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A History of Future Cities

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Every month, five million people move from the past to the future. Pouring into developing-world “instant cities” like Dubai and Shenzhen, these urban newcomers confront a modern world cobbled together from fragments of a West they have never seen. Do these fantastical boomtowns, where blueprints spring to life overnight on virgin land, represent the dawning of a brave new world? Or is their vaunted newness a mirage?

In a captivating blend of history and reportage, Daniel Brook travels to a series of major metropolitan hubs that were once themselves instant cities— St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai—to watch their “dress rehearsals for the twenty-first century.” Understanding today’s emerging global order, he argues, requires comprehending the West’s profound and conflicted influence on developing-world cities over the centuries.

In 1703, Tsar Peter the Great personally oversaw the construction of a new Russian capital, a “window on the West” carefully modeled on Amsterdam, that he believed would wrench Russia into the modern world. In the nineteenth century, Shanghai became the fastest-growing city on earth as it mushroomed into an English-speaking, Western-looking metropolis that just happened to be in the Far East. Meanwhile, Bombay, the cosmopolitan hub of the British Raj, morphed into a tropical London at the hands of its pith-helmeted imperialists.

Juxtaposing the stories of the architects and authoritarians, the artists and revolutionaries who seized the reins to transform each of these precociously modern places into avatars of the global future, Brook demonstrates that the drive for modernization was initially conflated with wholesale Westernization. He shows, too, the ambiguous legacy of that emulation—the birth (and rebirth) of Chinese capitalism in Shanghai, the origins of Bollywood in Bombay’s American-style movie palaces, the combustible mix of revolutionary culture and politics that rocked the Russian capital—and how it may be transcended today.

A fascinating, vivid look from the past out toward the horizon, A History of Future Cities is both a crucial reminder of globalization’s long march and an inspiring look into the possibilities of our Asian Century.

480 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2013

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Daniel Brook

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 110 reviews
Profile Image for Dеnnis.
339 reviews48 followers
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October 26, 2015
UPDATE
I finished the book and it went more or less as I anticipated: tons of new information on Shanghai and Mumbai, then torture with St. Petersburg. Thank God later Dubai joined it as a whipping boy. All in all impression left by the book: St. Petersburg and Dubai is hubris, two others are shining examples of daring human spirit.

***
Just started. Intro was inspiring. Along came Chapter 1 on my native Russia and the city I lived 2 years in and a monarch about whom Robert K. Massie wrote a stunning masterpiece (Peter the Great: His Life and World). Nearly every paragraph makes me cringe: patronizing tone here, dubious shortcut there, sensation making oversimplification here, weird (an never heard by me) quote there. Oh, my what shall I do? I want to love the book, I want to believe it. But if I see how freely (and arbitrarily) he juggles the story of St. Petersburg to shoehorn it into his slick narrative, should I take his word for the places I know little about: Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai? Or he massages their stories in a similar fashion?
Profile Image for David Sasaki.
244 reviews341 followers
August 26, 2013
This is the first history book I've read in over a year, and like all good history books it offers its readers a glimpse of the making of the modern world by focusing on one particular slice. Or, four slices in this case — four cities that I've always wanted to visit: St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Shanghai and Dubai.

Prior to this book it never occurred to me what these four cities have in common. (Other than that three of them rhyme.) All four cities began as deliberate efforts to change the values and behaviors of their residents and, eventually, countrymen. St. Petersburg was famously modeled on Amsterdam as an effort by Peter the Great to import not just the architecture and urban planning of Holland, but also its work ethic and even fashion. (All Russian men had their beards shaved upon entering the city.) Shanghai, now China's most populous city, was a relatively small port city until the end of the first Opium War when the Treaty of Nanjing opened up the city to Western administration by the British, French, and Americans. Bombay ("good bay" in a mixture of Portuguese and Engish) was literally a collection of marshy islands until the British Raj decided it was the perfect location to become the crown jewel's urbs prima, its premier city. And Dubai, though on historical record since the 11th century, is the most recent attempt to import Westernization via urbanization.

Brook notes that these cities tend to provoke strong opinions from Western tourists. Either they are comforted by the reminders of their own civilization, or they are outraged by it. However, he emphasizes that "the question bedeviling visitors—where are we?—is far less fraught than the question these cities provoke for their own people: Who are we?"

