A swift examination of the pleasures and problems of city life.
With moderate success, British photojournalist Reader attempts to elbow his way into the very crowded room of urban historians. (His lengthy bibliography pays homage to many of them.) Declaring that the city is “the defining artifact of civilisation,” he offers a variety of approaches. First he takes a long look back at the Sumerians, who, he reminds us, viewed Eden not as a garden but as a city. Reader notes that the centralization of craftsmen was a significant factor in the evolution of urban areas, as was the necessity to feed large numbers of people efficiently. He races through the streets of Greek, Roman and medieval cities, then on through the communities created and soiled by the Industrial Revolution. We see the effects of world wars and global economics (he takes a few swipes at Enron). Somewhere in the middle, Reader’s text begins to resemble an undergraduate’s research paper: many references, block quotations, and an occasional truism such as, “people flock to the cities in the hope of better prospects.” The pace picks up again in the final 100 pages, the most compelling section. Reader examines water usage, public health and sanitation; his description of raw sewage in the 19th-century Seine is both amusing and nauseating. Evaluating urban planning’s successes and failures, he declares that the latter far outnumber the former. He offers closer looks at specific cities: Venice, Havana, Mexico City, Milan, Madrid, Cleveland, London (immediately after the Great Fire of 1666) and Berlin. He concludes that too many dark forecasts for the future of the city may have suspended—temporarily, he hopes—the optimism needed to deal with today’s pervasive urban problems.
Worth plodding through the turgid mid-section following the lively early chapters for the thought-provoking conclusion.