Equally propitious in its timing is City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, by English author P.D. Smith. Organized on the lines of a travel guide, with sections on Arrival, Customs and Where to Stay, it is reminiscent of Norman Davies’s excellent 1998 history of Europe: A one-volume overview of a potentially daunting subject, made readable, and even gripping, through fine writing and magazine-like sidebars (in Smith’s case, on subjects as diverse as red-light districts and urban food carts). Effortlessly flitting from the surprisingly modern grid plans of ancient Chinese cities to the hauntingly timeless-looking ruins of contemporary Detroit, City represents a pain-free – in fact, joyful – survey course on nine millennia (at least) of urban history.
Obviously aware that his panoptic approach to global cities risks alienating some readers, Smith advises us to wander and drift through the text. The spectacular colour photo spreads and crisp street plans dotted through the pages of City – which reminded me of the Time-Life books I devoured in my youth – tempted me to do just that. But I must be a fool for urbanism, because I read all 339 pages up to the endnotes, and gleaned something new from almost every one. I had no idea, for example, that, long before the heyday of Chicago’s Loop, tightly serried skyscrapers rose in the sands of Yemen (the 11-storey mud buildings still stand in Shibam, the “Manhattan of the Desert”). And I’m grateful to Smith for alerting me to the existence of the Street Observation Science Society, established in 1986, a group of flâneurs committed to docu- menting what remains of old Tokyo, and whose symbol is an all-seeing eye on the sole of a shoe.
“Cities,” Smith avers, “are our greatest creation,” and this crash course in urban civilization is a reminder of the complexity, cosmopolitanism and creativity that are engendered, and encouraged, by living and working cheek by jowl. (Indeed, for some commentators, urbanity, by definition, is proximity. “Cities,” Ed Glaeser proposes in The Triumph of the City, “are the absence of physical space between people and companies.” Which makes a Mumbai commuter train at rush hour the most civilized of places.)
Smith’s survey is a reminder that urban history goes back very far indeed – at least to 7,000 BC, in the Neolithic artisans’ settlement of Çatalhöyük in what is now Turkey – and, with the exception of the postwar drift into decentralization and automobile-driven sprawl (the city that Lewis Mumford called “the anti-city”), they have always been walkable.
I figure Speck, Smith and other members of the city gang (I consider myself an affiliate) have earned the right to a little cockiness. There is reason, after all, to strut: The city survived the worst the 20th century could throw at it, including carpet bombing, urban freeways and Le Corbusier. There are signs, too, that Canadian cities, at least in the West, are catching up: Mayors such as Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi and Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson are paying attention to the latest international currents in urbanism and sustainability, and the Great Flush of 2012 may clear the pipes for some new talent in Eastern and Central Canada. But I also figure the time for triumphalism will soon be over, and we’d better get on with making the best of the sometimes vexing, sometimes thrilling, experience of being in the city. Something that is best done, in my opinion, the good old way.
Taras Grescoe is the author of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. He can be followed on Twitter @grescoe.