City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age

Thursday, 2 August, 2012

It is August after all, so it’s not too early to be thinking about things like the-book-of-the-year awards. Top of the list right now is City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age by PD Smith. The scope is vast and the writing is superb. Snippets:

“Like so many aspects of urban life, infrastructure is not new. In the third millennium BC, the city of Mohenjo-daro, northeast of modern Karachi, provided its inhabitants with fresh water through a sophisticated system of clay pipes. There was also a network of covered drains. In ancient Rome, eight aqueducts brought more than 220 million gallons of water into the city each day, supplying public baths and nearly six hundred fountains, as well as topping up the fish tanks in Trajan’s Market. Rome’s sewer system was without compare in the urban world. It was constructed over a long period of time, beginning in the sixth century BC and improved continually until it was completed around 33 BC. Some of the cloacae (sewers) were so large that a cart full of hay could pass through them. The oldest and largest is the vaulted Cloaca Maxima, the central sewer, whose five-metre arch is still visible today, opening on to the River Tiber below the Ponte Rotto.”


“Cities are already being built around the requirements of the new information technologies. In the city of New Songdo in South Korea, Cisco is implementing its vision for the smart cities of the future. Under construction since 2001, New Songdo is being built on a man-made island in the Yellow Sea, 64 kilometres southwest of Seoul. Its ambitious plan involves creating an electronic central nervous system for the city. The city will ‘run on information’. A pervasive network of sensors and smart chips, spread throughout the city, will transform what is usually a collection of separate machines, buildings and networks into a single urban organism, a sentient city.”

PD Smith has written a paean to urban life. It is “humankind’s greatest achievement”, he says, and his book is a valuable contribution to the res publica that is the city.

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