November 18, 2011 10:04 pm

The Lure of the City

This collection of essays edited by Austin Williams and Alastair Donald mounts a defence of life in urban spaces

We have a troubled relationship with cities. The word civilisation has its roots in the civitas, yet these crucibles of culture have almost always been viewed simultaneously as festering pustules of poverty and corruption. The pendulum swings and, at the moment, city boosterism seems to be in, perhaps prompted by the knowledge that the planet is, for the first time in its history, predominantly urban; Edward Glaeser’s enthusiastic and readable Triumph of the City set the tone this year. But The Lure of the City: From Slums to Suburbs has a slightly different and very intriguing agenda. This collection of essays is, in effect, a defence of modernism.

The current view of how cities should be has changed very little since Jane Jacobs’ astonishingly influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published exactly 50 years ago. The book described a New York that was already disappearing, a city of vibrant street life, friendly mom ’n’ pop stores and diners, a socially diverse public realm actively policed and brought to life by its residents. Jacobs’ ideas, that cities need to retain their historic grain and scale – in opposition to what metropolitan super-planner Robert Moses was trying to do to the city by driving through freeways, destroying neighbourhoods and building huge parks and housing projects – have become the accepted gospel of urbanism. Austin Williams and Alastair Donald, the editors of The Lure of the City, are more on Moses’ side.

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Edwin Heathcote

Williams, an outspoken and unorthodox academic, is the author of Enemies of Progress (2008), a compelling demolition of the green industry. In The Lure of the City, he and his fellow contributors go further in condemning a seemingly unstoppable tide of what has become known as “greenwash”. There are essays here on emerging cities in Africa, on the lack of ambition in contemporary urban planning, on the explosion of new city building in China and on the sinister incursion of surveillance and surreptitious “nudging” of citizens to make state-sanctioned choices in their everyday lives. Most essays take a line contrary to the prevailing, Jacobs-influenced orthodoxy, arguing for cars, roads, big plans and a tough line with history. It makes for a provocative and very readable book on a subject more usually written about in the grim language of sociologists, technocrats and non-governmental organisations.

Williams’ sharpest aside is reserved for Gordon Brown’s 2007 proposal of five British eco-towns (note “towns”, not “cities”), designed to go on Ministry of Defence brownfield land and exert the minimum impact on the ecology and the landscape. In this, the writer tartly comments, Brown succeeded admirably, as they were never even started. The authors promote the city as a force for social good, for self-improvement, for the promotion of education. Even city slums, they say, provide a better life than subsistence farming. Steve Nash and Williams condemn the idea of “urban memory”, the heritage lobby and the literary psychogeography of thrillingly bleak peri-urban landscapes, the worlds of Iain Sinclair and Will Self, as a bourgeois indulgence.

It is quite odd, even mildly bracing to read such a determinedly modernist book, with its defences of Dubai and Guangzhou, its condemnations of those who believe we must accept the existence of slums and work incrementally to improve them, and its insistence that we keep reimagining visionary cities for the future. But it is also deeply problematic and I disagree with huge chunks. For all the temptation to start afresh, the most popular cities remain those that manage to maintain a blend of grains and textures, historic and modern, in which the existing limits the possible and forces imagination and reuse.

The authors are right to point out that the world’s established cities are not where the action is. The real issues for the future of urbanisation lie elsewhere, in the hundreds of mid-size conurbations currently exploding in Asia. Most of these are being built from scratch with bold and admirable conviction, and every time I see them they drive home to me the self-absorbed narcissism of so much western architecture.

While we become preoccupied by subtle interventions into historic fabric or endlessly considered textures, the Chinese have just built another whole new city. You can’t help wondering whether our western tastes are distracting us from the bigger picture. The question, though, is whether any of those new cities will be able to deliver quality as well as quantity.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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