Indeed, these attempts by reformist leaders to import Westernization via urban planning has led to a cultural schism in all four countries. But the original reformist leaders could have never anticipated the cultural and political revolutions that they were planting. Before Mao headed to the hills to raise a peasant army, China's communist revolution first developed in Shanghai. Similarly, though Mahatma Gandhi was extremely anti-urban and anti-Bombay, the city played a central role in setting the stage for India's independence movement. And St. Petersburg was ground zero of the Russian Revolution. These are not the social revolutions that were anticipated or desired.

Dubai, so far, has engendered the opposite reaction from its original Arab residents. Though they represent only 10% of Dubai's population, its native Arabs have responded to their city's top-down cosmopolitanism by embracing traditional Islamic customs and segregating themselves from the city's immigrant population. Far from fighting for the rights of the downtrodden — occurred in China and Russia — most Dubai Arabs live in luxury build by an underclass of mostly South Asian immigrants.

Beyond the historical narrative of the four cities, Brooks does a great job finding the surprising intersections that link the four urban experiments of Westernization. The Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art, for instance, which would later inspire Bombay's unique take on the global art deco movement, was founded by a Parsi-Indian philanthropist who later become a legal drug lord by trading spices and tea for opium and British sterling.

I also appreciate the way Brooks narrates Big History by focusing on the Small History of a single monument, street, or building. "While a statue of Jesus towers over Rio de Janeiro, the symbol of an Iberian empire built upon the conversion of the natives," he observes, "it is the goddess Progress who stands high atop Bombay. The [train] station is built to win converts to the Western faith in progress, not in Christ." By taking a closer look at the contradictions of the cities' architecture, we're offered a glimpse of their larger social and political contradictions. In both St. Petersburg and Shanghai, the allegedly enlightened leaders built impressive concert halls and science museums in order to expose their residents to opera and the latest discoveries of science. But across from these new institutions, which encourage their visitors to think critically, are daunting fortresses of public administration. The lesson: become modern, but don't question your leaders. It is a tension that continues to exist in all four cities today.

Brooks is mostly value-neutral on the use of "new cities" as a mechanism to change culture and behaviors, though the readers perceives that he is far less enthusiastic than, say, Paul Romer whose controversial "charter cities" initiative — seeks to establish foreign-run “charter cities” within their borders of developing countries like Honduras and Madagascar. Utopian attempts to develop the perfect, new city abound. There is Songdo in South Korea, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, a new London neighborhood designed by Ikea, and the appropriately named New City ("Nova Cidade") built by Chinese laborers and left mostly empty in Angola.

Brooks' History of New Cities tells us that we should expect much more than the expectations of their urban planners.

(If you're interested in reading more, there's an excerpt about the history of Dubai in Next City and a long, but interesting review by Brady Dale.
February 2, 2015
Daniel Brook's 'A History of Future Cities' makes for an excellent history in a sense that it is very good at explaining how the cities in question—St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad/St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay/Mumbai, and Dubai—came into being. What's the common denominator? They are all cities which pursued a variety of aesthetic principles to realize themselves, appealing to whatever international tastes were currently in vogue, or however 'international tastes' had styled themselves. Their economies responded to fluctuations of global capital—the patterns of city planning and infrastructure followed a similar tune. In such a way, these cities began to develop much more diverse cultural currents than that of their respective nations.

While in the earliest example of St. Petersburg we have a mirroring of Western tastes in order to put Russia 'on parr' with that of the West, the latest study the book considers, Dubai, adopts a strange cultural proteanism, with mere pathetic cultural tokens of affection shown to native Emirates. The closer we get to the present day, the more city planning has to do with the effacing of cultural tradition resulting in a schizophrenic pastiche-city (which is, in itself, becoming a traditional internationalist aesthetic). It's telling that while St. Petersburg modeled itself on New Amsterdam, the city planners of Bombay had Los Angeles in mind with its wide streets, 'cleanliness' and irreferential style. Indeed, the description of the skyline of Shanghai reminded me strongly of LA's skyline—looks good in pictures, at a distance, but is a desolate sad city on the level of the pedestrian.

