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Book review: ‘Age of the City’ by Ian Goldin and Tom Lee-Devlin

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Why our future will be won or lost together.

There are just two points I’d like to take issue with the authors and editors of this topical and otherwise beautifully written book about. Both relate to the front cover and are therefore hard to ignore – the title and the subtitle, both of which strike me as vague and potentially misleading.

Let me explain. ‘Age’ is a polysemantic word that can mean, among other things, an epoch or era as well as duration or length of life. ‘Age of the City’, therefore, constitutes a classic, if unintended, double entendre – not a welcome thing on a book’s front cover. The authors must have had the former meaning (‘era’) in mind, but the title can be easily misconstrued as referring solely to the cities’ history. And whereas ‘Age of the City’ (Bloomsbury Continuum, £20, ISBN 9781399406147) does offer a short, yet entertaining and informative, excursion into the origin of cities, starting with Mesopotamia’s Uruk around 3500 BCE in the chapter ‘Engines of Progress’, its main focus is not on the past but rather on cities’ role in the modern post-pandemic working-from-home environment, as well as in the future.

Talking of the future, let’s examine the book’s subtitle: ‘Why Our Future will be Won or Lost Together’. Well, if one of my students at the University of Cambridge, where I teach writing, came up with something as grammatically and stylistically inaccurate, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it gobbledygook and would insist on having it changed. Indeed, the future is not a game or a battle that can be ‘won’ or lost’. It can be either bright or bleak. And what is meant by ‘together’? Together with whom, or with what? With each other? Or with the ‘the city’? I would have changed it to something like ‘Our Cities: Present, Past and Future’. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once noted" “Whatever can be said, can be said clearly."

Phew! Having done with the book’s only unappealing aspect (to me at least), I can proceed to its merits, which are aplenty.

To begin with, I have always struggled with trying to define for myself the very concept of a city as well as its demographic and territorial parameters. Indeed, why is it that the UK’s Reading, with a population of 350,000 and a vast urban area, is officially known as a town, whereas Whittier in Alaska, with 250 people living in the 14-storey Begich Tower on the shores of Prince William Sound, is referred to as a ‘city’?

In the UK – contrary to a popular belief – it is not a cathedral and/or a university, but a special royal charter that turns a town into a city, as happened, for example, to Scotland’s Inverness in the year 2000. But what about other countries? All existing dictionary definitions of a city fail to provide an adequate explanation. Goldin and Lee-Devlin, co-authors of ‘Age of the City’, having skilfully avoided the definition trap, came up with an honest and coherent... not a definition, but rather a clarification: “For us, cities are best thought of as physical, social. Economic and political communities where individuals live, work and connect with one another. We trust our readers know a city when they see it and do not need us to labour a definition.”

Having had a good look at a modern city’s evolution through centuries, the authors deliberate on what constitutes its ‘liveability’ – another widely disputed term which had gained popularity since several respected international organisations, including the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Deutsche Bank and others, began to come up with liveability surveys that attempt to define the world’s best and worst metropolises to live in. Those surveys have become a kind of sociological Olympics, with fierce competition for being at the top of the list. I am proud to have lived in Melbourne, Australia, which between 2011 and 2017 was named the world’s most liveable city by the EIU for seven years in row.

But what are the necessary components of a city’s ongoing ‘liveability’? Goldin and Lee-Devlin, having briefly appraised cities as different as Berlin, New Orleans and Austin, Texas, try to provide an answer: “A city needs not only to be prosperous on the whole, but also to provide opportunities for all its inhabitants, rather than just a privileged few,” they conclude, before proceeding to analyse the cities’ multiple social contrasts in Chapter 4, ‘Divided Cities’.

Chapter 6, ‘Cities, Cyberspace and the Future of Community’, is bound to be of a particular interest to E&T readers. In it, among other things, the authors assess the role played by the advances of technology and, particularly, by the internet to help overcome the above-mentioned divisions. They insist that to achieve that goal, cities themselves must keep evolving towards democracy. As an opponent of many aspects of social media, I was pleased by their observation that “the corrosive effect of social media on the functioning of democracy in rich countries... is becoming increasingly clear”. From the authors’ point of view, one of the main dangers posed by social media is ‘the commercialisation of our interactions online’, which negatively affects the cities’ ‘public square’, with no particular agenda of its own. They proceed to assert that “... it is high time for reforms to social media”, and I find it hard to disagree with them.

I have already noted that one of the main attractions of ‘Age of the City’ is being a smooth and easy read. And not just in my opinion. The book is “A compelling, holistic and well-balanced narrative on the critical role of cities in an age of global warming – full of insights based on hard data. From cover to cover, great read,” to quote the words of Lord Norman Foster, a leading architect and designer of modern times, whom – incidentally - I first met at an architects’ congress in Melbourne, the world’s most liveable city, in the early 1990s.

In total agreement with Sir Norman, I was particularly pleased to find a simple, if somewhat belated, explanation of the unfortunate (from my point of view) title and subtitle in the concluding paragraph of this intelligent and insightful book: “Cities with their unbound creative potential, provide a source of hope for the future. By working together to improve them, we can create a better life for all.”

Nice and clear!

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