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Invisible Cities: rereading in lockdown

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" imagines a conversation between an emperor and an explorer. Their dialogue creates a compelling meditation on urban life, disguised as a short novel. Kublai Khan craves information about his empire, believing that he can only exercise proper authority over known space. "On the day when I know all the cities, I shall be able to possess my empire, at last!" Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer, is dispatched to the farthest reaches of the domain and ordered to report back on the life of its city-dwellers.

Polo's accounts lend themselves to compulsive consumption. He visits Octavia, a city suspended on a net between two mountain peaks. The residents thrive in their hammock metropolis, fully cognisant of their precarious existence. Thekla is under constant construction, "cranes pulling up other cranes, scaffoldings that embrace other scaffolding." When night falls, it is revealed that the builders are using the shifting stars as a blueprint.

His voyage covers some disturbing terrain. In Zirma, a lunatic teeters on the edge of every skyscraper. Argia's people live underground, sitting in the dark where damp destroys their bodies. Whether the cities inspire joy or despair, Calvino's poetic urbanism keeps us spellbound. This is a book to inhale in a single sitting, then return to it over the years.

Since its publication in 1972, global mobility has accelerated. Cheap air travel has allowed us to experience, imagine and consume the urban like never before. Mass tourism has boosted, captured and warped economies from Bangkok to Amsterdam. As these shifts have gained traction, translations of Invisible Cities have resonated with millions of new readers. Like Kublai Khan, readers can enrich their own understanding, drawing on a profound, visual vocabulary of urban form.

I returned to my copy fifty days into the COVID-19 crisis. An unprecedented global response has paralysed cities. Social distancing has fundamentally altered urban space, emptying our streets. It may take us years to fully understand the impact on public life. In surreal times, the cities conjured up by Calvino deserve renewed attention. Three, in particular, seem shockingly prescient under lockdown; Ersila, Baucis and Leonia.


The inhabitants of Ersila stretch strings across their city. Each one is colour-coded, marking relationships "of blood, of trade, of authority, agency". As the resultant tangle of social connections intensifies, it begins to inhibit movement. Soon, it is impossible to travel through the streets. The people flee, "the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain."

Regrouping on a nearby hill, the people of Ersila look back at a labyrinth of taut strings. They have become refugees from their own social networks. Undeterred, they start rebuilding a new Ersila elsewhere. Again, their connections are traced by miles of colourful string. The tangle chokes the streets and immobility sets in. The creators leave behind another woven ghost of a city. As Polo approaches the latest Ersila, he stumbles across many of its former ruins: "spider-webs of intricate relationships seeking a form."

Lockdown has forced us to appraise our own networks. Which relationships matter? How can we sustain them without face-to-face physical contact? How can we create new ones, if we are unable to leave our homes? These questions are particularly acute for city-dwellers, accustomed to a flood of fleeting interactions as they move through space. Urbanism is characterised by clustering - we are drawn to cities precisely because they enable us to bump into one another, combine ideas and forge a social existence of our own design. If these chances for serendipitous connection are taken away, where does that leave our cities?

These questions have a history. Anti-urban futurists have long predicted that the proliferation of digital communications would spell the end of cities. Each wave of innovation - the fax, smartphone and now teleconferencing - would liberate us from the perceived trauma of dense, collective life. We could all labour in our electronic cottages, enjoying the space and privacy of rural peace.

Clearly, this did not happen. Urbanism accelerated, even as smartphones became ubiquitous. As citizens of our own Ersila, we didn't flee from the web of strings. We flocked to them, entangling ourselves further. Even the architects of our new telecommunication tools absorb the huge costs of headquartering in Silicon Valley. Now, as ever, prioritising innovation means seeking out the intellectual 'bump rate' of an urban environment.

Digital interaction has not substituted face-to-face contact. It has complimented it, broadening the range of participants. We now use a greater number of strings, stretching further than ever before. This intricate web of relationships is maintained through an intensifying blend of physical and online space, as we cram into business flights and log into group calls.

