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‘The failure of so many urban utopias’

By John P. Houghton.

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Dejan Sudjic, The Language of Cities (Penguin, 2016)

The Language of Cities is an ambitious attempt to understand what makes a city by “decoding the underlying forces that shape the urban spaces around us”. As the author Deyan Sudjic puts it, this is a pressing task for those generations of us who have witnessed, even lived through, the failure of so many urban utopias and who now struggle “to find a renewed purpose about what cities should be”.

The language of city living and the urban experience is everywhere around us, but beyond new development industry marketing speak, what do such terms actually mean? At the heart of the book is a story about the socio-economic and architectural transformation of one city over the past 40 years.

That city is London, the author’s place of birth and current employment, and that story about the capital is detailed, engaging, witty, and occasionally angry. In the chapter ‘How to change a city’, Sudjic explains how the derelict East End docklands were transformed into one of the world’s leading financial hubs, and the old dockyards and warehouses were replaced by the gleaming pinnacles of Canary Wharf.

This story is told with wit and insight, and an eye on just how risky the entire venture was. The main financial backers were almost driven to ruin, while the description of the development’s early struggles to attract tenants brought back memories of this 1992 British television parody sketch ‘Who will buy?’

The eventual success of Canary Wharf catalysed the rapid growth of similarly speculative high-rise developments across London, including Bishopsgate and the newer plans for Nine Elms. London has become “Europe’s most conspicuous high-rise downtown”, Sudjic argues, and this has subsequently led to the “emergence of London property as an asset class rather than as a means to provide affordable homes for its people”.

This is a situation that clearly aggrieves the author and I wanted to hear more of his opinions on how his hometown can navigate its way out of the over-gentrified, over-heated mess that it has created.

It’s a shame, then, that in contrast to the sharp focus and tightly woven narrative fabric of that chapter, much of rest of The Language of Cities is a loosely-hung clothing line of brief observations and historical vignettes from across the ages and the continents.

The first two chapters, in particular, mingle in rapid-fire fashion familiar urban-studies tropes, such as Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses, and Hausmann’s re-development of Paris, with more recent developments from cities in Africa and the Americas in particular. An entire era or architectural movement is described in half a page or less, before we leap back or forward half a millennium.

This flighty magpie style permits very little space for extended analysis or interrogation. To give just one example, toward the end of the book, in a relatively extended section about Silicon Valley, Sudjic observes that “In Britain, Cambridge comes closest” to equalling Stanford’s success in developing and spinning-out tech enterprises. This prompts so many questions. Why? Why not Oxford, London, Edinburgh? What is Cambridge doing that other places are not? But we are left with a single statement, and no follow-up.

At its worst, the style becomes so stretched that we end up with questions begetting questions begetting questions, or clichéd conclusions. Examples of the latter include the statements that “cities are not static creations, they change and develop”, “The lack of infrastructure [in slums] is limiting”, and “Uber and Airbnb… are transforming transport and hotel-keeping in cities”.

Some may enjoy such an approach more than this reviewer. They may find an airily dériviste charm that befits a book about the motion and movement of cities.

Ultimately, however, this style prevents Sudjic from engaging more substantively with the questions that the book ventures to answer. There is vague adumbration, rather than sharp analysis, of how the language of cities works, how it shapes us, and what it tells us about the future. The story at the heart of the book, like the urban core of the ‘100 mile cities’ previously explored by Sudjic, is lost amidst sprawling developments.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities. He tweets at @metlines

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 21st, 2016.