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.”
Until about a century ago, the skylines of most cities continued to be dominated by the minarets or steeples of mosques or churches. Now they 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 aristos and pickpockets, grand hotels and tenements. The ideal city has never existed, but it has always been a dream:
“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 instil a sense of order and fulfilment in their inhabitants. They are optimistic, progressive cities that teach you the good life with every step you take upon their pristine pavements.”
That no ideal city has been built is not for lack of trying. Leonardo da Vinci’s “notes and drawings reveal plans for a geometric city of piazzas, tunnels, canals and loggias.” Mumford idealized the medieval city in “The City in History” and disparaged the modern suburb, with its utter dependence on the automobile. Proof of his argument was inadvertently supplied at almost exactly the same time his book appeared by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, the chief designers of Brasilia: “Architecturally and as a display of national pride, Brasilia was a success. But as an attempt to create a dynamic urban centre, it was a failure. Costa described it as the capital of the ‘autostrada and the park.’ He brought together the bucolic ideal of the English garden city with the technology that did most to determine (some would say destroy) the shape of post-war cities everywhere: the motor car. Indeed, the city is designed around a motorway, the Eixo Rodoviario, with its eight lanes of high-speed traffic. Pedestrians are made to feel as though they are second-class citizens, forced to cross the road in dirty and dangerous [tunnels].”
Later Smith writes: “Perhaps more than any other human technology, the car has shaped our everyday lives. . . . ‘Instead of planning motor cars and motorways to fit our life,’ complained Lewis Mumford in 1957, ‘we are rapidly planning our life to fit the motor car.’ ” There is some evidence, still tentative, that this is beginning to change. It can be found in the two cities of my present life: In Washington, bicycle riding is being aggressively promoted by the city administration, and in Lima, a new high-speed bus lane between the suburbs and the center city is attracting impressive numbers of riders. But commuter traffic in Washington too often grinds to a halt, and in Lima, where vehicular overcrowding is compounded by appalling driving habits, the situation is far worse.
Lima, with its population approaching 10 million, is just below the definition of a megacity. Now there are “some twenty-two megacities . . . with populations of more than 10 million people,” a “figure that is expected to rise to at least twenty-six by 2025.” In all of them, people are buying cars at a frenetic pace and driving them with minimal knowledge of or obedience to driving regulations. These cities unquestionably are dynamic, but “as the number of people living in cities increases so, too, do the problems they face,” to wit:
“The climate of the earth is changing and as a result cities are bracing themselves to cope with threats from a more hostile environment, including flooding and extreme storms, as well as rising temperatures and water shortages. They must also deal with profound social problems. For thousands of years, cities have proved highly effective at lifting people out of poverty. But today there is a growing divide between rich and poor. While globalization and the opening-up of markets around the world has generated great wealth, it is unevenly distributed. The gated communities of the affluent stand next to shanty towns in which households have no clean running water. A third of all city dwellers now live in slums. . . . As the population of the world rises and resources become more scarce, the need to reduce the ecological footprint of cities is urgent.”
Smith is guardedly optimistic that “sustainable, humane and well-governed cities” can emerge to cope with the future’s difficult challenges, but surely nobody thinks that will be easy or come without a very high price.
A Guidebook for the Urban Age
By P.D. Smith
Bloomsbury. 383 pp. $40