Now we are all refugees, gazing forlornly at a remembered social existence. Of course, our lockdown networks are not wholly limited to our households. Professional teams have moved online while elderly relatives have become fluent in the novel apps. Clearly, we can adapt the most important relationships of blood and trade to new, digital terrain. However, these relationships are, by themselves, inadequate.

We cluster in cities for the freedom to expand beyond this small core of essential contacts. Urban life is enriched by and emerges from a more complex, colourful web of tangential interactions. The collective effervescence of a dense population is what drives innovation, creating the magnetic socio-cultural activity that makes city life so appealing. Return to public life after lockdown must be carefully managed, to avoid a resurgent virus. It must also nurture a revival in the weaving of new, non-inevitable connections.

The person who queues for the same bus, each morning. Street vendors, trying and failing to capture your attention. A chance interaction with a future partner. These fine strings weren't merely a part of urban life. They were the point of it. They must also be the focus of policy-makers, as cities begin the journey back from paralysis.


Approaching Baucis, Polo can't see anything but a series of slender stilts and ladders. These reach beyond the clouds, where Baucis is suspended beyond sight. "Nothing of the city touches the earth except those long flamingo legs on which it rests". Visitors are forced to speculate why the mysterious residents never come down. Perhaps "they hate the earth" and have built their city to distance themselves from the ground level.

Alternatively, the inhabitants of Baucis adore the earth in its pre-urban state, "as it was before they existed". Their remote city is not an escape but a vantage point; "with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of inspecting it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence."

Coronavirus has had a limited impact on my day to day life. I live in a well-resourced city centre, easily procuring food from around the world. I am financially protected by my freedom to work from home. Green space is accessible, in government-sanctioned doses. I benefit from strong links to family and friends. If anything, I have enjoyed the absence of my commute. A socially advantaged position has insulated me from hardship.

However, the lockdown has threatened my membership of what Mimi Sheller has labelled the 'kinetic elite'. In her book, 'Mobility Justice', she documents the stark inequalities in which groups are allowed to move or empowered to stay put. Mobility and immobility are inherently political. An exclusive global minority zips from city to city for work and pleasure. This group is primarily white, male, healthy and from urban centres in the global North. It dominates speed, access to opportunities and carbon emissions. Such mobility is linked, through self-reinforcing power structures, to those who are denied free movement. Furthermore, the kinetic elite's disproportionate consumption of fossil fuels is enmeshed with the fate of those who are forced to migrate from the unequal effects of climate change.

My future plans implicitly assumed unfettered mobility. This summer, I was planning to step on a plane to New York City, and begin a two-month research trip through urban food systems in North and South America. I would be amongst the last to suffer any real consequences of my CO2 emissions, beyond lingering guilt. I would stroll through airport lobbies and rail stations, designed for bodies like mine. Borders, a coercive sieve of surveillance, control and immobility, would look fondly on my privileged passport.

Now, airlines around the world have grounded their flights. Countries have shut their borders and strictly curtailed all non-essential travel. I will not be travelling this summer. Nor will I so easily take it for granted in the future. COVID-19 has briefly put the 'kinetic elite' and the 'mobility poor' in the same boat. Unfortunately, this is a moored cruise ship, rapidly running out of toilet paper.

The kinetic elite is used to being able to exercise its "tourist gaze" over far-flung cities, by travelling to experience and consume them. Now, they have been grounded, experiencing the immobility which has long been the status quo for subaltern bodies. In reaction to the 'new normal', kinetic elites have adopted the strategy of Kublai Khan, living vicariously through the eyes of others. Screens and newspapers are filled with glimpses of iconic cityscapes, devoid of their usual crowds. Denied flight, would-be tourists revel in the aesthetics of their absence.

This vantage point is built on the mass proliferation of technology. Had Kublai Khan enjoyed access to the "spyglasses and telescopes" of today, Polo's (presumably lucrative) urban reporting job would have been at risk. Cheap, semi-legal drones have spawned a peculiar sub-genre of disembodied city documentaries, offering hours of empty streets in exquisite definition. Meanwhile, a network of urban webcams placed on advertising infrastructure has been streaming to newly captured audiences around the world.

