City Pages

How do you get along with 18 million neighbors?

by John Reader
Atlantic Monthly Press

The ancient Sumerians believed that Eden wasn't a garden, but a city. That premise sets the tone for this book by British photojournalist John Reader, a meditation on what happens when a lot of people dwell very close together. Reader is an obvious fan of this kind of living, as evidenced by the early pride-filled reminiscences of his childhood in London, which he portrays as a soot-covered place afflicted with "pea-souper" smog. Still, even the most hardcore urbanites might find it difficult to argue that cities, which occupy only 2 percent of the world's land but demand 75 percent of its resources, are anything other than fabricated parasites on the planet.

To be fair, that's exactly what Reader means to prove, to a point. Using a clever mixture of anecdotes and statistics to bolster his claims, the author suggests that even the vices of the historical city have produced positive consequences. For example, he surmises that the plague, which killed untold millions through the Middle Ages, also created the social and economic upheaval that spawned the Renaissance. Sometimes these novel theories spin out of control, such as when Reader claims that trees grow bigger and faster in cities than in the country (thanks to a steady diet of carbon dioxide). This leads to the declaration that one-fifth of London is dense enough with trees to technically be considered woodland. Luckily, Reader dresses his less rational hypotheses in an entertaining manner.

The book spends a goodly amount of time tromping around the ancient and medieval world--ground that has already been well covered by the likes of Lewis Mumford and Spiro Kostof. And considering Reader's claims that two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities by 2030, it's a little disappointing that so much of his analysis focuses on such bastions of the Old World as London and Madrid instead of the exploding megalopolises (São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Lagos, etc.) that define the present and future of the planet. Excluding one fascinating chapter on Mexico City, Reader neglects those other metros--which are, to be truthful, hard to love. (For a keener look at the frightening Asian boomtown, readers should turn to Seketu Mehta's Maximum City about Mumbai/Bombay.) Ultimately, Reader lacks an appetite for the academic jargon of gridirons and nodal networks, favoring instead the personal observation and the clever anecdote. He's less of a municipal planner than another mainstay of urban life: the cosmopolitan romantic.

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