I thoroughly enjoyed this book although at times I was quite confused by the author's critique. Funnily enough, this, for me, made it an even more enjoyable exercise, absorbing the engaging facts and entertaining stories while trying to work out what the author really thought about it all. This is an intellectual detective story in more ways than one. Apart from Reader's quest for the urban whodunnit - where, why and when did cities evolve - there is also a wealth of rhetoric to be sifted in order to work out whether Reader is in favour of cities or not. I was left wondering whether he agrees with strategic urban planning or not; whether he is in favour of the market mechanism as a means of determining events, or not; whether pragmatic, opportunistic organic development is a positive way forward, or not; and whether he is for or against increasing the extent, intensity and number of cities around the world. Or not.
The book attempts a chronological structure, although fortunately Reader can't help but jump back and forth through time zones and geographical locations. He begins by exploring Mesopotamia and the ancient Sumer region (and challenges the idea that Çatal Hüyük was the world's first city primarily because he says that cities are more than buildings and groundcover - they have to have a social mix. ) Quoting Mark Patton, he says 'a key defining feature of a town or city is that farmers don't live in them', so he prefers to cite Uruk - centre of literacy - 3000 BC as the real start of urbanity. From this starting point, we are then taken on a well-written and engaging history through Ur, Greece, Rome, Tang dynasty China, a leap forward to Renaissance Florence, the Aztec defeat by Spain, and so on, until the present day. It is a well-informed discourse with a wealth of facts, lightly told.
However, Reader changes his mind a number of times throughout this book. I even made a note in the margin three-quarters of the way through, that 'this book seems to have changed course.' On page eight he describes the city as 'a dynamic entity? with seemingly infinite potential' but by page 190 he looks forward to megacities' slow-down as 'some hope that (they) can be contained.' On page 294 he states that cities are defining artefacts of civilisation, 'but they are also dangerous parasites'. There are many examples of this type of contradiction, they represent conflicts that Reader himself seems to be enduring in the process of writing. He is undecided what he thinks, and this book would have been a cathartic experience if he had resolved it by the end.
It becomes clear what the problem is when he says that 'even the most enlightened visionaries cannot see beyond the limits of contemporary knowledge (where) an unrelenting emphasis on the negative aspects of environmental issues creates a sense of helpless inertia.' It's not that he is setting himself up as a visionary, but it is clear that he is trying to retain his positive instincts while feeling the dead hand of the prevalent risk-averse culture weighing heavy upon his shoulders. 'Cities are transitory markers in the progress of civilisation, not permanent fixtures' he says. 'We adapted the environment to suit us? driven by conscious perception and invention? a fatalistic acceptance of gloomy predictions is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy'. He is fighting to maintain his belief that 'cities are the solution' only to be reined in by the primacy of environmental politics of the moment. Try as he might, he can't break clear. Within the last 50 pages he eventually succumbs. 'Clearly the present state of affairs cannot be sustained, ' he asserts towards the end. 'We tread too heavily on the earth.' Regardless of the intellectual tensions throughout this book, I thoroughly recommend it. It should be read by students of architecture and planning because it provides a romping educative ride through the development of urban settlements; by architects because it reminds you about the historical humanist project to which the profession has long subscribed; and by anyone else interested in how civilisation was sparked into life and what it means today.
Ultimately, however, whether because Reader has not got the intellectual independence to stick to his guns, or because he sees no paradox in what he says, this book is simply a more intelligent version of the dated Gaia Atlas of Cities by Herbert Girardet. At least Girardet had the conviction to state unequivocally that 'there must be limits to urban growth' and express his view that 'cities are cancers'. Reader should re-read his work and come clean.