Bored and bemoaning the loss of my hypermobile summer plans, I logged into the live feed of Times Square. Real eyeballs have vacated what was the most intensely marketable space on the planet. Billboards, once promoting theatre shows, clothing brands and hotels, have shifted to public health messages. I joined thousands of people from around the world, who have watched neon light up the deserted square, while New Yorkers shelter in their apartments.

The jet-lagged class love to complain that destinations have been ruined by too many visitors. This demand for 'authenticity' is a stark example of mobility-rich hypocrisy. We aren't stuck in traffic - we are traffic. Now, coronavirus has handed us what we asked for. The kinetic elite sits still, fascinated by the fabric of the city, naked under the discarded layers of mass tourism.

This voyeurism is inherently paradoxical. What are cities, if not the people that make and inhabit them? Inert, blank-stared, science fiction sets. If street life is banished, the street is fundamentally altered. Under lockdown, we gaze at public space in private. Webcams and drones offer a post-apocalyptic lens, filtering out the public. This isn't replacing the experience of being in Times Square. It is packaging up a fantasy version of it, built for our eyes only.


Leonia is the pinnacle of urban consumption. Its people wake between fresh sheets every morning and eat their breakfast from a brand new refrigerator. They wash with virgin bars of soap and drive to work in freshly manufactured cars. Each day, every outfit is worn for the first and last time.

Polo witnesses the evidence of yesterday's Leonia, piled high on the pavements. Rubbish is not limited to obsolete or broken goods. Street cleaners also contend with the "boilers, encyclopedias, pianos" thrown out after a single day. The unceasing cycle of unwrapping and discarding requires constant activity to clear and supply.

Leonians claim to enjoy perpetual novelty. Polo is sceptical. He suggests they are really motivated by the urge of expulsion. This is a city luxuriating in the act of waste. In any case, citizens are not curious about where all of this refuse goes. "Once things have been cast off, nobody wants to have to think about them further."

The physical consequences of this lifestyle accumulate. "A fortress of indestructible leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating it on every side, like a chain of mountains". Whilst a half-eaten melon might decompose, discarded cars and shirts persist. Beyond the crest of Leonia's filth, similarly wasteful cities are also expanding, "pushing mountains of refuse in front of themselves".

As the city keeps growing, the risk of a landslide grows. If rubbish starts to slip, gravity will take hold, "submerging the city in its own past, which it had tried in vain to reject". Leonia is an oasis dug into a crater, with cataclysm looming at its border. The residents keep unwrapping. Every morning the rubbish is collected. Polo leaves the city and begins the journey back to Kublai Khan.

This is Bantar Gebang, a towering Indonesian landfill. Every day it absorbs 7000 tons of rubbish from nearby Jakarta. At more than 260 acres, it is one of the world's largest dumps. It is also homes to an estimated 3000 families who live and work amongst the peaks of the man-made mountains.

The flow from Jakarta has widened into a flood. As the city has become wealthier, it expels increasingly durable materials. Waste is the precise and opposite expression of what the city values. However, what a city discards can become a resource for people living at its periphery. Jakarta's growth and waste fuels ancillary micro-industries, extracting economic value through an informal labour force. Scavengers extract plastics from the tip and melt it down in open furnaces, producing choking plumes of smoke and chronic health conditions. The reformed plastic is sold for shipping across Asia, where it is reused to make new products.

Coronavirus is curtailing even this brutal, precarious existence. The price of reformed plastic, like other commodities, has plummeted while the global economy spasms and contracts. Intermediaries in the international supply chain have closed their doors until factories reopen. Unable to sell, Bantar Gebang's scavengers stay at home. Now, they are waiting for coronavirus to reach them from hotspots in Jakarta. Meanwhile, rubbish trucks continue to arrive around the clock, burying salvageable material under new waste. The ever-present threat of landslide grows by the day.

In all, Marco Polo recounts fifty-five surreal urban scenes. Each provides a chapter in the book's tight, rhythmic structure. The conversation is fueled by Khan's insatiable thirst for more information, more cities and by extension, more power. However, the truth slowly emerges; Polo has been returning to his home town, feeding the emperor visions of Venice, over and over again.

