3 or 4 views on urban change


In a recent article about science fiction, philosopher John Gray says that the kind of books that used to be driven by a utopianism nowadays take a different tack:

During much of the 20th century, speculative fiction served an impulse of world transformation. Fantasy was understood as an exercise in which alternative worlds were imagined in order to create new possibilities of action. Today fantasy has the role of enabling us to see more clearly the elusive actualities. The question of action is left open. We debate what can be done to change the world, but no one expects an answer.

What’s interesting for us in this is the high profile of imagined cities and suburbs in the books he’s talking about: from the societies of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four to Ballard’s visions and China Miéville’s The City and the City.

So far, so abstract. So what?

The fact is that urban development, design and planning constantly lock horns with the question of how to manage or navigate or negotiate or come to terms with change. In this area, discussions online and in print offer rich pickings.

In the Verso collection, Restless Cities, critics ranging from pyschogeographer Iain Sinclair to film-maker Patrick Keiller consider the flux of modern city living. Essays expound on themes like nightwalking, urbicide, property, commuting and recycling.

Restless Cities celebrates the ceaselessly inventive character of the metropolitan city from the nineteenth century to the present, in an original and idiosyncratic attempt to recapture its rhythms. In its explorations of phenomena like commuting, convalescing, dreaming, lodging, recycling and sickening in the city, this rich, wide-ranging book traces the patterns that have defined the individual in everyday urban life.

For another survey of the competing factions debating planning, development and change, Jeff Speck gives an update from the point of view of a New Urbanist and Smart Growth advocate. His post (Why They Hate Us) is punchy if partisan:

But even if we look only at our own work, we have to admit that some of it falls short—again for the simple reason that we are a movement of reform. Reform means that you start with the processes and products that are currently in place and try to make them better. For this reason, each New Urban project must be judged not only against an ideal, but also against the built environment that surrounds it.

Meanwhile, for a more skeptical and postapocaylptic picture of the changing nature of cities, Web Urbanist posts on Urban Abandonments: 7 Deserted Wonders of the (Post)Modern World:

Some of these have a clear historical reason for being deserted, while the abandonment of others remains a mystery. Here are six more amazing examples of urban deserts from around the globe.


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2 Responses to “3 or 4 views on urban change”

  1. Maria von Brincken Says:

    Enjoyed your post. My past readings comprised of lots of sci fi and books like Mumford’s ‘City in History’.

  2. Stephen Bird Says:

    Thanks – I’ll add Mumford to the amazon wishlist. Contents look intriguing:

    The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, by Lewis Mumford

    1. Sanctuary, Village, and Stronghold
    2. The Crystallization of the City
    3. Ancestral Forms and Patterns
    4. The Nature of the Ancient City
    5. Emergence of the Polis
    6. Citizen Versus Ideal City
    7. Hellenistic Absolutism and Urbanity
    8. Megalopolis into Necropolis
    9. Cloister and Community
    10. Medieval Urban Housekeeping
    11. Medieval Disruptions, Modern Anticipations
    12. The Structure of Baroque Power
    13. Court, Parade, and Capital
    14. Commercial Expansion and Urban Dissolution
    15. Paleolithic Paradise: Coketown
    16. Suburbia–and Beyond
    17. The Myth of Megalopolis
    18. Retrospect and Prospect

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