Now, as this is 'Goodreads', I will talk about this in terms of 'stars'. This book is tremendously interesting, and hard to put down once you've begun. As a history, it's easily a four-star book. However, for all his historical research, Daniel Brook seems to have assumptions about 'modernity' and 'globalism' that I find to be misguided. Brook touts a modernity which cannot make allowance for cultures which do not embrace the internationalist status quo, in that societies which do not embrace unstudied multiculturalism are somehow 'backwards'. I believe that the fact of the matter is that more traditional societies including (for example) societies harboring so-called radical Islamic sympathies should not remain outside our understanding of 'modernity'—on the contrary, these 'traditionalisms' (which at times seem to be paranoid parodies of 'traditional' culture) are as much a part of globalism as free and open societies—it's counterpoint, rather. To simply understand modernity as a progression towards multiculturalism and tolerance/acceptance of others is a bit two-dimensional, surely.

After all, I think Daniel Brook himself would agree that what built these cities was not lofty ideas of freedom and cosmopolitanism alone—it was money, capital, and a *lot* of it. These cities seem to me to be more a result of global capitalism than that of democracy and freedom, which to me to be at best incidental to the capitalist model. As a matter of fact, does not democracy merely get in the way of the progress of capital? Brook says,

"But writing Dubai off is writing off the world as it might be. It is writing off modernity itself, smothering the hope that in the age of jet-powered globalization, we can all learn to live together as a community, sharing a single city and, ultimately, a single world."

To be frank, I'm a little confused as to how cities which are at the beck-and-call of international financiers at the expense of their own native citizens are to foster a new and better world. We can be shocked and ashamed at the human race's capacity of violence in radical cultures like that of radical Islam and the IRA—but in a world where justice cannot be served in one's own country, and is instead bestowed upon those with the largest bank accounts? Surely, this is creating a world of absurdity for the greatest number. It is in such a world where there is no recourse to meaningful justice, where one navigates a city of an international upper class who plays by an entirely different set of rules than others, that breeds alienation and a search for meaning at all costs, change at all costs, even if it means appealing to violence—this is *not* contrary to modernity.

And, for the record, let me again emphasize that we ought not to conflate democracy and capitalism. Global capital creates a farcical democracy where more money=more votes. I think, above all, this is the type of "modernity" we see in the cities that Brook has chosen to look at. Shucks, we even see it in Western 'democracies'.

I'd better stop myself. A good history book which makes for not so great postcolonial theory.


—AF
Profile Image for Harsha Varma.
98 reviews62 followers
January 11, 2020
Cities are fascinating endogenous growth engines with tremendous power to lift people out of poverty. This book is about four cities in the East purposefully built to look as if they are in the West – St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Dubai and Mumbai. I wish I could’ve read this before I visited any of the four cities but I’ll stick to Mumbai (or Bombay) as I was just a fleeting visitor in the others.

The book starts with a glorious history of the city: the Portuguese etymology of its erstwhile name (Bom bahia; Good bay), the way it passed into British hands (Portuguese princess marries British prince; dowry) and its route to becoming the ‘Urbs Prima in Indis’. Envisioning the West facing port as the main link between Europe and the continent, the British lured traders from all over India to set shop on the island. It has always been a city of immigrants (84% of the populace in 1921 was born outside the city) but the new name (Mumbadevi; local deity) is probably a sign of how the world is becoming insular instead of embracing immigration.

And then the book tackles the tricky part: Bombay’s current incongruity and its despairingly widening inequality. The most dynamic of Indian cities operates on crippling infrastructure, exemplified by an antiquated dilapidated suburban train system (on average, 12 people die every day commuting via trains) and its pothole-riddled roads. This would lead to riots in most parts of the world, but we find solace in claiming it’s down to Bombay’s spirit that it plods along. The city now expects private societies to provide basic infra rather than the government doing its basic job. One possible reason could be that the Indian state is over-arching and ubiquitous; it is present in industries like banking, airlines, auto and everything under the Sun - mostly in sectors in which it has no business operating. And, thus it can't concentrate on doing the simple things correctly - like providing basic infra to its citizens and maintaining law and order. The centre also has too much power and urban local governments do not have fiscal autonomy, only decentralisation of functions without any devolution of power. And endemic corruption!

The result of this potpourri, you ask? - A Kafkaesque rendition of a city which is probably a far cry from Raskonikov’s St. Petersburg, but not quite as bubbly as Bollywood’s romanticized 'Bom Bahia’!

