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A History of Future Cities
A History of Future Cities
Daniel Brook
W. W. Norton & Company, 2013
480 pp., $27.95

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Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church
Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church
Stephen T. Um
Crossway, 2013
176 pp., $15.99

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Noah J. Toly


In the City We Trust

Urban dynamism, utopian dreams, and human brokenness.

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At his best moments, Brook channels two of the greatest urbanists of the 20th century: Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford both emphasized the diversity and dynamism of the city as a key to human flourishing. But Mumford is Brook's real muse. In his magisterial book The City in History, Mumford writes that the city, which owes its existence to "concentrated attempts at mastering other men," finally justifies itself by bringing "all the tribes and nations of mankind into a common sphere of co-operation and interplay." While the city has a totalitarian bent that threatens the annihilation of humanity, its concentration of diverse peoples is our hope for an egalitarian future. Together, through "an intensification of collective self-knowledge," people can make the most of "deeper historic sources and ever widening contacts" that mark our modern world and its largest cities.

A key difference between Brook and Mumford is in their methodology. Mumford, whose works were often marked by frustratingly unrealistic prognostication, arrived at his conclusions dialectically, following a bleak history with a bright future. Brook, on the other hand, looks to the past to ground his hope in future cities and therefore must bear the full burden of counterevidence. For example, Janet Abu-Lughod's history of Chicago reveals a dynamic city that nevertheless suffers from persistent and seemingly intractable inequity. Chicago has a reputation for serial reinvention. Notwithstanding this dynamism, the city has been characterized from the beginning by what Abu-Lughod describes as "an elegant façade and a deeply shadowed backstage." Except for the occasional relocation of the poor, Chicago's dynamism seems to have changed little for the city's most disenfranchised. Indeed, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Brook seems to ignore many such examples of persistent and more or less stable inequities, standing firm in his expectation that the diversity and dynamism of the city will deliver us from oppression.

Brook is not alone in his high expectations of urban diversity and dynamism. In Why Cities Matter, Um and Buzzard write that the "rich, diverse DNA of the city creates an environment where tremendous culture making can take place." For Um and Buzzard, diversity and dynamism may be turned to idolatrous ends. Alternatively, they may be a "great hope for renewing our broken world." In emphasizing idolatry in the city, Um and Buzzard, like Brook, also channel Mumford, who noted, "The city first took form as the home of a god: a place where eternal values were represented and divine possibilities revealed." "When cities were first founded," Mumford wrote, "the mission of the founder was to 'put the gods in their shrines.' " Unlike Mumford, who argues that we should replace our worship of the machine with our worship of humankind, Um and Buzzard suggest that each city's idol should be replaced with the worship of the one true God.

Um and Buzzard write with two purposes. First, they aim to correct what they see as a typical evangelical focus on ministries addressing "inner city problems" such as crime and homelessness. Second, they intend to disabuse their readers of the assumption that cities are simply places of brokenness. They deliver on the first promise—making the case that cities are more than "inner city problems"—though it isn't clear that such a negative perception is currently widespread among the evangelicals that likely make up most of their readership. They fail, however, on the second objective. In fact, they may be caught in a performative contradiction, undermining themselves by saying that cities are not all about brokenness and yet organizing the book around discovering and rooting out idolatry, a basic form of brokenness.

Furthermore, Um and Buzzard do not do justice to the idolatries of the city. In any given city, there are many different idolatries at work. Um and Buzzard give the slightest of nods in this direction, acknowledging that "in every city there are countless subcultures that cling to diverse narratives to make sense and meaning out of life." Nevertheless, they believe "it is both true and helpful to see that one overarching big story line tends to drive and define the life of our cities." This is neither true nor helpful and may actually reveal yet another contradiction: For a book that touts the "rich, diverse DNA of the city," the notion that a single overarching narrative drives and defines every city, revealing its idols, simply does not take the diversity of the city seriously enough.

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