Cities

Author: Scientific American
Published: 1965
Website: Amazon Page (it’s pretty cool to read a book that’s out of print)

Cities, a collection of Scientific American articles about urban life, held much promise as an exploration of the problems of urbanization, possible solutions, and the future of city life, socially, economically and politically.  Instead, it was a set of dry, data-heavy essays with little relation to each other which failed to impart even a single central idea apart, perhaps, from the fact that dealing with cities is both necessary and difficult. Perhaps that is a necessary consequence of the way in which SciAm article are written, but no 21st century citizen needs a book to tell them that.

Despite the book’s adamant refusal to be interesting even given the relevance and timeliness of the subject matter, a few important points stood out to me. Firstly, the book was published in 1965, which not only led to amusing references to then-President Johnson, but also several predictions, many of which were impressively inaccurate. One of the essays discussed the nature of urbanization and the trend of immense city growth that showed no signs of abating, even if the urban to rural ratio ceased to increase at its then incredible rate. Based on this assumption, the piece predicted a 2010 New York City urban area population of 30 million. According to the last census, that number is actually 18 million, only 4 million more than the number cited in the essay. The reasons for this are unclear. Perhaps we need to redefine what we think of as an urban area for purposes of sociological analysis, given that central cities, suburbs, exurbs and outlying lands are all interacting in more and more complex ways. It’s also possible that we simply underestimated how little people want to live in a place as crowded and dirty as New York City, though that seems unlikely. Either way, the alarmism relating to overpopulation was clearly overwrought.

By far the most interesting essay of the book discussed planned cities by focusing on Stockholm, which began to be organized by rational planning in the 17th century. This piece appealed to my childhood love of construction, forcing me to think how I might, with nothing but legos and foresight, create a city that could last centuries into the future, provide for the current needs of its people while maintaining vital flexibility and strike a delicate balance between private and public ownership. Clearly, this is a massively difficult undertaking, especially with the constant need for quasi-political decisions such as whether to take steps to accommodate cars or to encourage public transportation, and how to regulate land use.

But the striking thing about Cities was not any of the sociological analysis, graphs, data or proposed solutions, but rather the fact that 36 years after the book was published, we are facing exactly the same problems in our cities, and we still don’t know how to fix them.

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