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Book Review: History of Future Cities

At first glance, the premise of journalist Daniel Brook's History of Future Cities threatens to overwhelm its substance. "What do these four cities...have in common?" asks Brook, as if co-hosting a parlor game with Edward Glaeser, Saskia Sassen, and Jaime Lerner. 

The four cities that Brook pulls out of his hat are St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai. On face, the potential commonalities seem so endless as to be trivial. They are relatively large. They are on oceans. They are major economic and cultural centers of their respective countries. "Gangnam Style" has echoed through all their streets.

All of these claims are true, and yet they would be equally true of any number of other foursomes. On the other hand, these cities are individually are so distinct -- geographically, economically, and culturally -- as to share little in common. So what, then, is Brook getting at? 

The thesis that binds this unlikely quartet is either just strong enough to be fascinating or so attenuated as to be pointless. Brook claims that these four cities, which may, from a crude western perspective, be considered quintessentially Russian, Chinese, Indian, and Arab are, in each case, are more like colonies (and, in the case of Mumbai a colony within a colony) than they are capitals. 

What matters for Brook is not so much the form of the cities but rather their purpose: the reasons why they were founded, the cultural biases that guided their development, and the economic consequences thereof. Brook contends that the four cities were not built to celebrate their respective cultures or to build indigenous economies but rather to establish beachheads of western modernity on incongruous and otherwise backwards soils. 

Brook substantiates this claim most clearly in the most obvious example, Dubai, and in the least obvious example, St. Petersburg. 

In the late 1600s, when Russia was scarcely more developed than was, say, early 20th century China, Tsar Peter the Great visited what was then the world's most dynamic city: Amsterdam. Traveling incognito, he was enchanted by the city's design and more than a little envious of its elegance, culture, and prosperity. High on Europe's finest, Peter turned his back on his own nation and resolved to transform the Neva's swampy mouth into not a great Russian capital but rather a great European capital. Peter and his successor, Catherine, imported European architecture, culture, and even dress -- not to mention Europeans themselves, primarily those skilled in the arts -- to the extent that he even outlawed the characteristic beards of Russian men. 

Under Peter's direction, "because the city and its modern institution arose out of imported theory...they could be inauthentic, paint-by-numbers imitations of Western equivalents or cutting-edge institutions that, easily realized on St. Peterburg's tabula rasa, leapfrogged the West." These institutions include museums, theaters, universities, and many of the other high culture institutions that ennoble Russia to this day. Brook also credits St. Petersburg for bringing democracy to Russia, but only briefly. 

In Peter's case, the "futureness" of St. Petersburg lay in his attempt to create a city centuries more advanced, developed, and cultured than was any other place in his kingdom. If Peter was inspired by Amsterdam, then we can only assume that Dubai's Sheikh Maktoum must have spent some time in Houston. For Brook, the familiar spectacle of Dubai, and the emotional reaction that it elicits, is based on the same principle as was the development of St. Petersburg 300 years earlier. If Brook is correct in saying that "while the city of Dubai is new, the idea of Dubai is not," then the very tall Burj Khalifa and the very long Nevsky Prospekt are one in the same. 

Shanghai comes off as, in some ways, the most tarred and tragic of the four cities, as it was co-opted by British, French, and other foreign forces such that native Chinese were forced to the bottom of the city's complex national hierarchy. Whereas today all foreign visitors need visas to enter Shanghai, in the 19th and early 20th century, Chinese were the only ones who did need visas to enter what became a perverse sort of free-trade zone. It was known then as "the most free city in the world" -- free as long as you were a wheeler-dealer of an appropriate race. 

Mumbai, initially a tiny, claw-shaped peninsula, served much the same purpose for the British, who first created a trading post on landfill and later oversaw the construction of an Art Deco wonderland before, as Brook describes it, India's independence freed the country but perpetuated India's social stratification and made a mess of the infrastructure that the British built. Today, true public space is unheard-of in Mumbai. And its two major train stations both bear the same name. 