From the woven ghost of Baucis to Leonia's perpetual waste, each has been a fresh glimpse of one city, surveyed from many angles. Absorbing these reports is like peering at Venice through a nuclear-powered kaleidoscope. Kublai Khan employed him to sketch the breadth of urban life. Polo's alluring, iterative illustrations have succeeded in surveying its depths.

The word "quarantine" itself is derived from quarantena, Italian for "forty days". The term described a period of self-isolation, imposed on sailors arriving in Venice during the Black Plague. This is an early example of an epidemiological response to the inherent risks of being a global trading hub. It is also a red rag for journalists, seeking to document the urban impact of COVID-19. As the first globalised quarantine (Cinqantine? Sessantine?) began, the media scrambled for a counterweight to grim statistics. They found it in the tourist-free waterways of Venice.

Dolphins returned to the lagoon, swimming in canals undisturbed by gondolas. They were joined by white swans, enjoying the peace of a 'black swan event'. Satellite data was harvested for before and after photos. From space, the muddy churn of the lagoon has returned to a deep blue. Flocks of people have been transformed into crowds of pigeons. These low hanging fruits continue to dominate think pieces, seemingly written from the clouds of Baucis.

Much of this excitement was based on shaky foundations; photos of dolphins in Sardinia had been falsely attributed to Venice. The return of marine life was a viral urban myth. It didn't matter. As death tolls mount, symbolic dolphins continue to compete with sourdough for the attention of the grounded kinetic elite.

In the decades since Invisible Cities was published, Venice became a battleground between mass tourism and local protest. The city's foundations have been rocked by waves of cruise ships, disgorging millions of marauding customers onto the island. A nearby airport, amusingly named after Marco Polo, welcomed hordes of travellers from every corner of the world. As mobility intensified, overcrowding became part of Venice's urban identity. Undeterred, a steady flood of visitors monopolised the narrow streets and economy.

Homes were converted into hotels, then short-term lets, while other industries withered away. Services and infrastructure failed to keep pace with a swelling, transient population. Residents used to leave rubbish bags out on the street, where municipal street cleaners would promptly pick them up. Weekend visitors quickly overwhelmed this decades-old system, forcing a shift to public bins and strict fines. Waste continued to accumulate on the streets, driven by the use and discard patterns of short-term stays. The mountain of durable waste discarded by tourists is a challenge for any consumer city. For an oasis on stilts, surrounded by water, it quickly became insurmountable.

Venice has choked in a web of globalised urban consumption, each new guest unspooling an invisible thread in their wake. Dense crowds forced Venetians to flee; 55,000 residents remain, just one-third of the postwar population. Like the people of Ersila, they have sought refuge in the neighbouring hills. Venetians mourn the loss of their sinking home from Treviso, Padua, Trieste, cities sitting high above the lagoon.

The disappearance of tourists would normally have sparked wild celebrations. Instead of partying in the streets, locked-down locals have been restricted to singing from balconies. Coronavirus has cut the strings of international travel, giving Venice a chance to appraise its relationship with the global kinetic elite.

Tourism has become an umbilical cord, binding Venice to the movement and consumption of the outside world. With a dependency built up over decades, sustained withdrawal would cause enormous economic damage. As Italy slowly loosens travel restrictions, local hotels have funded a series of webcams, interspersing footage of deserted canals with a desperate plea to return.

Venice's fate will be closely watched by other cities. It must find ways to welcome travellers, without destroying the magnetism which has endured over centuries. As the impacts of global warming escalate, in part due to the high carbon emissions of the kinetic elite, sinking streets will need to combat rising sea levels. A complex network of relation and dependency binds Venetians to each other and to the outside world. This must be transformed so that it can support city life rather than ensnaring city dwellers. Venice must weave a new web.

If it succeeds, Polo's "confined, crammed, inextricable" city will enrich future generations. If it fails, sombre lessons must be quickly learnt. To overcome the challenges of sustainable post-COVID urbanism, policymakers will need to discover new reserves of creative inspiration. This powerful, hallucinatory book is a perfect place to start.


Art by David Fleck and Eda Akaltun

Photo of Bantar Gebang by Adam Dean

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