Tuesday, July 02, 2013

John Reader - Cities

Çatal Hüyük a large Turkish neolithic site has been described as the world's first city. Stretching back over 9000 years, at times up to 10,000 people might have lived there. Certainly it is a site of immense historic and social importance. John Reader argues it wasn't a city, more of an overgrown village, and indeed, after reading this sweeping history of "cities" it is hard to see how such a neolithic site could be a city in the sense that we understand today.

Nonetheless, permanent settlements like Çatal Hüyük were extremely important. True permanent settlement could only occur when agriculture developed. Only then could a surplus be provided that could support non-agricultural workers. Reader argues though that the dynamic was more complex and that early urban areas encouraged the further development of agriculture, rather than the other way around.

But Çatal Hüyük is remarkable in one other respect. It is the site of the first known example of art, where humans portrayed themselves within a recognisable landscape. The Çatal Hüyük wall painting includes the outline of a nearby volcano as well as buildings. The painters deliberately noted a site of economic importance - the volcano which provided the rich soil that enabled farmers to support the city.

Here then is the real importance of the city; once humanity moves towards an urban environment, that urbanisation dominates and shapes both people, and the world around them.

While much of Readers' book concentrates on the development of the modern city, the chapters on ancient cities are fascinating. An extended discussion of Rome, for instance, brings home just how much the economic dynamics of that Empire worked. In particular the way that Rome was absolutely in hock to countries that could supply the vast amounts of grain needed to feed the population. Here environment, politics and economics combine to give Rome both its power, but also its strategic weakness.

As early as 1200 CE a network of European cities was in place. Some of them came from older cities, many of them much newer, and again rooted in the development of agriculture and trading. The growth of these cities was rooted in the surrounding agriculture, but they were also dependent on the surroundings to maintain the population. As Reader explains:

"The fact is that until recently (and then only in the developed world) more people died in cities than were born in them. So here is another way that the city parasites the countryside.... Just as city-dwellers could not produce their own food, nor could they raise enough children to replace the citizens who died... the Agricultural Revolution had not only powered the Industrial Revolution - it had also fuelled the Demographic Revolution that filled the cities."

And fill them it did. London went from a population of about 80,000 in 1551 to 865,000 just 250 years later. This despite London's birthrate being 13% lower than in the countryside, and a 50% higher death rate.

Much of the discussion of modern cities concentrates on trends that we still see today - housing, pollution, transport and other "problems". There is a fascinating discussion about sewage that mirrors much of debates that inspired Karl Marx's own concerns around the degradation of agricultural soil and the "waste" of human excrement in the Thames. Reader looks at similar cases in Paris and notes a more rational approach to the question, which will fascinate anyone who has read John Bellamy Foster's Marx's Ecology. 

This book was written in 2005 and in its ecological discussion it is perhaps most dated. Few today might share Reader's optimism that we can deal with environmental crisis through technological innovation. But that said, he does explore solutions in terms of solar cell technology.Similarly, Reader's discussions on the links between the urban environment (and the domestication of animals) with the growth of disease and epidemics are very interesting.

Unfortunately the greatest weakness of this book comes with the discussion of the future. Reader rightly concludes that the future lies in cities; but rather like Leo Hollis' more recent book on the city; he looks to enlightened planning procedures and politicians as the answer to over-crowding and pollution. No one should dismiss these factors and Reader rightly points to some of the weaknesses.

But what is missing here again is any sense of the city as a site of class struggle. This is not to simply glorify revolution, strikes or workers' protest. But a sense of the way that cities themselves have been shaped by mass movements. It was the fear of revolution, for instance, that lead to Baron Haussman designing Paris' enormous boulevards to make it harder to build barricades. 

Nor is there any sense of the collective struggles that fought to improve slums, reduce rents which helped lead to the building of public housing in Britain in the 20th century. Certainly there is no mention of the struggles that have come from those on the periphery of the developing worlds' great cities - struggles that have been fought over water and electricity, and problem stand more of a chance of shaping the future cities than many an enlightened planning officer.

Related Reviews

Hollis - Cities are Good for you

Harvey - Rebel Cities


smellincoffee said...

This book has been reccommended to me, but there are so many OTHER books on cities I've not gotten around to it. Is the author hostile toward cities? 'Parasitism' isn't a charge used by ones' friends!

Are you familiar with the works of Jane Jacobs? She did a series books on cities, how they work as places where people live, and their role as economic engines.

Resolute Reader said...

No, he's not hostile, though he argues that there impact about the wider world is negative compared to their size (though this is surely because of the concentration of people / economic system rather than cities as such).

I do recommend it. I've had Jane Jacobs recommended to me alot, particularly her Death and Life of Great American Cities.

An earlier book, Lewis Mumford's "The City in History" is also recommended but described as dated.

You could do worse than start with John Reader.