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Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities…
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Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World

by Jeb Brugmann

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Initially Brugmann seems to offer a thesis about how the logical outcome of combining an ever-increasing urban majority worldwide with globalized technologies, information networks, and commerce will result in a comprehensive “Citysystem.” “The City” is no longer that place with the Empire State Building, hot dog vendors, and a large Christmas tree, but the place with the Empire State Building, Gherkin, Petronas Towers, and contorted CCTV tower. It also includes Dharavi, Chicago’s Uptown, and whatever hutongs remain after CCTV. Basically the future of The City must interweave the issues and energy found in emergent slums as well as the more pedigreed power-structure represented by governments, corporations, and the elite. We should hope for a workable fusion of bottom-up and top-down strategies in pursuit of an integrated world city.

As much as one is willing to believe the US currently sports a Bos-Wash, or San Franjuana or whatever, this sort of seems like a reasonable, if not creepily idealistic prophesy. As the narrative unfolds, however, Brugmann delves into specific examples and never really returns to the big idea. He discusses some examples of faltering urbanisms – Detroit as the obvious red-headed poster child - and some middling cities (those that have much going for them yet lack a comprehensive, even-keeled organizational structure) like his hometown of Toronto. Then he praises the recent success stories of Curitiba, Barcelona, and Chicago as exemplars of a consciously pluralist approach to building a powerful urban realm. It’s all very interesting yet all very specific. Whereas the strategies and organizational networks developed in these cities (as well as such hyper-shanties like Dharavhi) can inform the way other cities might successfully develop or regenerate themselves, it’s all still rooted in individual places within the last few decades. “You have to keep sucking water up from your own roots,” he quotes the ex-Mayor of Toronto just at the point where I assumed he would return to his master-narrative. He does make a few concluding global references but it seems that he’s satisfied with the earlier inclusions of such worldly things as the internet, the global spread of SARS, and international crime organizations to impel the reader to understand Delhi and Seattle as mere antipodal neighborhoods of the [same] City. Needless to say, I’m not particularly convinced.

This is all predicated on the well-documented influx of rural migrants to urban locales. Obviously this has been a trend for many centuries, with a startling uptick recently in the developing world. One wonders, however, if there might possibly be a reversal. It’s an inquiry that I can’t dive into here, but it never seems to cross Brugmann’s mind as a possibility despite the fact that Detroit, and Ancient Rome for that matter, might serve as precedents for such a potentiality in some distant or near future. At the very least one could begin to question urban population trends. Obviously Mumbai, Guangzhou, Sao Paolo et. al. have grown tremendously over the last few decades, but I don’t know that forecasts for 2030 or beyond can be deduced from such recent population explosions. Not everyone is going to leave the farm and I’m certain another historical trend is that families in urban milieus tend to have fewer offspring than their rural counterparts. Most Chinese apparently abide by the one-kid-per-couple mandate so how much larger could that nation really grow? A century ago experts were absolutely certain that New Haven, Connecticut would house over a million people by something like 1950. So who knows.

Conversely there’s this nagging statistical problem within the US that, while perhaps not overly-germane to this book, is also not addressed clearly. For instance, where the author can easily speak of tumbleweed-strewn Detroit’s alarming loss of a million inhabitants, one can look at the “Statistical Metropolitan Area” of Detroit in 2000, and find there are well over four million Detroiters! The MSA counts obviously include extremely generous territorial boundaries for each city and I suspect the author wouldn’t intend to present Detroit in this manner as zones of farmland and rural whatnot inevitably get mixed in. However when he points out that over seventy percent of the US is “urban” that’s exactly what that means! Some Connecticut farmer that lives 57 miles outside of Queens is “urban” by this tally.

Lest I lead whomever might have read this far to believe that I’m irritated by Brugmann’s effort, I’m absolutely not. My response is more a generally fatigued, information-era/post-grad school critique of the rather hyperbolic statistical logic that seems to plague every discussion of …everything! If Constantine got a Dell and enlisted some Statistical Institute of Rome to work up a forecast, I’m certain that the calculations would definitively show that the Roman Empire circa. 2009 would be populated by around 6.5 billion people. As to the book generally, I found this to be very readable and quite engaging. I definitely recommend to anyone interested in urban conditions and globalism. ( )
  mjgrogan | Jun 14, 2010 |
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A reappraisal of the role of cities and their inhabitants in solving global problems cites examples related to such historical events as the civil rights movement, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of apartheid in South Africa, in a report that evaluates how cities have become mediums for technological, economic, and social innovation.… (more)

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