smart cities

Finding peace in the city

Modern life can be noisy and intense, but there are methods of making it less so. Magdalena Miecznicka explores the ways we try to block out the bustle

Home Life Sustainability smart cities Finding peace in the city

Anyone who lives in a city – and let's face it that's more than half the world's population and growing – knows they are making a trade-off. They are swapping the softness of the countryside or the crystal-clear mountain air for the hustle, bustle and pollution-filled stress of chaotic urban existence. No doubt for good reason, and usually to make a living, but the quest continues to preserve quality of life in the modern built-up world.

Somehow we want to have our urban cake and eat it – and whether it's the bus passenger with their nose in a book or the city dweller's tendency to avoid other people's gaze, there are ways of carving out solitude amid the mayhem.

Alla ricerca della pace in città
Alla ricerca della pace in città

The lure of the city

Of course the promise of the city is still a thrill. We know exactly what Rastignac, the young newcomer from the south in Honoré de Balzac's Father Goriot, feels when, in a famous scene, he stands on a hill contemplating Paris below. At his feet lie endless opportunities. We have embraced that sense of excitement, too. We cannot do without it.

The idea of “leaving it all behind” and moving to tend sheep among the green hills of a Thomas Hardy-esque idyll is just another kind of self-delusion. The reality is the opposite. More and more people are drawn by the magnetic force of the city. Great thunderous revivals are going on from Detroit to Johannesburg. From Warsaw to Washington, it's hard to keep track of which neighbourhood is on the up.

But time is against us. The few hundred years we have been adapting to the urban jungle are nothing against the millions of years of evolution of our bodies. As a species we are still wired to thrive in the silence of the forest and the peace of the savannah, not the cacophony of siren-filled streets, pounding construction work and blaring boom-boxes. Our senses are not quite used to constant turmoil. If the city is full of possibilities, going mad is definitely one of them.

Urban adaptation

Even the technologists know it – just think of the Amazon Echo. The company is eager to make its product as useful as possible and in the first pages of its introductory booklet offers ways to inveigle the Echo and its virtual assistant Alexa into our lives – not by improving our careers or making us more intelligent, say, but by offering us something it knows we crave. “Alexa, play rainforest sounds,” the instructions suggest. “Alexa, play white noise.” And you know that if Amazon's algorithms know what we want, then we really must want it.

Technology has come up with other solutions to help with the competing impulses of modern life. In open-plan offices people shut themselves away from the chatter and clatter behind the muffle of noise-cancelling headphones. City joggers in their Lycra outfits wear earphones that proclaim: “I am in my own world. Do not trespass.”

We all do it, bent over our lattes, our phones and our laptops. We are living in the city with all its Balzacian possibilities. But, we still try to cut ourselves off. Be protected. We know that it is in moments of inner peace that we reconnect with our more natural selves. Instead of checking our phones for the weather, we look up at the clouds; instead of the sensory bombardment of TV, we live in the here and now. 

A peaceful haven

Now imagine this. A woman driving in her car. Her face is peaceful. Nobody is shouting in her ears. Yet the city is all around her, visible through the glass. She is encased in the sleek body of her vehicle. And now, thanks to the Pirelli Noise Cancelling System, even the noise of the tyres rubbing against the road is muffled – both inside and outside.

There is no hum irritating her brain. When she gets to where she's going – wherever that may be — she'll be calm and rested. Though her car has eaten up the miles, there was barely any sound to speak of, to interfere with her thoughts. Lucky her. She never had to leave her peaceful inner landscape.

Now, if she likes, she can step out into the thrum of a world built by humans. Thanks to new technology – invented by humans – hers has been the most peaceful of journeys. And now the possibilities begin.