P.S: Other tidbits

Bombay’s first bubble:
1. Early 1860s: Cotton blooms; Bombay’s bustling port booms. Attracts a massive influx of eager workers from the mainland
2. City’s population doubled between 1852 and 1864. On Malabar hill, plots that went for 500 rupees in 1830 were selling for 30,000 rupees by 1864 (cagr: 12.8%)
3. Boom leads to bubble; speculative real estate ventures proposing to reclaim more land from the sea bloom
4. Back bay reclamation company’s IPO fetched holders of its shares profit of £2500 a share before a load of gravel had been emptied into the bay
5. 1865: American war ended, cotton prices returned to normal, local real estate market imploded

Architectural to-do list:
1. Victoria terminus: First-ever masonry dome adopted to gothic building; topped by Earp’s statue, Progress
2. Royal Opera House: carved Union Jacks
3. David Sassoon’s library
4. Police Headquarters
5. Municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai
6. General Post office, Mumbai
7. Maneckji Seth Agiary Parsi Mandir
9 reviews
August 3, 2021
I wish goodreads would allow me to give decimal ratings. Though I’ll probably rank this 3 or 4 stars, it’s really a 3.5 in my book. This book was extremely engaging for a variety of reasons, namely the cities Brook discusses are very interesting: St. Petersburg, the home of the Marxist October Revolution, Shanghai the financial hub of the “East”, Mumbai the home of Bollywood, and Dubai the home of large buildings and man-made islands. At least that’s how I thought of these places prior to opening this book. This book discusses the history and current status of these cities and does so by zeroing in on the architectural changes over time and then expanding out to the broader social context of these changes.

I’ll start with what I enjoyed. Firstly, I loved learning about the blending of colonists and locals in Mumbai and Shanghai and in a similar vein the blending of foreign entrepreneurs with native Russians and Emiratis in St. Petersburg and Dubai. Though the natives obviously received the short end of the stick in 3 out these 4 scenarios, the international cities that formed from these cultural melting pots produced very unique moments in time. One story stuck out to me: In Shanghai the locals were barred from participating in the westerner’s horse races, cricket games, and high priced hotels. Once the native Shanghailanders gained enough money through their own entrepreneurship, they built their own smaller race track and played their own cricket in the streets. To counter the hotels they were barred from, the local Chinese businessmen helped build one of the finest hotels the world had ever seen, The Cathay Hotel, open to all ethnicities. This sort of ingenuity and circumnavigating of the social order is shown time and time again by the “less sophisticated” and colonized people of Mumbai and Shanghai.

The architectural elements were equally enchanting. Learning of St. Petersburg’s architectural history, namely being an extremely expensive imitation of Amsterdam, was fascinating. I also now have Mumbai on my list of travel destinations after learning about their extensive art deco buildings and British/Indian architectural combinations. I feel that Brook shines the most when he speaks on architecture. It seems to be the part of the book that is the most incontrovertible. To counter, this book could seriously use some photographs. I don’t know if the publisher demanded this book be under 400 pages, but man did it get old having to google every monumental building discussed in this book.

The histories were also enriching. Though I have my issues with the lack of context or slanting of certain narratives, there are very few books where you can receive an overview of 4 extremely relevant countries and cities. I knew next to nothing about the origins of Mumbai or Dubai as global cities and knew very little about Shanghai and St. Petersburg.

Though I found the histories illuminating, I didn’t necessarily find them to be comprehensive or even particularly balanced. It seemed that Brook had a motif for each city in this book and was determined to hamfist every societal change over the last 300 years into that sort of poetic history-repeating-itself theme. All of these cities are chosen for their initial purposes of being the “window to the west” for their respective countries. This is certainly true but that’s where most of the similarities fall flat.

