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A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook

Urbanization is “the defining journey of the 21st century” according to Daniel Brook, author of A History of Future Cities. This linked history of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai provides eloquent examples of how complex and tumultuous the evolution of the modern city has been over the past three centuries, the study of which, the author hopes, may help to mitigate problems in the future.

A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook
History of Future Cities, Daniel Brook (W. W. Norton & Company, February 2013)

All are “Eastern” cities, geographically, founded by more or less autocratic regimes with aggressive programs of modernization in mind. Each of these older “gateway cities” developed an international, cosmopolitan mix of architectural styles that mirrored their complex international cultures. Brook reminds us that the best-laid plans oft go awry, and we see the founders’ intentions subverted:


St. Petersburg birthed the Bolsheviks, Shanghai the Chinese Communist Party, and Mumbai the Indian National Congress, all forces that pared back their nations’ ties to the world.


Economic success and open-orientation to trade proved to be a double-edged sword, leading to great wealth but also to great disparities of wealth. For Brook, this history reads as a cautionary tale for Dubai, his modern urban example. “If its elder-sister cities offer any guidance, the rulers of Dubai are playing a dangerous game with their urban Frankenstein,” he warns.


Turn-of-the-eighteenth century St. Petersburg is Brook’s oldest “modern” city. Founded by Tsar Peter the Great, intent on modernizing Russia, St. Petersburg was an early “instant city”, built by serfs on previously uninhabited marshland where the Neva River empties into the Gulf of Finland. Now iconic buildings in the Russian Baroque style, such as the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage) clearly and intentionally referenced the architectural traditions of the west. Dostoevsky wrote that St. Petersburg was “the most abstract and intentional city on the globe.” But Brook has an eye for the ironies that riddle history. Despite Tsar Peter’s modernizing intentions, he used primitive construction methods to build it:


… rather than import wheelbarrows, Peter had his serfs carry away in their shirts the swampy mud they cleared in building the foundations of his city. Many serfs lacked even shovels, and resorted to digging with sticks and nails.


Shanghai was bedeviled by similar ironies. Due to extraterritoriality, by which the citizens of foreign trading powers (England, France, etc.) were governed by their own laws while in China, “the Chinese residents of the foreign settlements began to enjoy some extraterritorial privileges, including more freedom of speech, thought and press than their mainland countrymen”. Chinese newspapers, bankrolled by Shanghai’s wealthy Chinese merchants, demanded a representative government. Ironically, “anger at the emperors was rooted in allowing China to be humiliated by foreigners, but the freest place to publish such opinions was in Shanghai’s foreign-administered concessions.”

Bombay—“Urbs Prima in Indis” (“first city in India”) as Sir Bartle Frere, its British governor from 1862 called it—likewise served as a kind “social escape hatch”, in this case from the smothering caste structure rigidly practiced in traditional villages. Brooks details Bombay’s extraordinary cultural diversity and, as in the other cities, focuses on the architecture, here the hybrid style that came to be known as “Bombay Gothic”.

Three centuries after St. Petersburg, Dubai was also planned and built by an autocrat, Sheik Rashid, who intended it to emulate a western financial capital. Brook describes Dubai an “instant global metropolis” with a “skyline on crack”, noting that Dubai’s population doubled between 2002 and 2008 during which time its urbanized footprint increased four-fold. It also shares with St. Petersburg harsh treatment of its laborers. Fully 96% of Dubai’s population is non-native, but there is a huge disparity between the relative freedom enjoyed by the white-collar expats and the restrictions imposed on Dubai’s non-native laborers.


In the book’s conclusion, titled “Glimpses of Utopia”, Brook asks the reader to appreciate the Dubai that its detractors cannot see.


…the draw of Dubai in the twenty-first century—as the draw of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai historically—is more than just the lure of great wealth; it is the lure of participating in modernity. To go from being a South Indian rice farmer to a construction worker who erects the tallest building on earth is to untether oneself from the past and build the future.


Brook would have us believe—past being prologue—that in these four cities we can see intimations, positive and negative, of future urbanization. That “instant cities” should be hybrids is not surprising: having little baggage, they can borrow what is modern from where it is modern. It is also hardly surprising that the benefits of these developments should contain the seeds of social disruption. Nor indeed, is it surprising that the weight of Brook’s selections should be in the East.

Whether or not one is entirely convinced by the three-century long line that Brook draws from the St. Petersburg to Dubai, his powers of observation and easy prose provide a pleasurable read and a thought-provoking historical narrative leading up to contemporary urbanization.

Jill Baker has a joint MS from NYU Stern and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Asia Business Council in Hong Kong.