In balancing minute curiosities with geopolitical commentary, History of Future Cities pulls off a rare feat: it manages not to make urban history boring. All too often, urban histories focus on the minutiae of a particular city's rise (or fall) with little mind to the larger context. They focus on forces like local political machines and racial politics, History of Future Cities includes fiery accounts of enlightened depots, revolution, and imperial rivalries. Indeed, Brook is at his best when he uses his four cities as Trojan horses to tell the histories of their respective nations. He includes few Robert Moses or Baron Hausmanns but instead offers up Catherine the Great, Josef Stalin, and Ghandi. That's not a bad trade. 

He savages leaders who have manipulated their cities for dubious gain. His targets include the Bolsheviks, who deliberately neglected (and renamed) Russia's jewel; the plutocrats-cum-mob bosses who gobbled up formerly public companies in post-Soviet Russia; the wealthy Indians who look down upon Untouchables from their penthouses; the sheikh, who buys his subjects' loyalty; and, finally to pretty much everyone who ever took part in Shanghai's cavalcade of exploitation, including, not least, the current Communist Chinese government. Brook even notes a particularly chilling connection between two of his case-study cities: "Lenin's new vision of communism as anti-imperialism was pitched perfectly to Shanghai, a capitalist city where most capitalists were foreign imperialists rather than indigenous industrialists." 

To Brook, the grotesque office park that the Chinese communist government is currently building in Shanghai's Pudong district is no less a symbol of exploitation than was the French Concession or the British-built Bund. Meant to be viewed from across the river but sterile at street level, "Pudong is less a city than an ad for a city," writes Brook.

By that token, Dubai, which has perfected the contrivance of the free-trade zone, is an advertisement for an entire country. Its design, and most of its residents, were imported, right along with the Porsche, the Picasso, and the Rolex on the sheikh's wrist. The exploitation there happens in reverse, to the hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers who endure minuscule wages and countless rights violations in order to towers that house wealthy Americans, Russians, Chinese, British, and Indians, among others.

Those visitors make "Dubai a cosmopolitan city where most people are not cosmopolitans," writes Brook. Instead, most of the expat population lives, eats, and dresses as they would have at home. Meanwhile, the city's few native, oil-enriched Emiratis lay low, in compound-style houses, behind high walls. They remain content, writes Brook, because of state largesse: "no taxation therefore no representation." 

The drive for profit, if not exactly capitalism, lies behind the founding and persistence of these four cities, all driven by combinations of autocracy and oligarchy. But they are just four cities. What of the rest of the world? 

Brook's most disheartening implication is that every developing country that wishes to do business with the west must also adopt the western model of urbanism. And if it's not imitating the west, then it's imitating someplace else that has already done its share of imitating. If this is true, then even urban planning - which has the potential to be the most local and most genuine of cultural endeavors - may also reduce inexorably to a homogeneous model that was inspired by, of all places, Amsterdam but no longer looks anything like it. 

Mike Davis' 2008 essay compilation Evil Paradises, which Brook cites, makes a more radical but arguably more convincing argument that the global elite are indeed in control and creating places to serve entirely at their pleasure. Some of these places are big, like Dubai, while others do not yet exist, like a proposed floating city. Though Brook's account is more lucid and less heavy-handed, he remains close to parlor-game territory because he does not even try to place his four cities into a larger context or suggest - or deny - that they may be representatives of larger trends, either in the past or in the future. He does not indicate whether he thinks the four cities represent a wider trend, nor does he explicitly say that the four, though striking in their similarities, are in fact unique. He offers four cases without much of a study.  

Brook leaves it to his readers, then, to imagine if and when the "future city" will arise. What city will be the Dubai of Africa? Which central Asian city will be the next St. Petersburg? What isolated country - Venezuela? Mongolia? North Korea? North Dakota? - will decide that if you can't beat the West, you ought to join it? And what measure of cultural identity, national pride, and indigenous entrepreneurialism will be lost in the process? 

A History of Future Cities

Daniel Brook
W.W. Norton & Co.
April 2013
$27.95