‘Among all species, it is perhaps only humans who create habitats that are not fit to live in.’
‘Is ‘Under the Skin’, in which Scarlett Johansson plays a mysterious woman luring men into a fatal mating dance, a brilliant science fiction movie . . ?’ (Roger Ebert), or a ‘laughably bad alien hitchhiker movie.’ (The Independent). At the premiere in the Venice film festival, Johansson says, ‘there was this sound of people cheering and booing at the same time, but with equal gusto. I didn’t know how to react to it. I think I was just… I wouldn’t say disturbed but I was sort of shocked.’[ii]
‘Under the Skin’ is a 2013 science fiction film directed by Jonathan Glazer. I watched it for the first time and found it utterly disturbing and depressing. Affected just by the cityscapes, street scenes of Glasgow in winter, from the city centre to council estates and industrial centres. I was uncomfortable long before the woman/alien killed anyone. The people on the streets seemed worn down, and the streetscapes themselves were dirty and ugly.[iii]
I have been to Glasgow three times over forty years, and never noticed how grey the streets and the people were. I had a good time, visited pubs, galleries, stayed with friends. The locals are friendly, and the men the alien picked up seemed friendly and helpful (I can’t believe they were random men who didn’t know they were being filmed). The wonder for me was Mica Levi’s disturbing music.
I had a sense of shock at the aesthetics of the ordinary, Baudelaire’s term to describe urban experience of Paris in the 1860s. The sensitive artist is constantly over-stimulated by this new modern, urban environment. Though stress form city living goes back much further. The Roman poet Juvenal complained of the noise and a lack of sleep in as a major problem. Walter Benjamin writes, ‘Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into the crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man ‘a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness’. [iv] He uses the concept of Erlebnis to name the shock-induced anaesthesia triggered by sensory overload in a modern city. Yet the artist wanders as a flâneur removed from the struggles and joys of the people he/she passes, intoxicated ny novelties and consumer possibilities. The aim is to locate the ‘l’éternel du transitoire’ (‘the eternal from the transitory’) and find ‘poétique dans l’historique’(‘the poetic in the historic’).[v]
Good luck finding that. Under the Skin shows a city as I see cities, now I have lived in a village beside a forest by the sea for over a decade anomie. (Johansson was terrific as a flaneur driving a white van).
James Thomson’s ‘The doom of a city’ (1857), first fingered the city in British writing as a spur to alienation. He was born in Port Glasgow, near the mouth of the Clyde, not far from Glasgow city, but was brought up and lived in London. James Thomson’s better-known poem The City of Dreadful Night (1874), characterises the city as breeding melancholia, anomie and loneliness for most citizens. He struggled with depression, insomnia and alcoholism throughout his short life.
He knew cities are not good for you. City inhabitants have a 39% greater risk of mood disorders and a 21% greater risk of anxiety disorders compared to rural dwellers.[vi]
The future is here – we don’t need aliens.
‘We are living in the fastest period of urban growth in human history. By 2030, more than 2 billion additional people are expected to be living in cities, a pace of urban growth that is the equivalent to building a city the size of New York City every six weeks. 290,000 square kilometres, (an area larger in size than the entire United Kingdom) of natural habitat are forecast to be converted to urban land uses by 2030.’ Andrew Gonzalez et al, [vii]
This will impact biodiversity and abundance. Gonzalez points out that, ‘the amount of agricultural land required to feed the world’s cities is 36 times greater in size than the urban areas themselves.’
Allen Carlson suggests, ‘In many cases a human environment, a landscape, a cityscape, or even a particular building, has developed, as it were, ‘naturally’ over time – has ‘organically’ grown – in response to human needs, interests, and concerns and in line with various cultural factors . . . Such fits are explicitly functional in that they accommodate the fulfilling of various interrelated functions.’  This is a nice idea but cities have no relationship with organic villages of the bronze age.
Those Glasgow Street scenes I found unexpectedly disturbing. Today those streets are full of climate activists as the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference is about to start. This is science fiction the idea that in a couple of days’ time, the short-term future of this planet and much of the life on it may be decided. This is history happening, and I can’t grasp it.
