City guides for diverse travellers

The Blackwell City Reader. First edition - Cities of Tomorrow
May 28, 2004

Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century is the type of book that is now only rarely produced, while The Blackwell City Reader is the type that everyone appears to be producing. Contrasting in their format and approach, these books encapsulate much of the change in urban studies textbook publishing since the first edition of Cities of Tomorrow appeared in 1988. Academic interest in cities has broadened and expanded and something of a cottage industry has emerged, characterised by the production of a large number of broadly similar textbooks aimed at burgeoning student audiences. At the same time, increased pressures on lecturers mean that few have the time available to produce the lengthy, magisterial and intellectually ambitious tomes of the past. The Blackwell City Reader is something of an Identikit 21st-century urban textbook, while Cities of Tomorrow is more characteristic of an earlier era.

The market in urban studies textbooks has become crowded. How then have editors Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson distinguished The Blackwell City Reader from its competitors? The textbook is an inherently conservative medium, driven by its markets to affirm, rather than disrupt, disciplinary canons, and to draw on established names at the expense of alternative voices. In this sense, this one fits the market profile well; it contains, for example, familiar works from Georg Simmel, Le Corbusier, David Harvey, Manuel Castells, Ed Soja, Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, Richard Sennett, Mike Davis and others. While the selections are well chosen, structured, introduced and presented, it is a little disappointing to see so many of the usual suspects on parade yet again. One yearns for more surprises in such collections, although this criticism applies not just to this book but to many recent additions to the genre.

The collection aims to be comprehensive and to allow the development of detailed, often-complex, arguments. In this, it is generally successful.

The 57 readings are included either in full or in extracts of seven to ten pages, which avoids the fragmentary feel that sometimes plagues collections of this sort. The readings are organised into five sections: "Reading city imaginations", "Reading urban economics", "Reading division and difference", "Reading city publics" and "Reading urban interventions", which provide a sound, if conventional, framework. The book will undoubtedly appeal to a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate students in courses from geography, through planning, to sociology and cultural studies. Despite its overall quality, however, one cannot help but wonder if each published reader of this type represents a missed opportunity to shake up a subject that appears to be in danger of becoming ossified at the very time that its popularity is growing. A huge amount of innovative research is going on - much of it in disciplines traditionally seen as peripheral to urban studies - but unfortunately publishers rarely allow books such as this fully to embrace it.

Cities of Tomorrow has long been recognised as a seminal textbook whose relevance extends beyond planning, urban design and architecture. This is enhanced by the production of a third edition, the result of thorough revision and updating. What impresses about the book is its historical and geographical sweep and the quality of its scholarship, as evidenced by its attention to detail and its extended case-study approach. The book examines every major architectural and planning movement of the 20th century, and the intellectual contexts from which they sprang, and offers frank assessments of their contributions and failures.

The third edition extends its coverage to the last years of the 20th century, including considerations of the impacts of social exclusion and telecommunications on cities and planning. The book is also extensively illustrated with archive photographs and plans. Its status is such that it will continue to be core reading on planning, architecture and urban design courses as well as on courses in geography and urban studies concerned with the landscapes and shaping of cities. Disciplines not directly concerned with these aspects of cities may find it less relevant, but not without interest. The accessibility of the writing will ensure continued appeal among undergraduate and postgraduate students.

In their different ways, both of these books are excellent guides to the cities of the 20th century. They also demonstrate that interest in urban studies now extends beyond those disciplines traditionally concerned with the subject. While the popularity and reputation of Cities of Tomorrow is well established, The Blackwell City Reader should also prove popular and enduring. However, it will face more competition as publishers rush to cash in on the popularity of cities as subjects of academic interest.

Tim Hall is senior lecturer in geography, Gloucestershire University.

The Blackwell City Reader. First edition

Editor - Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 579
Price - £65.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 631 22513 7 and 22514 5

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