Book review: City: a Guidebook for the Urban Age by P D Smith

P D Smith’s infectious enthusiasm for urban life pervades this book. City: a Guidebook for the Urban Age is cleverly constructed to mimic the cities it describes: as Smith explains in his introduction, it is a book in which you can wander and drift, following any of a number of pathways without fear of getting lost.

With more than half of humanity now city dwellers, a proportion predicted to continue to rise sharply, Smith has written a celebration of what he sees as undoubtedly humankind’s greatest achievement. It’s a remarkable book. Enjoyable and enlightening, City is easy to read but also encyclopaedic in its multi-dimensional journey through urban life. It is as packed with facts as Mumbai is with people, including a scholarly wad of notes and a great bibliography, yet Smith never lets this impede the pace and interest of the reader’s journey. Based on reading this book, P D Smith would be an excellent city guide. Reading it felt like being on a simultaneous walking tour of all the world’s major cities, moved along at a brisk pace but always with permission to stop and browse at any of the myriad points of interest along the way.

The book is structured using a sense of journey and also a thematic approach that considers all the major aspects of urban life. Instead of beginning with the history of ancient civilisations, Smith begins with the experience of arrival, evoking the sheer sense of wonder that a first visit to a high-rise city can trigger. We read of Nick Carraway being blown away by the Manhattan skyline in The Great Gatsby; of the awe experienced by Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors as they entered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1519.

Among the themes Smith deals with are architecture, infrastructure and transport – with some particularly interesting sections on inventions that enabled modern city life such as writing, electricity and lifts. In doing so he successfully presents ‘the city as organism’ but never lets the reader forget that cities are about their human inhabitants – as the introductory quote from Coriolanus states: What is the city but the people? The city in film, theatre, books and music; graffiti, language and dialect; carnival and religion; trade, shopping and food; the city’s role in democracy and protest: all are part of Smith’s Grand Walking Tour. Chapters are nicely spaced, supplemented with plenty of high quality colour images and interspersed with short, punchy insets on related topics.

For lovers of London, City is a great read. As well as the fascinating contextual threads outlined above, there were many specific tidbits of London lore, from the grandeur of the toilets at Waterloo Station to the wonderful tale of a dinner at the Savoy in 1905. My favourite, though, is an account of the importance of London as stamping ground of the literary flâneur: the observer of the urban street from John Stow and John Gay through Poe and Dickens and on to Sinclair and Self in our own times.

Smith is repeatedly drawn to the continuity of urban life across time and space. He is equally comfortable describing the first urban civilisations as he is describing the cities of the future: we travel seamlessly through the millennia from Jericho to Babylon, Athens, Rome, London, Paris and New York, examine the astonishing progress in urban technology being experienced in today’s South Korean cities before taking a leap into the future. In doing so, Smith’s hope and enthusiasm shine through relentlessly – unapologetically optimistic, while never hiding the apocalyptic risks, he is clear in his belief that cities are the solution, not the problem. Rather than succumb to a Blade Runner world, Smith prefers that one day, the sentient city may be the thing that saves us from ourselves.

Review by Julian Woodford, 2013.

City: a Guidebook for the Urban Age by P D Smith (Bloomsbury, 2012).

Available from Amazon (Kindle edition £3.99):

Julian Woodford’s book, The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, Godfather of Regency London, will be published soon.

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