A 2017 study examined the world’s most and least stressful cities of 2017, based on factors including traffic, public transport, green space, financial status of citizens, pollution, security, physical and mental health, and the amount of sunshine.[viii]
Sydney, Australia (No.8) was the only non-European city to break the top ten of least stressful. But I have written about leaving Sydney, it has changed for the worst, and that began well before 2017. I made a series of posts when I was last there in June. https://photovoltaicpoetry.com.au/sydney-takes-lonely-trees/
The world’s most stressful cities
- Baghdad, Iraq
- Kabul, Afghanistan
- Lagos, Nigeria
- Dakar, Senegal
- Cairo, Egypt
- Tehran, Iran
- Dhaka, Bangladesh (also with Kolkata, Mumbai, Jakarta, Tokyo, New York, Shanghai at severe risk from rising sea levels)
- Karachi, Pakistan
After watching the movie I would have placed Glasgow at number 9.
Nairobi would be up there:
Imagine if you lived in a place where
the cool breeze caresses your face as
you stare at the lush green landscape,
where birds sing as you walk by,
where you can fish by the lake,
where your neighbours share your lifestyle dreams,
where your kids can play outdoors safely . . .
Where is this idyll? Migaa – a 20-minute drive from the rubble of the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya – is a new development complete with a private hospital, conference centre, ‘shop till you drop’ mall facilities and a 200-acre executive golf course. Natasha, a sales rep, talks me through ‘We also have a wall patrolled by armed security guards, it is a 12-kilometre-long electrified stone wall around the perimeter of the compound.’[ix]
But there is trouble in paradise. ‘The developer (Tamarind Group), has over the last two years been implementing a turnaround plan expected to see it swing into profitability by 2020. It is also grappling with a decline in its share price – trading at less than Sh1, compared to the Sh12 listing price.’[x]
 Allen Carlson, ‘On aesthetically appreciating human environments’, Philosophy & Geography, vol4:1, p13-14.
[i] Stephen Marshall, Cities Design and Evolution, Routledge, 2009.
[ii] Scarlett Johansson interview: ‘I would way rather not have middle ground’, Carole Cadwalladr, The Observer, 16 March, 2014.
[iii] I have never been to Aberdeen but it may be more depressing than Glasgow. ‘I think the worst cities is Aberdeen in Scotland. I have studied here almost a year and it is not very happy experience. All the buildings are grey in here and the same..semi attached apartments. There is only one main street where the shops and malls are located. Every other street looks the same. The most i don’t like is the people. Every day..mostly weekends people get so drunk here..all the streets are filled with drunk young people. I had here more in six month period more fights then in Estonia in five years. PLEASE STAY AWAY!!!!!’ Reimo, Estonia blog Thursday, 25 January 2007, Europe diary: Serbian Radicals
[iv] Walter Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, Shocken Books, 1968, p177. Benjamin contends that Baudelaire, ‘placed the shock experience at the very centre of his artistic work.’ P163.
[v] Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe 1900 – 1916, Clarendon Press, 1994.
[vi] Linley Lutton, ‘Vanishing Australian backyards leave us vulnerable to the stresses of city life’, The Conversation, July 31, 2017
[vii] https://phys.org/news/2019-12-cities-impacts-biodiversitya-global-overview.html Professor Andrew Gonzalez et al. ‘Research gaps in knowledge of the impact of urban growth on biodiversity’, Nature Sustainability. 2019.
[viii] Maureen O’Hare, ‘Revealed The worlds least stressful cities’ CNN, 13 September, 2017. Study by UK-based company Zipjet
[ix] Leo Johnson, ‘Petropolis now: Are cities getting too big?’, New Statesman, 14 Nov, 2013. Clarence Perry defined the neighborhood, as the support area for an elementary school to which children, the most vulnerable, can safely walk. ‘The Neighbourhood Unit’ (1929). Reprinted Routledge/Thoemmes, 1998, p25-44.
[x] Macharia Kamau, ‘Tamarind severs ties with Home Afrika’, The Saturday Standard, 27 April, 2018.