‘A History of Future Cities’: urban gateways between East and West
Daniel Brook’s engaging new book “A History of Future Cities” analyzes how several cities, including Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai and St. Petersburg, have thrived because of their position as gateways between the East and West.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘A History of Future Cities’
by Daniel Brook
Norton, 457 pp., $27.95
Shanghai, Bombay (Mumbai), Dubai, and St. Petersburg, Russia — each a critical nexus of East and West, developed with intention, and containing the seeds of its own destruction and rebirth — are the subject of “The History of Future Cities,” Daniel Brook’s engaging, quite original take on urban planning.
St. Petersburg was born of the urgent need by Peter the Great to bring agrarian Russia into a modern European world. After the 20-something Peter traveled incognito for 18 months throughout Europe — Holland, in particular — on a fact-finding mission, he returned a changed man, establishing St. Petersburg as Russia’s new capital, a seaport to which Peter would bring new technologies, high culture and a worldview.
Shanghai, where the Yangtze meets the Pacific, comprised some 200,000 residents when a director of the British East India Company first saw it in 1832 and quickly understood its potential. Seven years later, its lucrative opium trade in Canton at stake, the British successfully waged war on China, setting up a base in Shanghai where they could operate unencumbered by Chinese law while also developing an advanced economy — next to an otherwise insular Chinese land mass — that by the mid-twentieth century would rival the most vibrant in the world.
In Bombay, it was again the East India Company that saw huge economic potential in that city’s proximity to the subcontinent, Africa and Asia, not to mention serving England and the Continent. With the British government takeover, beginning in the 17th century, Bombay underwent massive infrastructure projects, including the linking of Bombay’s seven islands, the building of Asia’s first railway, and improved sanitary conditions. Most important, though, the British opened the city to all Indians. Suddenly, in Bombay, writes Brook, “success in life mattered more than accident of birth.”
It is a great historical irony that three such culturally and economically evolved cities would inspire movements that would seek to crush them.
Both Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, whose revolution was born in St. Petersburg, would come to view that city’s worldliness as a threat, Lenin moving the capital to Moscow and Stalin turning equally inward. Meanwhile, Shanghai — where much revolutionary thinking was also nurtured — would be left to wither in the years following the Communist takeover. And Bombay’s financial success, built on an industrialized cotton-export trade, became a favorite target of Mohandas Gandhi in his successful efforts to break up the Raj.
Then there’s young Dubai, perhaps the most centrally located city in the jet age and whitewashed of any elements — religious extremism, tough immigration laws, pesky taxes, real-estate restrictions — that might impede the flow of money into the city.
“To go from being a South Indian rice farmer to a construction worker who erects the tallest building on earth,” writes Brook, “is to untether oneself from the past and build the future.”
Brook makes these mini-histories wholly readable, and links them in interesting ways. But he never seems to stray from an overall assumption that the progress these cities made was “good.” As he himself points out, though, Peter the Great boasted that some 100,000 people perished in the building of St. Petersburg, and the terrible inequalities in living standards between wealthy and poor in Shanghai and Bombay are drawn only too realistically. Is it therefore unreasonable to ask if the greatness of those cities, or any modern city built on such human pain, came at too high a price?
Alan Moores is a Seattle-based writer who has lived in Asia and Europe.