Brook describes St. Petersburg as a window to the west for a country still practicing serfdom. The enlightenment of this city is fostered by foreign trade, books, and tolerant policies allowing different religions and political thought. This new found tolerance in St. Petersburg allows for Western Europeans to enter Russia and bring with them their own perspectives and religions. This is quite the contrast to the Tsarist regime treating the rest of the country like peasants. The intellectual enlightenment brought in by Western Europeans combined with unfettered industrialization led St. Petersburg to become the home of the first marxist revolution. Brook spends many pages detailing the appalling working conditions that led to this revolution. He details the brutal work schedules and intense alcoholism these conditions gave way to. Oddly though, Brook spent less than 2 pages discussing Lenin, the father of this revolution and modern Russia. After Lenin took the reins of Russia he was bogged down in civil war, opposition terror campaigns, and simultaneously attempting to modernize the largest country on earth with an economic system no one had attempted to install before. Brooks never mentions any of this and only mentions Lenin so far as it connects him with Stalin. Brook then goes on to wax poetic about Stalin’s brutal authoritarian regime for what seems like an eternity. Brook draws a clear, uninterrupted lineage from Tsarist Russia to Stalinist Russia, highlighting the consistently close-minded and paranoid temperament of the Russian ruling class over time. I feel that he hardly mentions Lenin, other than his less than savory actions in the immediate civil war that followed the October revolution, because Lenin does not fit into this trite narrative of brutal leader after brutal leader like the classic Matryoshka dolls starting with the Tsar Nicholas and working it’s way down to Putin.

I feel that the Shanghai portion of the book is also unnecessarily forced into a narrative detailing a society of over the top governmental control of which the world has never seen. Brook seems to regard the sudden boom of Shanghai in the late twentieth century as this massive modernization only built because an authoritarian regime had zero regard for the workers building it and the people who were forcibly removed from the land. Here are Brook’s own words: “And the world would again have to reckon with we-will-bury-you Communism–the ruthless efficiency of a system of rule by fiat, where people build wonders by shutting up and doing what they’re told.” Now I agree with Brook that removing people from their homes and forcing awful working conditions on people is wrong. On the other hand, how did the U.S. build the railroads? Were the Asian immigrants who built the railroads in the western United States paid appropriately or given proper working conditions? When has the U.S. or any major world power ever cared what the working class has had to say? Was not the Southern United States built much on the backs of slaves?

Here is another of Brook’s quotes that is meant to display some uniquely totalitarian way of building new skyscrapers in Pudong across the river from Shanghai: “‘It was just warehouses and shacks and rice paddies,’ a Wall Street executive in attendance later recalled. ‘And there were people living there. So I asked Zhu, ‘What are you going to do about all of those people?’ And he just said, ‘We’ll move them.’” This clearly is meant to be read as some diabolical invention by the Chinese business class. I’m not sure that Brook has ever heard of eminent domain, but it’s a fairly common government tactic littered throughout American History. The entire interstate system was built by expropriating land, typically in poor black neighborhoods. In my own city of Nashville, the government expropriated the largest slum in the city to build a massive park surrounding the state capital building. With these obvious examples so recent in American history, I find it ridiculous that Brook berates this as a Communist or specifically Chinese flaw rather than a flaw of any Government with the power to seize land and skirt regulations.


This is a recurring trend throughout this book and there are far too many examples of this to quote. My last gripe will once again be centered around Brook’s incessant hypocrisy. He berates Shanghai’s urban planning for actively discouraging public assemblies by building large thoroughfares. This is laughable considering the thoroughfares of St. Petersburg are where the October Revolution took place. Many of the largest riots in U.S. history took place on large streets. Secondly, what does that say about the U.S.’s urban planning strategies? Brook constantly claims the intent behind common planning decisions are awful when done by the Chinese, Indians, or Russians but neglects to consider that those same planning techniques are instituted the world over and often invented by western countries. In fact, the large thoroughfares in Shanghai were likely inspired by Park Avenue in New York or the Avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris. He speaks on the awful privatization happening in Mumbai, where gated communities border on some of the worst slums in the world. While this doesn’t happen as extremely in the west, Gentrification offers similar social contrasts. I’ve seen high-end gated communities bordering blighted and poverty stricken neighborhoods. For nearly every architectural example he uses to show an awful, backwards, totalitarian regime, a western parallel could be drawn.

So... this has become a long diatribe detailing my qualms with Brook’s forced narratives and blatant disregard for the hypocrisy of his criticisms. But I did enjoy this book and I think these gripes are heavily related to my political orientation. Someone who is in it mostly for the architecture and loose histories will certainly find this to be a fun read. Brook is a good writer and never bored me with extraneous details. I found this to be entertaining despite almost throwing the book at the wall a few times. This book reinvigorated much of my desire to travel and see the world again and was a great “window to the East” at a time when I was unable to explore due to the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Profile Image for Carlos.
1,945 reviews60 followers
January 26, 2022
Brooks presents the history of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai as case studies for the modernization of developing societies. He traces the histories of these evolving metropolises through their respective histories of autocratic repression and enlightened reform. In each case he highlights the unique identity built by these cities despite their clear emulation of Western models. He similarly ends with the non-trivial challenges each of them faces. This was honestly more interesting than I had expected and emphasized vividly the cosmopolitan nature of any modern metropolis.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 28 books387 followers
June 12, 2019
"The journey from developing world hinterland to globalizing city has become the defining journey of the twenty-first century," writes journalist Daniel Brook. In his A History of Future Cities, Brook traces the story of that journey toward urbanization and globalization to 1703 in St. Petersburg, Russia. That was the year when Tsar Peter the Great captured a Swedish fort at the mouth of the Neva River and began building what later became for a time the most advanced city in Europe.

