“A History of Future Cities”

I couldn’t help but be impressed by the clever title of this book.  I judged it initially by its cover, and it mostly did not disappoint.

Author Daniel Brook looks at four different cities, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai (Bombay), and Dubai.  Though they span a few centuries each city has some core traits in common with the other.

  • Each city arose directly from either contact with foreign populations (Shanghai, Mumbai), or was specifically designed to open the world to the world at large (St. Petersburg, Dubai).
  • Because of this, each city has a somewhat artificial character.  Neither can claim to be created from within history.  Rather, they stand as attempts to impose history on the country itself.
  • Each city has a distinct cosmopolitan flair (Arabs in Dubai, for example, comprise only about 10% of the population, depending on how you measure), and a somewhat freewheeling ethos.

The title hints at a number of themes for this book.

While I don’t think that Russia will play a significant role in shaping the 21st century, I agree that the cities of the near future will resemble St. Petersburg.  These cities will be “global” cities oriented towards those outside rather than inside them.  Peter the Great built his city to force a kind of westernization/globalization upon Russia, which resembles the motives of Dubai  today.  This fits with globalization in general.

The other three cities represent the possible impact that China, India, and the Mid-East will have on the world.  While the Mideast cannot equal them in terms of population, they can in terms of opportunity.  Much of this region has no access to markets, yet with oil the region has no shortage of cash.  The possibilities for future growth for the Mideast remain high.  Everyone knows of China’s rise, and India’s surge as the next big economic powerhouse always seems just around the corner.

Brook does a good job dealing with the energy and potential in each of these cities.  But big questions about the limits of these kinds of cities remain, and while Brook deals with the problems as well as the promise, I would have preferred more treatment of the negative side of the coin.

Because of the artificiality of these cities, neither has an authentic culture to call its own.  And because each of these cities run only skin-deep, the impact on their surrounding regions may be minimal.  Many feel that the more open and cosmopolitan the Mideast becomes, the better off the world will be.  But how impressed will the average Arab be with a city bought with Arab money but made by foreigners?  How impressed should they be?  We have already seen the minimal impact of  St. Petersburg on Russia. Three centuries later the country still has strong authoritarian roots.  Moscow, not St. Petersburg, moves Russia.  Mumbai impresses many at first glance, but tourists then and now use the city as a gateway to the “real” India.

At a deeper level the question about whether we can impose our will upon history remains.  Personally, I doubt whether we can do this.  These cities seem dedicated to the belief that markets will bring fundamental change, but the truly lasting things happen in an organic way with deep roots.  Something of our humanity as “made in the image of God” will eventually shine through and prove that we are motivated by more than mere economics, that we are more than merely acquisitive animals.*  And when this happens, the impact these cities have and the role they play in their respective countries will get diminished.

In raising these questions, Brook calls into question the whole project of the 21st century market state.  Will our modern project bring real change or be nothing more than a curious historical side-show?  Perhaps A History of Future Cities can give us a clue.

*Marxists and pure free market capitalists on the surface are mortal enemies, but if one probes a bit, we see that both share the common trait of giving absolute value to economics — one to the fatalism of class warfare, the other to what some might call the fatalism of the invisible hand of the market.

“. . . but in the western world today the number of souls who testify by their actions to a conscious or unconscious conviction that Economic Necessity is Queen of All is vastly greater than the number of professing Marxians, and would be found in fact to include a phalanx of arch-capitalists who would repudiate with horror and indignation any suggestion that they were fundamentally at one, in the faith by which they lived, with the prophet of Communism.” — Arnold Toynbee

2 comments on ““A History of Future Cities”

  1. Bill Carey says:

    It’s be interesting to look at other outward-facing constructed cities that predate the market state too; Mussolini build the Esposizione Universale Roma as a showcase for the Italian nation and to celebrate the Fascist movement. While it now houses several corporate offices, it houses *no* culture. For that you need to travel to the medieval quarter or Spain or Barberini in Rome proper.

    • Dave Mathwin says:

      Thanks Bill!

      I like living in Centreville but like other “invented” places it has no charm, no “soul.” South Riding was also “invented” like many other places, but they tried to include some sense of charm into the design. Did they succeed? I don’t think so.

      Perhaps, just as we cannot create “ex nihilo,” so too we cannot magically create culture no matter the time or place.

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