‘Cities’ by John Reader; William Heinemann, 2004. 358pp
Reviewed by Austin Williams | 13 January 2006
I thoroughly enjoyed this book although at times I was quite confused by the author’s critique. Funnily enough, this, for me, made it an even more enjoyable exercise, absorbing the engaging facts and entertaining stories while trying to work out what the author really thought about it all. This is an intellectual detective story in more ways than one. Apart from Reader’s quest for the urban whodunnit – where, why and when did cities evolve – there is also a wealth of rhetoric to be sifted in order to work out whether Reader is in favour of cities or not. I was left wondering whether he agrees with strategic urban planning or not; whether he is in favour of the market mechanism as a means of determining events, or not; whether pragmatic, opportunistic organic development is a positive way forward, or not; and whether he is for or against increasing the extent, intensity and number of cities around the world. Or not.
The book attempts a chronological structure, although fortunately Reader can’t help but jump back and forth through time zones and geographical locations. He begins by exploring Mesopotamia and the ancient Sumer region (and challenges the idea that Çatal Hüyük was the world’s first city primarily because he says that cities are more than buildings and groundcover – they have to have a social mix. ) Quoting Mark Patton, he says ‘a key defining feature of a town or city is that farmers don’t live in them’, so he prefers to cite Uruk – centre of literacy – 3000 BC as the real start of urbanity. From this starting point, we are then taken on a well-written and engaging history through Ur, Greece, Rome, Tang dynasty China, a leap forward to Renaissance Florence, the Aztec defeat by Spain, and so on, until the present day. It is a well-informed discourse with a wealth of facts, lightly told.