Given the somewhat millenarian tendencies of much contemporary writing on cities - which seems inclined to either invite technocratic fantasies of a digital future, or ponder fatalistically the disappearance of some irreplaceable aspect of urban life - Peter Rowe's new book comes across as endearingly old-fashioned in its examination of traditional civic virtues, and how they might be recuperated in contemporary cities.
The ambitions of the book are relatively simple and straightforward. A broad, philosophical conception of the 'real' is married with the specific urban notion of the 'civic,' and investigated through a select list of examples, each tied to a specific theme - thus post-war Rome is placed in a discussion entitled 'Realism and World Making'. Building on these treatments of select cities and their associated theorisations, Rowe aims to weld theoretical understandings of urban space to active strategies of design intervention. In so doing, he hopes to redress 'apparent decline in the presence of viable civic realms' and contribute to 'the practice of civic realism'.
While it would be churlish not to endorse Rowe's sentiments, there are significant problems associated with deploying selective historical examples in such an instrumental fashion. Most obvious of the consequent pitfalls is the selection of the elite list of paradigmatic urban examples: medieval Siena, post-Franco Barcelona, Mitterrand's Paris, post-war Rome, the New York grid in the nineteenth century and today, and the pre-war Ljubljana of Plecnik - in that order.
While these are all obviously significant places and times, their diversity - historic as well as geographic - demands a clear explanation of the criteria for their selection. This we are not explicitly given, although we must assume that these places qualified by meeting Rowe's condition 'that civic place-making cannot occur successfully without a propitious conjunction of local opportunity, community wherewithal, and design capability'. Even then, this list appears arbitrary: are these the only or the principal examples, or do many other cities meet these requirements? Furthermore, if the ambition of this project really is to endorse a definable strategy of urban practice, how can any city plan for a 'propitious conjunction' of circumstances?
It is Siena, of course, that stands out in this list of otherwise broadly modern urban exemplars, and its deployment as the paradigm of urban virtue is so widespread and predictable that it serves as the spiritual home of liberal Anglo-Saxon culture. But the notion that this physically small, and economically and socially simple, environment holds lessons for the sprawling 'world cities' of today betrays a nostalgic attachment to a European model which has been wholly overtaken in most parts of the world. As telling as this anachronistic inclusion is the avoidance of Los Angeles, Mexico City or Tokyo - the troublesome, present-day reality of the city.
Ultimately what we are presented with is a text whose individual subjects are treated intelligently, with careful research and illuminating ideas. It will be an extremely useful reference source on the individual cities: for instance, the analysis of the economic and political circumstances behind Barcelona's recent regeneration is fascinating. But the whole is no greater than the sum of its parts.
Joe Kerr teaches at the University of North London