A History of Future Cities

People make cities, but cities also make people. That’s one of the key messages from Daniel Brook’s 2013 book A History of Future Cities.

The book tells the stories of four cities, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai. All four cities are in the East but were designed by their rulers or occupiers to look Western, to be Western. All four were deliberately catapulted into the future from small, undeveloped towns or settlements into advanced, modern cities designed to be gateways to the rest of the world.

Brook starts with St. Petersburg.

Hermitage Museum, St. PetersburgHermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Photo by Victor Malyushev on Unsplash

In 1697, the Russian Tzar Peter the Great toured Europe incognito to learn about modern cities. He was particularly fascinated by Amsterdam, then the wealthiest city in Europe.  Upon returning to Moscow, he decided to build himself a new capital, a modern city that would emulate the European ones he had visited; a port city that would connect Russia to the outside world.

He chose a swampy location where the Neva River flows into the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. The fact that there was already a small Swedish fort at that location was a minor inconvenience. Construction of St. Petersburg began in 1703, led by hundreds of imported European architects and artisans. Within a few decades it becomes one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe.

“And yet Russian autocrats soon had to reckon with the modern people their city had made. The new Russian capital had been built as a stage set of modernity, an experimental metropolis where, liberated from the constraints of budget and existing cityscape, if an architect could draw it, he could build it. But the modern city with its newly erected universities and science museums, all built and initially staffed by imported Western experts, changed the city’s people. And as they became broad minded and literate, they grew less willing to accept a social contract that offered them futuristic wonders in exchange for medieval obedience.” [p. 7]

It’s no surprise that the Russian Revolution started in St. Petersburg.

In Shanghai, already a bustling regional market town, the British, French and Americans carved up the land amongst themselves after the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing forcibly re-opened China to trade with the West. There they built replicas of British, French and American cities which eventually merged into a vibrant cosmopolitan Western outpost on China’s shore.

The pattern repeated in Mumbai where the British built the largest most cosmopolitan city in India starting in the 1850’s. They also educated and trained a new middle class of Indian administrators and professionals to run their city; talented and capable people who grew to resent being perpetually subordinated to their British overlords.

Modern Dubai is probably one of the most diverse cities on Earth today, but its population is over 90% expatriates who don’t have citizenship and can be ejected from the country at the whim of the government. It’s a fascinating experiment in building a cosmopolitan city from the ground up, starting in the 1960’s, but it’s too early to tell what social or political impact the city or its people will have on the United Arab Emirates or the larger Arab world.

Cover of A History of Future CitiesA History of Future Cities
By Daniel Brook
W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2013

Daniel Brook is an author and journalist. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine and The Nation. In writing this book, he lived for a month in each of the four cities.

They’re all port cities, looking outward, with their backs to their own countries.  They all tend to produce people with more tolerant, liberal, occasionally rebellious viewpoints.

Sometimes their outward looking, cosmopolitan make-up has alienated them from their own countries.  St. Petersburg, Mumbai and Shanghai have, at times, been ignored and even suppressed by their national governments. Yet at the other times, national leaders have come from these cities.

Brook details the history of the four cities, right down to their evolving streetscapes and architectural styles. He charts how they were shaped by autocrats and occupiers, but also by larger political forces from their countries and the world. In fact, one thing seems clear from the book: while cities and their people can be powerful agents of change, they can never entirely escape those forces.

This makes it all the more strange that Brook appears so optimistic about the liberating influence of these cities and their people.

For example, writing about St. Petersburg under the autocratic rule of Vladimir Putin (himself a Petersburger), Brook says,

“But one thing is certain: despite the miserable slog of Russian history, as long as there is St. Petersburg — a city where even at midnight, a glimmer of sunlight still peeks out over the horizon — there is hope.” [p. 294]

Hope for what? A more liberal, tolerant, democratic Russia?  Unlikely. Maybe he means that the mere existence of St. Petersburg can give hope to the rest of Russia, but the evidence he presents in this book doesn’t leave me very optimistic.

Similarly, on Dubai, the newest of the four future cities, Brook says,

“Yet if Dubai is truly the latest chapter in a tale begun in St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai, the only question is when, not if, its people will seize the opportunity its autocrats have unwittingly created. As with the great East-meets-West cities before it, ultramodern metropolises built by dictatorial fiat with coolies and serfs, Dubai has assembled a stunningly diverse cast of characters who can seize the reins and build a true city of the future.” [p. 386]

This strikes me as nonsense. I’m not sure what a “true” city of the future is, but I strongly doubt it will be created by the corporations and temporarily posted expatriate contract workers who make up the bulk of Dubai’s population.

Oddly, the city that seems to disappoint Brook the most is Mumbai – the only one within a democratic country.

A History of Future Cities will probably appeal to a fairly narrow audience, but, despite what I think is Brook’s misplaced optimism, I found it rewarding. I’ve never visited any of these places so I learned a lot from this book. I had intended to read about just one of the cities, but Brook’s well-paced storytelling got me hooked. After all,

“While it was once a tiny, largely self-selected percentage of Russians who moved to St. Petersburg, Chinese who moved to Shanghai, and Indians who moved to Bombay, the journey from developing-world hinterland to globalizing city has become the defining journey of the twenty-first century.” [p. 387]

* * *

Thanks to Katie @ Doing Dewey for an earlier review that prompted me to read this book.

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1 Response to A History of Future Cities

  1. Pingback: Nonfiction November: New to My TBR | Unsolicited Feedback

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