City Life

November 18, 2010

This book investigates the life rather than the structures, buildings, policies, systems, human taxonomies and sociologies that normally comprise investigation of the city," writes Adrian Franklin. Strongly influenced by the writings of Zygmunt Bauman, and in particular his thoughts on liquid modernity, Franklin attempts to pin down the life of the city, which, being liquid itself, is extremely difficult to categorise or compartmentalise into digestible chunks.

Indeed, it is the digestible-chunk descriptions of the city that leave out so much of what Franklin holds dear, namely the magical, ritualistic, initiatory aspects of urban life. He argues that "modern urbanites cannot be distinguished from pre-industrial people on the basis of a more rational mentality and stance to their world". For this reason, he says, his "notion of city life and ecological cities attempts to reverse this nonsense". He draws strongly on literature and other forms of "subjective" writing to give new readings of his subject.

The clear aim of the book is to describe the particular "social and cultural content" of successful cities. The first section, "Becoming Cities", is historical. It provides a very brief survey of the transition from early cities, through planned modern cities of the 19th and 20th century (or rather areas of cities) and then "their biographies" from the mid-20th century to the present. The problem, for me, is that we don't really see one particular city through from beginning to end.

City Life warms up in the second half, "Making City Life", which focuses on lifestyle, spectacle and "city natures", or non-human forms of city life. The cities that Franklin describes are familiar and believable. Most of the examples are drawn from a British context - Bristol is a repeated case study - and reveal extensive local research. I found this novel, given that many books on the subject of the city are so North American in their bias.

Viewed from the perspective of architecture as a discipline, Franklin's repetition of the usual hackneyed attacks on the architects of the tower blocks of the 1960s grated on my nerves. Here his observations are distinctly lacking in first-hand research. (Architects rarely had the power he ascribes to them in this era, so much was driven by government policy.) I wonder if readers from other fields would feel the same about Franklin's treatment of their areas. Visually, too, the book is disappointing. It is in this area that Franklin and his publishers could afford to learn something from other disciplines. The text is accompanied by small, black and white and highly uninformative illustrations that undermine his key message and limit the imagination.

Although it is a brave foray into the interdisciplinary and a serious attempt to cover city life in all its complexity, for me the book is too superficial in its coverage to be of great use. Nevertheless, Franklin's optimism about the city is refreshing. He revels in the growing human and cultural diversity and the "re-emergence and spread of a more tolerant, carnivalesque, culture-driven city life", and he celebrates the city's ability to offer shelter to the unexpected and the fragile.

For Franklin, the city is a product of nature, with all its vicissitudes. I enjoyed his meditations on the meaning and limits of nature: "In the hands of writers London is a mighty natural phenomenon, as significant as any forest, cyclone or infection." It is in the book's final chapters, pages that are replete with Franklin's own original research on non-human life in the city, that it reveals its real strengths.

City Life

By Adrian Franklin. SAGE Publications. 256pp, £75.00 and £24.99. ISBN 9780761944751 and 4768. Published 18 May 2010.

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