We built this city, sang those celebrated prophets Starship. But in point of fact civilization rests on a rich and long-buried history of human beings communing, fighting, loving and surviving the great metropolises of our little blue world. 

Now British researcher P.D. Smith turns his piercing attention to the history and development of cities in City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, touching on topics ranging from gladiatorial combat to the murky world of underground labyrinths.

Read more new and notable nonfiction this June.

Most people write about specific places. Why write about the concept of cities themselves?

There are already some wonderful biographies of specific cities. Peter Ackroyd’s London and Alexandra Richie’s history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis, spring to mind immediately. But I wanted to do something different. Namely, to explore our enduring love affair with cities and to try to identify the essential features that explain the global success of cities and city life. I wanted to write a book that captured something of our urban DNA.

You write in the introduction that you tried to create a guidebook “in which you can wander and drift.” What inspired this unique structure to City?

I’ve always thought that the best way to get to know an unfamiliar city is to wander round it on foot, even to get lost in it. A city is a labyrinth of streets and alleys and I wanted to write a book that did not force the reader to follow a fixed narrative route. I wanted the reader to be able to open the book anywhere and to be immediately drawn into the subject.

The idea of structuring it as a guidebook was immensely appealing. People have been writing guidebooks to cities for hundreds of years. They often took the form of a walk through a city. Similarly, in my book you can choose your own route through the past, present and future of the city.

You’ve traditionally written about scientific topics—a biography of Albert Einstein, an exploration of nuclear physics. How did writing about a subject that is a bit less precise compare for you as an author?

Certainly the subject of cities is less clearly defined than, say, the life of Einstein. But breaking this “baggy monster,” to use Henry James’ phrase, of a subject into specific essays made it much easier to deal with. Nevertheless, I will not deny that it was a challenge. But, as a writer and as a reader, I like big subjects. And they don’t get much bigger than this!

What are the unique challenges of prophesizing what the world’s great cities might look like in 50 or 100 years?

One of the challenges is that, just like science-fictional accounts of the future, attempts to design ideal cities or predict the shape of future cities can date very quickly. Of course, that hasn’t stopped a range of futurists and architects imagining some wonderfully creative cities. They include Ron Herron’s “Walking City” from the 1960s, a robotic mega structure that could move across the landscape.

In reality though, things never turn out quite the way we expected. Unforeseen discoveries in science and technology can completely revolutionize the way we live and therefore the shape of our cities. In the future, climate change will almost certainly force us to rethink our urban lives, as some cities face water shortages and others have to contend with rising sea levels.

You’re something of a visual artist by nature. How did you visualize the layout of the book and the images that accompany your text?

It is illustrated in full-color throughout with double-page spreads between the sections. There is an image for each essay and text box. The eight sections—Getting Around, Time Out, etc.—are color coded, which gives each one a unique visual identity.

From the start, I saw it as an illustrated book, just like a guidebook. Some of the photos in the book are taken by me, as I love wandering around cities taking pictures of buildings and people. Cities are wonderfully visual subjects. Just think of the work of the great street photographers, people like John Thomson in London, Brassaï in Paris, or Bruce Davidson in New York City.

There are also many historical images in City. My publisher, Bloomsbury, did a brilliant job tracking down some of the more obscure photos and designing the book. It looks gorgeous, and I’m very grateful to everyone who worked on it for helping to turn my idea into reality.

What will readers find by exploring your Tumblr site or the Twitter hashtag #cities that will augment their reading of City?

The subject of cities is immense and rapidly changing. While writing the book I started using Twitter, tweeting links to news items and pieces I had discovered in the course of my research, with the hashtag #cities. It is a great way to get in touch with people around the world who are also fascinated by urban life.

I also started posting urban quotations and images on my Tumblr. The tags for each post generally relate to the topics in the book. So now it forms a constantly updated resource of news and links to current urban research that adds a new dimension to the experience of reading the book. I think it gives people a sense that the story of the City is still developing, still being written.

What was most important to you to portray through the writing of City?

One of the themes that emerged while writing the book was the remarkable continuity running through cities and city life, from the earliest urban communities thousands of years ago to today’s global cities. I believe cities are our greatest creation. At their best they are extraordinarily creative and diverse communities. I hope my book helps to open people’s eyes to how remarkable they are because, as more and more people move to cities around the world, one thing is clear—the future of humanity lies in the city.

Clayton Moore is a writer and a photographer based in Boulder, Colo. His work can be found at claywriting.blogspot.com.