City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, by PD Smith
This well-ordered guide to urban culture boasts fine amenities - but lacks a bit of buzz
Saturday 14 July 2012
It has become almost a truism that we live in an urban age, as for the first time in human history the majority of the planet's population now live in cities. Despite the obvious differences between ancient and modern conurbations, and the extraordinary diversity of contemporary cities, we continue to wonder what, if anything, they have in common. It is this idea of an "Everycity" that animates PD Smith's book; those features present "since the beginning… part of our urban genetic code".
A lot of ink has been split in urban and social theory over this kind of generalisation, rarely fruitfully. So it comes as some relief that Smith is not really making an argument but exploring some territory. City is designed to be a guidebook to the whole urban universe and, like any city, it doesn't need to be explored in a straight line. It is "a book in which you can just wander and drift".
Using the categories, if not quite the ruthless typographical devices, of modern travel guides, the book covers arriving in the city, getting around it, finding somewhere to stay, spending time and money as well as local histories, quirks and customs.
When in Rome, as they say. I took a wander round the book rather than heading straight from the Introduction to the Afterword. I made a start at the index, and from the length of city listings it was clear that this metropolis was primarily an amalgam of Rome, Paris, London and New York. There's a pinch of Dubai, Mumbai and LA, and Smith tries to be global in his use of examples. Yet it retains its European and Atlantic feel: a guide to the City's past rather than its future, I suspect. The hellish mega-slums of the global south make a brief appearance but, given just how many of the earth's urbanites are going to live and die in them, I couldn't help but feel we were leaving a lot off the map.
There were some parts of town that felt a little over-familiar - like the run-through the history of the skyscraper, the eco-city or the park - and these I hurried through. In others,I lingered and looked more closely: the role of graveyards, the history of shops and shopping centres, a global sweep through sport, games and urban space. Short pieces on skateboarding and the urban environment, gentrification and museums as an instrument of economic development, made me stop and stare.
Does Smith's City have a distinctive or singular aesthetic and architectural style? The core essays are like the better end of new mixed developments. They provide an eminently sensible, quietly ordered, well-written and easily digestible account of a lot of urban history and many of the debates about what makes cities work and fail, grow, shrink and morph.
On the other hand, it was just all a bit too clean cut, bland even. It felt like a city without alleys or ruins or edgy zones of transition. I wanted to be a flâneur, dazzled and amazed by the bustle of the streets and the pyrotechnics of the prose, but most of the time I was more of a commuter: putting in a shift, passing time with my reading matter, looking out the window. That's not to say I didn't enjoy my wander through Smith's City: I did. I suppose I just prefer my guides and my cities a little bit more unruly than this.
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