Cities: A Magisterial Exploration of the Nature and Impact of the City from Its Beginnings to the Mega-Conurbations of Today by John Reader

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Posted 2007-08-06

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

Calling cities "the defining artifacts of a civilization" (p. 1), John Reader makes a strong case for studying the history, form, and cultural geography of cities. Starting from a detailed examination of the oldest-known cities and exploring all the way through about seven thousands years of human history, Reader provides an overview of the needs, interests, politics, culture, and world view of people who choose to call a particular city home. In the end, Reader identifies the city as an imperfect, dynamic artifact, closely related to the "progress of humanity" that gives rise to inventions (p. 306).

Reader starts by examining the foundational motivations of cities. He first turns an old assumption on its head. Cities long have been thought to emerge when agricultural activity produced surpluses that lead to specialized workers. Instead, Reader examines Çatal Hüyük in Turkey (occupied approximately from 6700 BC to 5700 BC) and makes the case that it was the emergence of specially-skilled workers making tools and craft goods that was key. These artisans freed up farmers from having to create these same goods, and thus the farmers had time (and tools) to produce more. These craft workers could assemble in one area to make their goods available--early cities (p. 23).

Reader looks at Mesopotamia's early cities arising from fertile soils. He shows how city dwellers at places like Ur shared similar interests as city-dwellers many centuries subsequent: attention toward obtaining and preparing food, family relationships, and specialized knowledge and crafts (pp. 38-43). Food supply dominated the concerns of not just citizens but politicians seeking to rule a population (p. 56) so that by 123 BC, every citizen of Rome was guaranteed a ration of grain (p. 57). Stresses such as the enormous tasks of feeding many people as well as the stress on the environment gave rise to the "rise and fall" cycle inherent in the cities Reader observes (p. 69).

Reader identifies the interplay of religious and commercial interests as well as economics and politics as defining issues up through the time of the 18th-century Industrial Revolution. For example, he cites how the merchant Francisco di Marco Dataini had a motto--"For God and For Profit"--that reflected "the history and urban network of Europe" (p. 106). Reader shows how the balance (or imbalance) among these forces influenced the way cities grew. Reader observes that "where princes ruled, economies faltered; where merchants thrived, cities flourished" (p. 126). Reader notes how some people made more money than others, and these class differences played a role in the 18th-century Industrial Revolution and after. London in the 19th century grew, and marked a time when invention and finance--not landownership--was the mainstay of the economy (p. 132).

The intense concentration of people in cities--and the resultant strain on the surrounding agricultural region, and the need for water, sanitation, housing, transportation, public health, and a labor force is the culminating set of issues Reader sets forth in his book. Reader astutely observes that the tension between public concern and commercial interests plays out in city development in the 21st century, citing the example of Berlin's rebuilding as the German capital after reunification and the Docklands area of London (p. 281). Reader shows that when the public interest isn't protected, commercial interests seek to fill the resultant vacuum of power. Similarly, political opportunism, such as the post World War I housing shortage in Germany, drew politicians who "saw there were votes to be harvested here" (p. 275).

In the end, Reader is concerned about the environmental impact of cities (p. 294), but he fails to square this with the idea that the city may be the most ecologically sound way to meet the needs of millions of people (by reducing the resource needs for materials, space, and the energy inherent in transportation.) Indeed, the very messiness that Reader seems to rue is a strength he identifies elsewhere. For example, Plato "stressed diversity as the characteristics that enable a city to thrive" (p. 141) which Reader goes on to clarify as "a single multiplicity of mutually supportive activities and interactions" (p. 142).

Elsewhere, Reader points to unexpected, emergent diversity in a city as observed in London after the fire of 1666. The social order flowing in after the fire consisted of "thousands of new people... craftsmen, suppliers, transporters, builders and property speculators... hawkers and traders" (p. 267). This social order:

"...was not in any way related to what the planners might have envisaged, or thought to be ideal [my emphasis]. This was a classic example of how the flow of economy, society and culture can contradict--even invalidate--the ideas and theories that planners have advocated." (p. 267)
Thus, I think the strength of Reader's assessment is that it shows cities to thrive not based on a rational, imposed order, but on an emergent, incremental, human-based and non-rational series of interactions. The city is not structure, but dynamic "activities and interactions" (p. 142).

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©