A study of the four "great East-meets-West cities"

Peter's two-decade campaign to import Western architecture, art, and technology into backward Russia is emblematic of the history of what Brook calls "the great East-meets-West cities." He also writes about Shanghai, Bombay, and Dubai. Each, in its own way, represents a similar story. All four cities have served historically as the principal point of entry for global influence into a vast territory: Russian, Chinese, Indian, and Arab. All four, in his estimation, were "built to look as if they were not where they were."

All four cities are (or were) global financial centers

Brooks's focus in A History of Future Cities is on architecture. He describes in detail the most noticeable buildings and the architects who designed them. Yet, even for a reader with little interest in architecture, the book is rewarding for its history of the four cities. The author has a winning way of highlighting the outsize role each of the four has played in the history of its region. In each of the four cases, that history has revolved around business and finance. Three of the four are major global financial centers to this day; the exception is St. Petersburg, which has been deliberately downgraded in favor of Moscow by the Russian government.

Yet with the importation of Western technology and architecture came Western ideas about government and society. Thus, it's "no coincidence that St. Petersburg birthed the Bolsheviks, Shanghai the Chinese Communist Party, and Mumbai the Indian National Congress, all forces that pulled back their nations' ties to the outside world."

Urbanization, globalization, and the future of humanity

Now, as Brook writes in an Introduction, "the historic gateway cities are no longer anomalies; they are the original examples of an idea that has gone viral." Everywhere in the world today, what we call urbanization and globalization have taken hold. From Lagos to Sao Paulo to Manila, there is no major city on the planet that has not felt the impact of the forces that shaped the history of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai. Daniel Brook helps us understand the dynamics of those forces—and glimpse the future we face.
Profile Image for Andrew Fairweather.
447 reviews80 followers
Read
May 4, 2021
Daniel Brook's 'A History of Future Cities' makes for an excellent history in a sense that it is very good at explaining how the cities in question—St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad/St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay/Mumbai, and Dubai—came into being. What's the common denominator? They are all cities which pursued a variety of aesthetic principles to realize themselves, appealing to whatever international tastes were currently in vogue, or however 'international tastes' had styled themselves. Their economies responded to fluctuations of global capital—the patterns of city planning and infrastructure followed a similar tune. In such a way, these cities began to develop much more diverse cultural currents than that of their respective nations.

While in the earliest example of St. Petersburg we have a mirroring of Western tastes in order to put Russia 'on parr' with that of the West, the latest study the book considers, Dubai, adopts a strange cultural proteanism, with mere pathetic cultural tokens of affection shown to native Emirates. The closer we get to the present day, the more city planning has to do with the effacing of cultural tradition resulting in a schizophrenic pastiche-city (which is, in itself, becoming a traditional internationalist aesthetic). It's telling that while St. Petersburg modeled itself on New Amsterdam, the city planners of Bombay had Los Angeles in mind with its wide streets, 'cleanliness' and irreferential style. Indeed, the description of the skyline of Shanghai reminded me strongly of LA's skyline—looks good in pictures, at a distance, but is a desolate sad city on the level of the pedestrian.

Now, as this is 'Goodreads', I will talk about this in terms of 'stars'. This book is tremendously interesting, and hard to put down once you've begun. As a history, it's easily a four-star book. However, for all his historical research, Daniel Brook seems to have assumptions about 'modernity' and 'globalism' that I find to be misguided. Brook touts a modernity which cannot make allowance for cultures which do not embrace the internationalist status quo, in that societies which do not embrace unstudied multiculturalism are somehow 'backwards'. I believe that the fact of the matter is that more traditional societies including (for example) societies harboring so-called radical Islamic sympathies should not remain outside our understanding of 'modernity'—on the contrary, these 'traditionalisms' (which at times seem to be paranoid parodies of 'traditional' culture) are as much a part of globalism as free and open societies—it's counterpoint, rather. To simply understand modernity as a progression towards multiculturalism and tolerance/acceptance of others is a bit two-dimensional, surely.

