“As a species, we have never been entirely satisfied with what nature gave us. We are the ape that shapes our environment, the city builders – Homo urbanus. Cities are our greatest creation. They embody our ability to imagine how the world might be and to realise those dreams in brick, steel, concrete and glass.”
– P.D. Smith from the introduction of City
On July 28th 2012, The Economist wrote “At some point in 2008, someone, probably in either Asia or Africa, made the decision to move from the countryside to the city. This nameless person nudged the human race over an historic threshold, for it was in that year—according to the United Nations, at least—that mankind became, for the first time in its history, a predominantly urban species.”
I found the book at Foyles on Charring Cross Road in London last September. I had read the review in the Economist and half forgotten about it, and it was the cover that caught my attention, standing in the bookshelf facing the viewer. On the top of the cover is the famous Peter Bruegel the Elder´s painting of the tower of Babel, the tower built by the united humanity following the big flood, built with pride and destroyed by God to shame man from their unworthy aspirations. On the lower half an early 20th century photo of Manhattan.
The book is a love story to and with cities. It is divided into chapters that reveal cities in all their various aspects, from their founding to their future, from streets to walls, from downtowns and financial districts to ghettos and slums, from banks to department stores, from theaters to sports arenas, from street food to up-market restaurants, from hotels to apartment buildings, from subways to skyscrapers.
Until about a century ago, the skylines of most cities were dominated by the minarets or towers of mosques or churches. Outside our office in Stockholm we have the Saint James Church, dedicated to apostle Saint James the Greater, patron saint of travellers. It was built in the 16th century and must have dominated the skyline of the surroundings for three hundred years.
Now cities are dominated by great skyscrapers, the temples of the comparatively new civic religion of wealth and power. But the life that goes on beneath these towering edifices is much the same, in spirit if not in details, as the life that went on beneath the far smaller towers of Ur, Agade, Ninevah and Babylon. Cities have always had rich neighborhoods and poor ones, elegant aristocrats, merchants and pickpockets, grand hotels and apartment buildings. The ideal city has never existed, but it has always been a dream to build it.
To read the book is like taking a journey of cities in time and space. P.D. Smith looks back and forward at how cities have evolved, how they work, what they mean and where they are going. The book begins with the Aztecs’ Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, at the moment it was encountered by Spanish explorers in 1519. By then it had 200.000 inhabitants. Many more than any contemporary city in Spain.
The final chapter reminds me of the mWatch studies that we made in 2003 and 2006, as surveys of the mobile readiness in European mCities and regions. Now a few years later most cities are connected throughout using Wi-Fi, 3G and Edge and companies making mobile applications are mainstream. Also Eco-cities are becoming a reality, with Masdar in Abu Dhabi and Tianjin Eco-city in China.
Through the journey the author creates a grand portrait of what urbanity is and what it might become. The book feels like a random walk through a city, with unexpected twists and turns. For people who are interested in the development of cities, I highly recommend it. I end with a quote:
“The quest for the ideal city has intrigued philosophers, architects and artists since antiquity. It has become the Holy Grail of architecture and town planning. Ideal cities are the ultimate aspirational location. Their plans are an expression of the geometry of living, forming the perfect physical environment, a union of aesthetics and functionality that serves a social, even an ethical, purpose.
For the very structures and spaces of the ideal city instill a sense of order and fulfillment in their inhabitants. They are optimistic, progressive cities that teach you the good life with every step you take upon their pristine pavements.”