Shaping Cities in an Urban Age is the third in a series of volumes that examines major urbanisation trends from across the world. It is part of the Urban Age project based at the London School of Economics, which was started in 2005 as an ‘international investigation into the future of cities.’ One of the key aims of the Urban Age project is to address knowledge gaps that cities are unable to fill through their own scarce resources. This opens up partnership potentials to share expertise and peer-to-peer learning, and heightens international visibility of key urban challenges and opportunities. Joan Clos sets this tone of partnership early on in the book: “Urbanism has become too important not to seek a serious pragmatic and professional approach based on both real citizen engagement and scientific methods. Participation defines the problems; design should provide the proper solutions” (p. 32).
Editors Ricky Burdett and Phillipp Rode, both from the London School of Economics, have compiled an impressive list of authors and contributors in this hefty volume of almost 450 pages. Fifty-five relatively short, well-written and succinct chapters bring together diverse perspectives, places and challenges, all under the umbrella of identifying key urban trends that will dominate throughout the 21st Century, and proposing innovative and timely solutions. Well-known contributors from both academia and practice include: Edward Glaeser, Jo Noero, Richard Sennett, Saskia Sassen, Maarten Hajer and Janette Sadik-Khan, to name but a few.
The book is divided into sections that feature essays, data and images grouped around five themes: emergence, which explores the ways that official plans and policies are often experienced in different and unintentional ways by residents on the ground; power, which examines the often complex and tenuous relationships between national and local governments; uncertainty, which focuses on the complex and overlapping issues of political, social, economic and environment uncertainties; constraints, which focuses on issues of urban form and urban governance and interventions, which highlights several important examples.
The volume’s global perspective is important because it regularly reminds readers that the majority of the world’s urban infrastructure that will be in place in 2050 has yet to be built. Burdett and Rode estimate that an additional 2.5 billion people will live in cities by then, most of them in Asia and Africa, with China alone being home to nearly 1 billion urban dwellers by 2030. This point is echoed in chapters by Nicholas Stern and Dimitri Zenghelis, who describe the process of ‘locking-in’ cities, and Jagan Shah’s chapter on India, where upwards of 80% of the urban infrastructure of 2050 still needs building. Rapid urbanisation, particularly in the Global South, is an intense, yet recent period in human history; this means that decisions made in the coming years will determine if our future urban age is one of sprawl, or sustainability.
While the Urban Age project is both organic and multi-faceted, its broad focus is on the relationships between urban form and urban society. The use of the word shape is explained as being both a noun that refers to the urban form, setting, size and scale, and the verb shaping which implies that cities are malleable and the product of questions of how to invest resources, and listen to and make tough choices.
It is a book that clearly celebrates the possibilities of the city and the chaos, density, complexity and agglomerations that it produces. This vision is perhaps best represented by Suketu Mehta, who writes that: “All over the world, there’s a giant renunciation of personal space. The attraction of the big house, with its lawns and swimming pools, belong to the last century. People are choosing to go home from work to sleep in tiny spaces, like peasants in medieval towns choosing to come behind the walls of the fort after nightfall. Except this time, it’s not because they might be prey to marauding bandits; that the countryside is unsafe. Now they come to the cities because the countryside is boring. The city is exciting” (p.80).
While the chapters presented in this book paint insightful and inspiring stories from cities around the world, readers looking for more radical interpretations of the contemporary city or radical visions for its future will need to look elsewhere. A case in point is the very well written chapter by architect Jo Noero. In discussing post-Apartheid housing in South Africa, Noero points out the huge inequities in housing, where some of the country’s wealthiest residents live in houses of 2-3000 square metres, while the poor must subsist with dwellings of just eight square metres. The solutions presented are not to redress these inequalities through transformative taxation and redistribution policies, but rather to rethink the design of these small houses, while also bringing in new sources of private financing. This echoes other chapters that look towards design solutions, rather than ones which address capital or class inequities.
Saskia Sassen delves into the topic of finance and inequality in some detail in her chapter entitled ‘who owns the city?’ where she explores the role of urban real estate as storage space for capital, particularly since the 2008 Financial Crisis. This, she argues, has led to rapidly rising housing prices, which put affordability pressures on working- and even middle-class urban households. But again, the solutions proposed are far from radical. Sassen argues that some degree of inequality is inevitable in an entity as complex as a city, but that this new context challenges what is considered to be an acceptable level of inequality, which will vary from place to place. In general, the solutions proposed in this book are more about reordering or redesigning space, rather than reshaping the relationship between capital, labour, finance and class found in more critical strands of urban scholarship and activism.
Notwithstanding this, the two real strengths of this book – its global reach and its visual imagery – make it a valuable resource for students, scholars and practitioners looking for a clear and compressive account of key urban challenges around the world. The attention given to chapters (and authors) from the Global South is very laudable and essential, given the nature of urbanisation in the 21st Century. The many images throughout the book both complement the parallel text and work as stand-alone visuals that brilliantly illustrate the challenges and opportunities of our future urban world.