A Guidebook for the Urban Age

P.D. Smith's engaging and illuminating new book on the history, evolution and intricacies of cities.

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The city is both ambiguous and defined, with endless quirks but also finite borders. It's housing and politics and slang and disease and a zillion other things, a fractal-like creature that becomes more complex the closer you look. Delving in is exciting but also a little intimidating. None of that dissuaded P.D. Smith, author of the new book City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, an impressively comprehensive look at this very broad topic.

"You can explore the whole of human society in one subject," Smith says.

A guidebook to one city is daunting enough to try to conceive, but every city? "I'm sort of a sucker for rather big subjects."

Mimicking the traveler's guidebook format, Smith breaks the city down into familiar but loose segments: customs, where to stay, getting around, and so on. But unlike the typical hotel suggestions and tipping advice you might get in a tourist guide, Smith uses these lenses to explore into such common facets of urbanity as languages, festivals, housing, ethnic enclaves, architectural styles, street food and pickpockets. Each section explores the history of these urban elements, their development over time, their interpretation in literature and the cultural shifts they've created. The book wisely avoids a straightforward narrative and approaches the city as it is: a wide variety of interconnected parts that co-evolved into an ecosystem.

City is certainly not the first book to explore our urbanity, nor is it the only to try to encompass the city holistically, 1961's National Book Award-winning The City in History by Lewis Mumford the most notable example. Over the course of more than 650 pages (and in small type), Mumford painstakingly paints the chronology of urban life, from the earliest urban villages of Mesopotamia to post-war suburbia. [It's embarrassing, but worth an admission: despite writing about cities and working for a website with the word "cities" in its name, I've only gotten through a couple hundred pages of The City in History.] Mumford's take is dense. Smith's is far more manageable, but he frequently cites Mumford and hundreds of other sources along the way.

"Certainly [The City in History] is an immensely impressive book and it was very influential to me as I was writing," says Smith. "A book like [City] stands on the shoulders of other people who are experts."

Though Smith may not have been an expert when he started researching this book in 2008, it would be hard not to think of him as one now. The fresh eyes he brought to this project, though, help make it the kind of book that will be of interest both to the general reader and the avowed urbanist.

Part of what makes City so interesting is its insistence on identifying the historical underpinnings of what we see and experience in our cities today. A walk through the slums of Mumbai recalls the shacks that ancient Roman elites complained to each other about. A view from the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa in Dubai does not forsake the predominantly five-story peaks of 19th century London. The throngs of Japanese walking through the streets of Tokyo, the largest metropolis in the world, are viewed as a point on a timeline beginning nearly 7,000 years ago in the Sumerian cities that grew near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. 

"It gives you quite an impressive perspective on the way you live your life and where you are in the process of history if you can relate things that we take for granted, like a department store or a church for example," says Smith. "If you understand something about the history of that, it can transform your understanding of how the whole urban environment around you came to be."

Smith lives outside of London and says he didn't actually travel a whole lot to write this book. But, he argues, City isn't so much about describing specific places as it is about finding the shared elements of urbanity as it's developed over time and over the world. Increasingly the city as an entity is a sort of universal language.

"The Spanish conquistadors arriving at Tenochtitlan, they could appreciate what was there, in what to them was an alien environment, they saw the city and they could see this as a thing of wonder, because they knew what cities were and they could appreciate what an amazing place it was," says Smith. "But, of course, then they went and destroyed it."

Cities may rise and fall, but the concept of the city can't be unmade. Smith's book is a fascinating look at its evolution through the many physical and cultural facets that we see all around us.

Top image: Downtown Dubai (Fatseyeva / Shutterstock.com)

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.