This uncommonly interesting and intelligent book considers how two powerful human urges — to imitate the things we admire and/or envy, and to be in the vanguard of modernization — have played out in the histories of four of the world’s oddest and most prominent cities: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai. “A History of Future Cities” is not a linear account of how these cities developed but is divided into four stages in which they sought to become more modern and, specifically, more Western. Daniel Brook writes:
“These four unlikely sister cities are unified by the sense of disorientation they impart. . . . The disorientation imparted by St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai results from their being located in the East but purposefully built to look as if they are in the West. Their occidental looks are anything but accidental. . . . For Western visitors to these cities, love/hate reactions are common. Yet love them or hate them, these dis-orient-ed metropolises matter. They are places to be reckoned with because they are ideas as much as cities, metaphors in stone and steel for the explicit goal of Westernization. . . . These global gateway cities raise the question of how to be a modern Arab, Russian, Chinese, and Indian, and whether modernization and globalization can ever be more than just euphemisms for Westernization.”
(W. W. Norton) - ’A History of Future Cities’ by Daniel Brook.
Brook, a freelance journalist who lives in New Orleans, is not your basic patronizing First Worlder turning up his nose at cities whose powers-that-be think that erecting an ersatz Big Ben will somehow turn them into London or that cramming the royal palace with the greatest art of France and Italy will somehow turn them into Paris or Rome. Brook is sympathetic rather than condescending to their ambitions. The “draw of Dubai in the twenty-first century — as the draw of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai historically — is more than just the lure of great wealth,” he writes. “It is the lure of participating in modernity. To go from being a South Indian rice farmer to a construction worker who erects the tallest building on earth is to untether oneself from the past and build the future. . . . 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.”
That is a laudable if somewhat sentimental goal that is not remotely within the reach of any of these cities. Dubai, for example, could not exist in its present form without air conditioning and as a result it has a carbon footprint of astonishing dimensions, wildly out of proportion to its minute population and territory; global-warming deniers to the contrary, sooner or later a huge price will be paid for this by the rest of the world, not merely by Dubai. There and in the other three cities under discussion, efforts to improve the lot of the poor have been half-hearted at best; that rice farmer who left India to help build the 163-story Burj Khalifa may be participating in modernity, but he and his family almost certainly live in a slum, probably with undrinkable water. Many of the grandest buildings of central St. Petersburg have glittering facades, but their interiors are crumbling.