Wednesday, November 07, 2012


city – a guidebook for the urban age

by PD Smith

Bloomsbury 2012

Call me crazy but I love wandering about in big (European-style) cities. Ideally, they should have a historic core (Mediaeval will do, Roman ruins a bonus!), a big river, a university. Prague, Paris, Cologne, that sort of place is the perfect holiday destination for me.

But what makes cities so attractive, not just for me as a visitor, but for an increasing number of people to move into them, especially into the rapidly growing megacities (with more than 10 million people) of the developing world? Can the cultural history of “the city” be generalised to reveal insights into this form of human cohabitation and cooperation?

PD Smith has attempted this generalisation for cities throughout history and around the world. Like one of my random walks through a city, the book explores many avenues and sights, sometimes via unexpected passageways, and the author invites us to peruse the book in nonlinear fashion. Like the districts of a city, the book has themed section, but within their confines, surprise encounters may happen.

Smith highlights the advantages of a compact, walkable, people-friendly city (I might have mentioned Cologne as an example, where people walk, rollerskate, cycle etc. across the entire North-South extent of the city area on the marvellous river promenade), as opposed to the sprawling, car-friendly city (LA, Brasilia, Milton Keynes). People-friendly cities with adequate public transport and energy-efficient buildings are in fact more environmentally benign on a per-person basis than country lifestyles that heavily depend on driving.

Smith draws on an astonishing treasure trove of sources – including the many volumes that have been written about specific, much-loved cities such as Paris, Venice or New York , and on studies of specific topics like commuting, suburbia, or street art. Faithful readers of his book reviews in the Guardian and elsewhere will recognise some of the information nuggets.

Like any traveller, he always tends to gravitate back home to London, which for a time was the biggest and most powerful city of the world. He concludes the weighty tome with an outlook on the future of the city and with a memento mori, reminding us that all cities will fall to ruins one day.

Highly recommended for anybody who can appreciate cities as more than just the place they commute to.


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