lineage, but look: people stroll along with their eyes glued to their screens and ears covered by headphones. It is the time of smombies, a neologism made up of smartphone and zombies. City dwellers are moving against the current of the evolution of the human lineage, with a progressive straightening of the body and the acquisition of a perfectly vertical bipedalism. We are moving backward. Pedestrians no longer look around them, their heads are riveted to the ground. They are disconnected from what surrounds them. This is absolutely terrifying. What have we done with our bipedalism? When one realizes that in Paris the average trip by car is only three kilometers, and it can be covered more quickly on foot, we are tripping over our own feet. If people in cities walked more and used the stairs to climb the first two floors in buildings, this would reduce pollution and be a considerable gain for public health, reducing obesity by over 50 percent for example.
The car, and more recently new mobilities have established the idea that walking is tiring. What’s more, sidewalks have become a jungle. Personally, I find it intolerable that we cannot walk more than ten meters without being interrupted. It is quicker to walk the distance between three metro stops and it is better for one’s health. And the city is beautiful, especially Paris. The cities that we are walking in are the cities of the greatest authors. For creativity and innovation, you must put down the pen, turn off the computer and walk; when you get back, the problem will have been solved. When I say peripatetic city, it is not only about walking, it is a matter of society, of civilization. Cities should be designed for walking once again. Not too long ago, and this is still the case in cities in the South, people went outside in the evening to walk, to greet each other, to chat. It is the cities of the New World, designed explicitly for the car, that have misled us with the mirage of the American dream. And then there is the real dream, the real challenge, that of a city where women can walk in total freedom and pleasure, whatever the hour, day or night. This is a huge challenge for the city: inventing the city where women are safe both in private and public spaces. Freeing the city from the ethological fury of males.
We now face a challenge in terms of civilization and evolution. The exponential development of cities has been understood as a form of progress which is consubstantial with the evolution of our societies, confusing urbanization with hominization. The challenge for the city of tomorrow is to engage all possible experiences of humanization, in other words to favor a new anthropology of cities. How? By involving urban planners, sociologists, and artists, but also anthropologists, who are all too often forgotten as they are always imagined as being outside of cities. But above all, seizing all forms of participative democracy, facilitated by the use of networks. The digital revolution has already modified all of our societies’ activities, and I cannot see how the city can do without it. In America, the youth of Generation Y are returning to the inner city, sharing their cars, organizing childcare, setting up a friendly neighborhood watch. The model of the house in the suburbs with its tiny garden and its cars for going to the mall or to work in hellish traffic jams, each in their own bubble, is finished! The cities of tomorrow will be those that manage to create networks with citizens who are encouraged to appropriate the city, to create communities of fusion and fission, to develop mobilities on foot and by bicycle. To make cities that are matrices of anthropological possibilities and not cities that claim to establish an anthropology. In other words, to make the city into an ecological community capable of participating in all coevolutions.