After all, I think Daniel Brook himself would agree that what built these cities was not lofty ideas of freedom and cosmopolitanism alone—it was money, capital, and a *lot* of it. These cities seem to me to be more a result of global capitalism than that of democracy and freedom, which to me to be at best incidental to the capitalist model. As a matter of fact, does not democracy merely get in the way of the progress of capital? Brook says,

"But writing Dubai off is writing off the world as it might be. It is writing off modernity itself, smothering the hope that in the age of jet-powered globalization, we can all learn to live together as a community, sharing a single city and, ultimately, a single world."

To be frank, I'm a little confused as to how cities which are at the beck-and-call of international financiers at the expense of their own native citizens are to foster a new and better world. We can be shocked and ashamed at the human race's capacity of violence in radical cultures like that of radical Islam and the IRA—but in a world where justice cannot be served in one's own country, and is instead bestowed upon those with the largest bank accounts? Surely, this is creating a world of absurdity for the greatest number. It is in such a world where there is no recourse to meaningful justice, where one navigates a city of an international upper class who plays by an entirely different set of rules than others, that breeds alienation and a search for meaning at all costs, change at all costs, even if it means appealing to violence—this is *not* contrary to modernity.

And, for the record, let me again emphasize that we ought not to conflate democracy and capitalism. Global capital creates a farcical democracy where more money=more votes. I think, above all, this is the type of "modernity" we see in the cities that Brook has chosen to look at. Shucks, we even see it in Western 'democracies'.

I'd better stop myself. A good history book which makes for not so great postcolonial theory.
Profile Image for Jan Chlapowski Söderlund.
130 reviews6 followers
April 23, 2016
* * * * ½ - I more than liked the book, but not full 5*-amazing.

This is a highly recommendable read, although with a few reservations. The fundamentals of the book, is a description of the rise (and often fall) of 4 major cities: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay/Mumbai and Dubai.

What Daniel Brook delves into in his narrative, are the premises of why these cities were built, how it came to happen and what consequences it brought about.

The historical overview the book gives is splendid. D.B. gives the impression of having researched his book reasonably well, although sometimes maybe skimming on the top of historical facts without delving too deep. I loved the novel way of looking at history in this narrow way, getting a glimpse of broader events through the events in these cities. The comparisons between the cities were very colourful. And the architectural descriptions just added to the wealth of this book.

It was all rendered in a very personal way. I almost got the feeling the book was telling the stories of four persons, not cities. D.B. described the characteristics of the inhabitants, as the features on a face. He dealt with the rise of new cultures, as with personalities. And the surrounding events, as quarrels in a family or life-problems that a person faces.
I grew to like and know these four cities in a way I could not have done before. I have only been to St. Petersburg, and I wish I had read this book before going there to add to my experience. I will just have to go there again now!

And now we arrive at my reservations.
I am not an expert, but I see myself as having more knowledge than the average non-Russian person about Russian history. I cannot say so about the histories of China, India and the UAE. Therefore I feel myself only qualified to "judge" about the part of the narrative set in Russia.
Some of the historical facts were a bit too simplistic, for instance the way Soviet Union fell and how Gorbachev's actions are described. I did not find anything that was outright wrong, it was all just oversimplified. Which maybe is a must in a book like this, if you want more gritty detail - get a book about only that event/place/person.

Now we come to one of the downfalls of the book - the conclusions D.B. draws. He positively labours to find similarities between his 4 cities, some of which are really strained and tenuous. His conclusion that each city has spawned the spark of discontent that set bigger wheels in motion, is portrayed as a fact rather than what it is - his own theory.

D.B. unfolds another theory which was to me quite annoying. At the very end of the book (with the finishing 13th chapter, or coda) it was refuted in a way, which made me sigh with relief. Although it was a bit too little, and a bit too late, for me to be all satisfied.
Throughout the book, the author describes how everyone has been trying to imitate the West. As if Western society is somehow unique. I would have preferred this phenomenon described in more general terms - as one society imitating another. Something which has in fact happened before, and is in no way intrinsic to Western society. The author actually brought up the example of the Romans imitating Greek culture and society in that last chapter. A poignant example, where much was copied but even more was added to the copy.
If just D.B. had made greater emphasis throughout the book, that what he was describing was a phenomenon which has happened before and will happen again - but with other models and other imitators. Then I could have given the book 5 stars.

