Monday, May 14, 2012

cities cities cities cities

Some years ago the Maggot returned from a local bookstore with a stack of purchases that included an unexpected gift for me, a used copy of John Reader's Cities. We were living in the Bristol Street apartment, if memory serves (and, incidentally, it doesn', it's the other way around: we serve memory).

Reader's book isn't really governed by an argument, except maybe that cities are hard on the environment, which is tantamount to saying that people are (how insightful!). The chapters could be read in any order, really; each chapter pairs a theme and a couple of case study cities, but their sequence isn't important. The prose is sober, bordering on boring. This overall nibble-ability is my excuse for taking seven or eight months to read it. (That, and my sudden interest in second-tier serial television dramas. Seriously.) Cities would make a great bathroom book.

And I feel as though I learned many things that I should already have known (and that I have already forgotten). Here are four I keep turning over:

I. "The traditional view, deeply entrenched in academic literature and popular writing on the subject, is that the development of grain cultivation on the fertile soils of Sumer, and the invention of the plough, enabled farmers to produce surpluses, which not only led to a rapid increase in population but also inspired village communities to coalesce and form cities. Thus the world's first cities are said to have arisen simply because farmers had discovered a way of producing more food than they needed for themselves. But there is an alternative view of the evidence, suggesting that the crucial developments occurred in reverse order - namely that the cities came first and advances in farming technology came only as a response to the demands of the cities" (14-15).

II. "In 1920 the city had extended its boundaries to include the surrounding network loosely linked towns and communities which had always been informally known as part of Berlin but whose regional differences had often frustrated the city's plans for growth and development. Eight towns, fifty-nine parishes and twenty-seven rural estates joined the central districts of old Berlin to create a city which grew more than twelvefold in the process: from 65 to 820 km2. Of that area a third (273 km2) was forest and natural landscape; furthermore, the legislation which had created Greater Berlin guaranteed that a large proportion should stay that way. Today, 43 per cent of Berlin consists of forest, lakes, parks and agricultural land - an area of 382 km2 in total, nearly seven times the size of Manhattan Island (57 km2). Twenty per cent of this open space is protected land - that's 76.4 km2 to be exact, one and a third times the size of Manhattan Island" (284-285; emphasis mine).

III. "No wonder demographers and historians write of the 'urban graveyard effect'. Deaths exceeded births in all great cities. Indeed, it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that urban populations became reproductively self-sustaining - when, in other words, the number of births in a city began to exceed the number of deaths recorded each year. Before then, cities needed a constant flow of migrants from the countryside simply to maintain their population size - let alone provide for the astonishing growth that many of them experienced" (217-18).

IV. "Which means that if everyone on Earth lived as comfortably as the average citizen of North America we would need not just one, but three planets to provide for them all" (303).


  1. And despite II., above, I will be willingly moving from Berlin to NYC in summer 2013...

  2. Cities wasn't about Berlin, though the parts that were interested me the most. I did, though, dig some other Berlin-related books during my pair of years there. Let's see...not counting reference books, I read: Sven Regener, Berlin Blues (in translation by John Brownjohn); Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin; Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin (in translation by Michael Hofmann); and Fritz Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933, which was especially absorbing as I had reread Bill Readings' The University In Ruins around the same time.

  3. Further to I, above, "Settlements, in other words, preceded agriculture—not, as we’ve thought, the reverse" (Deresiewicz reviews Graeber and Wengrow).