Modern metropolitan maladies

A Companion to the City
September 7, 2001

In 1994, the Pompidou Centre in Paris ran an exhibition on the city from 1870 onwards, as seen by artists and by the professionals - in this case architects and urbanists. The idea behind it was that to be understood, cities needed the combination of the artistic imagination together with the socio-spatial analysis and creativity of the professionals. The excellent catalogue ( La Ville, Art et Architecture en Europe 1870-1930 , edited by J. Dethier and A. Guiheux) brought together a number of articles by European academics from different backgrounds, and reproductions of artists' images. The introductory papers give an indication of the complexity of the subject matter and of the need to approach it from different angles.

In the same way, this collection of papers gathered by Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson reflects the fact that single-discipline approaches to the city are unsatisfactory and that "urban studies" no longer describes the multiplicity of academic departments involved: geography, cultural studies, gender studies, economics, politics, architecture and so on, not to mention the profession of town planning. But though the focus of interest may shift and the terminology change - "urban renewal" becomes "urban regeneration" to give the impression that past mistakes will not be repeated - the matter in hand remains the persistent problems and inequalities of urban societies worldwide and the management of unwieldy urban structures. Even though the fall of the Soviet communist world has devalued the currency of utopian ideas, the aim of creating an ideal city continues to permeate at least some academic thinking. Globalisation of research has meant that it is not just western cities that are being studied but increasingly non-western ones.

As the published material on cities expands, it becomes more difficult to manage. Bridge and Watson make a valiant attempt to deal with the diverse fields of current research by grouping the papers as far as possible in five cross-disciplinary themes, each one containing about ten articles and introduced by the editors' own papers. That the groupings do not work well is shown by the fact that these introductions often refer to chapters in sections of the book other than the one being introduced, as they are of relevance to more than one theme. This is not necessarily a problem, but it indicates the futility of trying to classify the material rigorously. Nevertheless, these introductory chapters are valuable for giving some structure to what is otherwise a motley collection of research papers, all, the editors say, commissioned for this book.

"With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear," Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities . Calvino's influence on how we think of cities should not be underestimated, and the first part of the companion - "City imaginaries" - reflects this. Two themes run through this section: how the city affects the imagination as a stimulus or as a constraint and how the city is imagined and represented. Urban narratives have become a subject of study in themselves, and scholars are returning to early writings as a basis of research. Walter Benjamin's rediscovered work is a source of abundant current speculation and the most frequently referred to in this book's index. The effects of photography and film on how cities are perceived are discussed. At the same time, the contributions emphasise relationships between images and regulations - as when the "other" is excluded from certain areas because of its perceived danger.

That the economic raison d'être of cities has shifted dramatically is made clear in the second section of the book, "City economies", where we read:

"Cities become sites for the production of images and the cultivation of spectacle." In this context, traditional economic approaches are no longer satisfactory; cultural factors must be included on a par with material ones when considering the economies of cities. Though this might have suggested some new ways of planning for the future of cities, it is one of the aspects most lacking in this book. One exception is William Clark's paper, although he concludes by doubting that the 21st century will be fundamentally different from previous ones.

Beyond the economic and cultural aspects, Bridge and Watson add the symbolic ones that have a prominent role in the third part of the companion, "Cities of division and difference". In this, as in other parts of the book, global-local issues are discussed as they are reflected in the material and the symbolic geography of the city, such as where migrant groups concentrate. Papers dealing with inequalities, whether based on gender, race or culture, show the complicated and shifting patterns of cause and effect between these differences and the city's spatial structures. The editors return to the subject in the book's last section, where they ask whether difference can be turned from a negative excluding force to a productive one.

In the companion's fourth part, Bridge and Watson try to relate the various issues of concern to the reality of the public realm, the space in the city. Prominent among the papers is that by Richard Sennett, who returns to ideas he has discussed elsewhere regarding the withdrawal of people from the public to the private and the important, but threatened role played by the city as a stimulator. More generally, authors discuss how space in the city can be managed to mix or to exclude. And in a discussion of the information technology revolution, Alessandro Aurigi and Stephen Graham conclude that its effect on the future of the city is much smaller than normally assumed.

The last part of the book considers interventions in the city. The introductory chapter reviews urban policy from the beginning of the 20th century, criticises its failures and argues for new approaches. Unfortunately, the failure of past theories as analysed in Patsy Healey's contribution makes the claim that future ones can be more successful unconvincing. Hers, however, is one of the papers that, although theoretical, tries to deal with reality and explain the reason for past failures.

Not surprisingly in such a collection of research papers, the quality varies. Best are the editors' introductory summaries. Few people will want to read the whole collection, and each reader will search for those papers most closely related to his or her own interests. The production of such a volume probably responds to the "publish or perish" imperative that has long existed in US institutions and now, thanks to the research assessment exercise, dominates British academia. Refereed journals are tops, but as there are not enough of them to satisfy the demand for publication, a tome such as this emerges as a second best. A number of papers in this collection read like research in progress - little more than the abstract submitted with a grant application.

Another weakness of this collection is its concentration on Anglo-Saxon research: the editors rightly indicate that they have made an effort to cover not just western cities, but the scholars come almost exclusively from academic institutions of the Anglo-Saxon world. Even when Le Corbusier's ideas are discussed, it is in terms of their effects on Britain, the US and Eastern Europe, not on France or Italy. And although Naples is the subject of one chapter, there is almost no discussion of European cities of the Latin tradition, some of which are very different from those analysed here. This undoubtedly affects the view of the city as there is very little in this collection that does not see the city as problematic and almost no examples of successful urban places. The catalogue mentioned at the beginning of this review shows an alternative way of looking at cities, as places to be feared but also celebrated, transforming and transformed.

The editors mostly succeed in presenting a multidisciplinary collection. It is therefore the more surprising to find some approaches missing. There are a few photographs, no plans (except for children's drawings and the odd diagram) and, so far as can be gathered, none of the contributors is a designer. What used to be called "physical determinism" was rightly criticised and more or less eliminated from the planning profession, but physical planning still has an important role to play in achieving some of the objectives mentioned by various authors in this collection. What politicians and social scientists forget is that people react to the look and feel of their surroundings, even when they are poor, excluded or deprived. This book shares with many others a lack of interest in the formal aspects of the city. In addition, there is little here that might help the practitioner working in urban regeneration or planning.

Finally, following this train of thought, it is valid to ask whether this companion tells us much about cities in crisis: would it help the inhabitants of Sarajevo? Jerusalem? Pristina?

Sebastian Loew is editor, Urban Design Quarterly .

A Companion to the City

Editor - Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson
ISBN - 0 631 21052 0
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £80.00
Pages - 640

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