We are presently living on an urban planet: more people all over the world now reside in cities than in rural areas. This was not the case even 60 years ago, but cities have increasingly come to define, at least in part, the human experience. Cities also help shape a country’s “image”: when we think of France, we see the Eiffel Tower in Paris, when we think of the United States, we most likely will think of New York’s skyline or Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign. We read the histories of cities not only because of the famous and less-famous people who were its citizens, but also because they are reflections of societal trends.
A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook deals with the recent evolution of four cities (St-Petersburg, Mumbai, Dubai and Shangai) and compare their histories in specific time periods where revolutions in urban development (generally brought from outside forces) transformed them into global metropolises, and what those trends may bring in the near future. St-Petersburg was the brain-child of Russian Czar Peter the Great, who wanted to build a modern “European” city on the model of Amsterdam, but had to rely on the work of serfs and autocratic rule to make it happen. The oil trade transformed Dubai from what had been regional port into a cosmopolitan “boomtown” of massive skyscrapers in a matter of decades where the citizens native to Dubai are now a small minority compared to recent arrivals.
In Smart cities : big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia Anthony Townsend, an urbanist and technology expert, presents the converging trends of growing urbanisation and reliance on digital technology to imagine how a “smart city” might function in a near future, and what new challenges might city-dwellers have to face as a result of this mutation. Looking back at how new technologies like wireless Internet and apps are already helping city planners and governments to cope with the challenges of growing cities. The author takes us on a worldwide tour to find examples of how wireless communication and technology are being applied to manage city services, cope with natural disasters, and improve overall quality of life while also raising the issues of privacy in a world of increasing surveillance and the influence of corporations on city developments. Despite its heavy subject, the book is quite accessible to the general reader.
It would be difficult to not mention a book that deals with Paris and London as these two cities were the models which much of the rest of the world tried to emulate for two centuries. Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City discusses how they were the symbols of a competition between the two great empires of 18th and 19th century, with their respective elites striving to make their capital the centre of wealth and sophistication. That “friendly” competition also helped shape each other’s cultures through their interactions and exchanges in business, arts, literature, gastronomy and fashion.
The growing pains and dislocations of people and historical neighborhoods are a recurring story in any place where people and their environment have to make concessions to change and progress, but the price paid can often be quite steep. Author Michael Meyer, in his book The Last Days of Old Beijing, tells of his experience while living in a Beijing hutong (narrow lane) for two years while he worked as a teacher and witnessed some of its oldest neighborhoods being razed in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, to be replaced by modern streets fit for cars, high-rise buildings and even Beijing’s first Wal-Mart. Though most of Meyer’s neighborhood was spared in the end, his book is full tales of forced evictions and relocations from homes, some centuries-old, and of old ways slowly being eroded in exchange for dubious “progress”.
In the book 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War author Charles Emmerson explores the world the year just before the outbreak of the First World War through its capital cities, not just in Europe but all over the five continents, and see much that the war changed. He writes about Imperial Beijing and Tokyo and their struggles to modernize their governments and countries’ infrastructures to better compete with the West, the capitals of the Middle East and their struggles to as the centre of multi-ethnic countries on the verge of great changes. Winnipeg and Melbourne are also included, as cities of the British Dominions that shared many parallel histories in their explosive growth and mutations due to large influx of immigrants, struggling toward uncertain futures.
If you are interested in the hidden past beneath your feet, the documentary Cities of the Underworld, lets you discover the underbellies of cities like Paris, Shanghai and Rome and walk through their ancient catacombs, aqueduct networks and clandestine hideouts. You also learn about their constructions and how they withstood the test of time, and the myths and legends that grew around them.
More books about the histories of cities from all over the world are constantly arriving on the library’s bookshelves, so please add your suggestions.