A History of Future Cities
W. W. Norton & Company, 2013
480 pp., $27.95
Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church
Stephen T. Um
176 pp., $15.99
Noah J. Toly
In the City We Trust
Some have called the 21st century "the Century of the City." Clearly, this has not been lost on publishers. Since the early 2000s, in anticipation of the most significant demographic shift of the past two thousand years, authors have been churning out books on the importance of the city. Now that the majority of the world's population lives in urban areas—and given the increasing prominence of those regions in global affairs—it seems that every day I receive notice of a new book on the significance of the city. For someone who is writing about the city, this is not as encouraging as some might assume. I suppose it is only a matter of time before someone publishes another version of the book I am currently working on. Worse yet, this run may come to an end.
On the other hand, there may be some hope in the fact that the latest crop of books seems to focus on the dynamism of cities. Apparently, "Nothing ever stays the same in cities"—so say Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard in their introduction to Why Cities Matter to God, the Culture, and the Church, which follows the trend of cataloguing every seemingly important function of urban areas. Indeed, it sometimes seems that if everything that cities are or do were written down, the whole world might not be able to contain all the books. So the dynamism of the city may be my great hope for a continued scholarly career.
And if some recent books are to be believed, cities, by sheer force of their own mutability, may actually save more than my career—urban dynamism may be the good news of deliverance from both social oppression and idolatry. Daniel Brook's A History of Future Cities focuses our attention squarely on the former. Brook traces the development of three cities that were at one point planned by élites with the intention of accumulating greater wealth and power. St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai—three of the East's greatest cities—were founded in order to achieve the wealth and splendor of modern Western cities without the egalitarian impulses and other social trappings of the West. Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg to achieve the wealth of Amsterdam without the rule of law or the republican traditions of the Dutch. Foreign traders built Shanghai, one of the world's most libertarian communities, around a Chinese ghetto and with no regard for the welfare of its original residents. Sir Bartle Frere founded some of Mumbai's greatest institutions with the intention of simultaneously Anglicizing the Indian population and avoiding Indian home-rule.
In each of these cases, Brook suggests, the city proved to be inherently dynamic and socially unstable. Though each was established in order to reinforce the status quo distribution of power and wealth, all three proved too unruly and dynamic for the élites that planned them. The czars, the foreign traders of Shanghai, and the English colonizers were naïve to think that they could use the city to produce the wealth of the West without producing democratic expectations, social instability, and revolutionary sentiments. Indeed, each city's history became a record of the struggle for self-rule and democracy in the face of various authoritarianisms. Mumbai became the center of the Indian home-rule movement and Shanghai the symbol China's ascendance to leadership in global trade. In St. Petersburg, czars and Bolsheviks alike found themselves unable to contain the aspirations of the urban masses despite their most brutal efforts. As Brook writes, "St. Petersburg had been intended as a city of controlled modernization, but the modern people the city made—literate, worldly Russians—could not be controlled."
In his final case study, Brook points us to Dubai. Some see Dubai as a paradise of sheer possibility—the first fruits of a global future of cosmopolitan splendor. Others see it as an "evil paradise" where the logic of the market and the power of capital dominate a population of foreign-born workers who raise cities from whole cloth on behalf of a wealthy few. Brook has some sympathy with the more pessimistic assessments, acknowledging that present-day Dubai does not live up to egalitarian ideals. Still, Dubai, for Brook, is a microcosm of the world and the center of its hopes:
Apologizing for Dubai is apologizing for the world as it is. But writing off Dubai is writing off the world as it might be. It is writing off modernity itself, smothering the hope that in the age of jet-powered globalization, we can all learn to live together as a community, sharing a single city and, ultimately, a single world.
Brook is ambiguous about whether such a democratic future is assured. He sometimes suggests that the outcome is an open question to be answered in and by our cities. At other points, he sounds downright utopian: urban dynamism ensures that patient hopefulness will be rewarded with self-rule and greater equity in a future world "piloted by the diverse, worldly, intelligent people assembled and forged by the city." Despite his equivocation on this point, Brook emphasizes that "the stakes could not be higher." "The fate of the world," he says, "will be decided in the rising metropolitan hubs of the developing world, in places like Mumbai, Lagos, and Dhaka." For Brook, even those cities marked by the most extreme inequity are the great hope for an egalitarian future: "Even the most autocratic modern global cities offer democratic vistas despite the assiduous efforts of their autocrats to block them from view."