“A History of Future Cities” Review

I know I can’t be the only one who has wondered, while waiting through a full light cycle for a walk signal only to see that my button pressing was in vain, what it would be like to have the power of Tsar Peter the Great to create through imperial decree a city tailored to my preferences. But seeing as there is no great clamor to make me Tsar Zachary of Minneapolis I’ve had to content myself with living vicariously through Daniel Brook’s excellent A History of Future Cities.

Maybe if I grew a mustache?

A History of Future Cities focuses on four “artificial” cities — St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai — that were created and then rapidly expanded in an attempt to modernize (in the limited sense of facilitating technological advancement or meeting Western criteria for modernity) the nations which they are in. The cities were built deliberately alien from their surroundings, as imitations of Western cities in hopes that such imitation would result in modernization, or because the ruling imperialists preferred their home cities even when in a foreign country.  Each of the cities would surpass this limited idea of modernity and their combined stories provide a vision of the role of the city in shaping our histories.  Or, as Brook puts it:

They are places to be reckoned with because they are ideas as much as cities, metaphors in stone and steel for the explicit goal of Westernization. . . . These global gateway cities raise the question of how to be a modern Arab, Russian, Chinese, and Indian, and whether modernization and globalization can ever be more than just euphemisms for Westernization.

Of particular relevance to our political moment is the discussion of the role of cities in driving political change. St. Petersburg was created with the intent that it change the Russia of serfs and superstition into a modern nation on par with Enlightenment Amsterdam. But, as the Tsars who followed Peter found, cities don’t just drive technological modernization. Shanghai and Mumbai followed similar paths of modernization and revolution:

While Shanghai and Bombay were intended to be familiar and comforting to the Westerners who designed them, to their Chinese and Indian inhabitants these strange new buildings and the cosmopolitan cities themselves were, by turns, confusing, threatening, and inspiring.  It was in Bombay that Indians were first exposed to the technology of the railroad.  It was in Shanghai that the Chinese beheld their first skyscraper.  Largely excluded from the white societies built on their soil, soon the Chinese and Indian populations were building their own versions of the institutions Westerners had imported but held beyond their grasp.  The Shanghainese founded their own business corporations and created China’s first elected city council while Bombay’s Indians built an indigenous film industry and an anticolonial assembly.  These English-speaking citizens became the crucibles of Chinese and Indian modernity, where the locals debated and decided what it might mean to be Chinese and Indian in the modern world.  These colonial cities forged the men and women who smarted at colonial domination and eventually overthrew it.

Cities create and sustain the ideas and leaders that enable and empower political change. Though this change is not always positive (as Brook points out, “It is no coincidence that St. Petersburg birthed the Bolsheviks, Shanghai the Chinese Communist Party, and Mumbai the Indian National Congress, all forces that pared back their nations’ ties to the outside world”) the ability of cities to create political change, by tossing together different people and ideas and creating a critical mass of interdependence and interaction, is indisputable.  We may not think of the urban form of our cities as having political salience beyond the small-scale city politics of road paving and conditional use permits, but perhaps we should.  All politics is local, said Tip O’Neill; so may be all Resistance.

Equally important, Brook’s book provides examples of how stealing ideas can help create better cities.  When people argue against bike lanes and road diets and density by saying, “We’re not Copenhagen!” A History of Future Cities provides you a background to say, “Why aren’t we?”  No one advocates reinventing the wheel, but everyone seems to be against adopting urbanism from elsewhere if it conflicts with their preexisting preferences.  “Why Copenhagen?”  Because Copenhagen works!  This isn’t Traffic or Street Fight, but there is plenty for a practical urbanist to engage with.

Brook takes particular care to structure his histories of the cities in parallel threads, so although the scope of the book spans the globe and hundreds of years, you’ll never forget where or when you’re supposed to be.  You will feel you have an intimate understanding of each of the cities, as though a time-travelling jet-setting streets.mn writer were catching you up on their recent trip to the new port of Shanghai.

This book may have flaws; I read it too eagerly and too quickly, even the second and third and fourth time, to notice them.  If you find any flaws, leave them in the comments.  On the other hand, Washington D.C. and Brasilia would make fascinating case studies on future cities that Brook inexplicably excluded.

A History of Future Cities is a fascinating history, a collection of case studies on the political role of cities, and an engaging read.  Both a review of the path to the modern and a vision of possibilities for the role of cities, it’s well worth your time.


Zachary Wefel

About Zachary Wefel

Former candidate for Minneapolis Ward 1 City Council, lawyer at Wefel Law Firm PLLC, and co-founder of the Minnesota Tool Library. Follow me on Twitter @zacharywefel.