Half a century ago, Lewis Mumford published “The City in History,” a hugely influential and in some ways controversial book that has been the Bible for students and lovers of city life. But that was half a century ago, and around the world the cityscape has undergone enormous changes. A new look at this great subject has for some time been needed, and in “City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age,” P.D. Smith provides it. A British scholar connected to University College London, Smith is less philosophical and more empirical than Mumford, but if anything this is welcome, as “City” is wholly accessible to the serious general reader.
“What motivated me to write ‘City’ was a desire to explore and celebrate what is undoubtedly humankind’s greatest achievement,” Smith writes, expressing a sentiment with which I am in agreement. Not only have I lived without interruption in North American cities since my graduation from college 51 years ago, but when I go on vacation I’m in Lima, Peru, a city of more than 9 million people.
Walking is easier and more revealing in some cities than others — Washington, to be honest, is better for walking than much of Lima — but I’m the choir to which Smith is preaching when he writes, “To really understand a city, you need to walk its streets and read its geography through the soles of your feet,” which is why “the book you are holding is designed with this in mind, as a guidebook to an imaginary ‘Everycity’ ” — a book “in which you can wander and drift” as if you were walking through a real city.
Thus “City” is divided into sections that reveal cities in 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. If there’s anything of consequence about cities that Smith fails to discuss or at least mention, I don’t know what it is. He is at pains to emphasize that, though cities have changed much over the centuries, their essential character remains the same. Writing about the Arab cities of 3000 B.C., he says, “The fundamentals of human life in these first cities did not differ greatly from ours today.” He continues:
“From the love of good food expertly cooked and enjoyed with friends and family, to the need to work and the pleasures of shopping, their daily lives mirror ours. The Sumerians gave us the first cities, the first irrigated agriculture, the first written language. . . . They were recognizably cities in the modern sense of the word. They would have looked like a walled North African city, with narrow alleys no more than eight feet wide . . . white-washed, mud-brick houses of one or two storeys, with flat roofs and inner courtyards. The skyline of a Sumerian city would have been dominated by a steep, stepped ziggurat, a man-made mountain to the glory of their gods.”