But here we go, a 4 it will have to be. And throughout my review, I hope you see that this is truly a book worth reading. Just take in the facts, and let some of the author's conclusions slip by unnoticed.
147 reviews20 followers
January 14, 2014
Absolutely fantastic. Future Cities is a yarn - a "gather-round-the-fire, children, and listen to tales of fantastic cities in faraway lands" kind of yarn. A yarn about buildings (ok about development) and what they can tell us about what we believe and what we value. Also, Nevsky Prospect!

Brook brings the analytical tools of a historian or economist (his explanation for 'why Dubai?' is amazing) with the narrative eye of an novelist, a rare, and welcome, combination. This is a book unlike any I've ever read - its thesis -- "We build our world--and our future." (395) is concerned with the ideology of these future cities, far more so than the histories themselves.

It's easy enough to assert 'Buildings (or if you want to get fancy, the built environment) inevitably reflect the attitudes of the time and place of their construction' but it's another thing entirely to actually go about doing that reading. This is exactly what Future Cities does for St. Petersburg, Bombay, Shanghai, and Dubai. The level of insight and Weschler-style connections drawn between these four cities is humbling and profound.

Should also be mentioned that Future Cities is chock-full of head-turning 'you must be joking' detail and errata. Here is a small sampling, just from the last 80 pages:


As in ninteenth-century St. Petersburg, if you're with-it enough to be a worldly resident of your nation's most international city, you're also knowledgeable enough to understand that, through happenstance of history, your society remains yoked to an antiquated political system, a bizarre holdover from the previous century. Walking down Nanjing Road [in Shanghai], with all the world's products for sale and all the world's peoples assembled in the context of political deep freeze, is the closest one can get to strolling down Gogol's Nevsky Prospect in ninteenth-century St. Petersburg.(321)


Dubai is so devoid of natives that, in 2007, the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing sponsored a series of "Talk to a Local" booths in Dubai shopping malls so tourists could meet a real-life Emirati. (370)


Even in the city's [Mumbai] poshest districts, shantytowns fill any available unclaimed space. A small informal settlement shockingly sits on the same street as the most expensive private home in the world, oil refinery baron Mukesh Ambani's recently completed, American-designed, twenty-seven-story personal high-rise that cost an estimated $1 billion to build. (341)


What Miami had long been for the elite of Latin America - a place to park wealth too risky to keep back home - Dubai became for the magnates and kelocrats of the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. The apotheosis of this trend would come in 2009, when the dictator of Azerbaijan amassed nine waterfront mansions during a two-week, $44 million buying spree - all purchased in the name of his eleven-year-old son. (357)

Profile Image for Caroline.
761 reviews210 followers
September 23, 2013
This is a very good description of the imposed and organic growth of four cities--Mumbai, St. Petersburg, Shanghai and Dubai--that serve as nerve centers of four fascinating countries. The author also analyzes what these different structural histories meant for the political and cultural development of their countries. He is very skilful at choosing just enough history--economic, political, cultural, architectural--and introducing just enough players to keep the story coherent. His writing contributes nicely to maintaining the reader's ability to track four different narrative threads and to understand his themes, which involve the interplay of managed and unintended city development, and how the very culturally diverse cities have handled the mix of indigenous and external influences over time.

Brook does an excellent job of explaining how much of each city was constructed as a centrally designed plan, by whom, and what that meant for future development of the city. For example, Peter the Great created the St Petersburg by fiat, as a door to Europe, and Brook argues that the European ideas that flowed in through the expatriots who staffed the government, the building boom, and the imported culture brought ideas that the autocratic czars ultimately could not defeat. He has great admiration for Freyre, an Englishman who thought Bombay should be the first city of the subcontinent and lovingly drove a massive building program whose spirit is sorely needed now as massive in-migration from the countryside and the current policies of leaving all infrastructure to piece-meal private development have left the city a mess.

Shanghai's history is intimately bound up with the west's relationship with China. Once the Paris of the East, a place where the concept of extrateritoriality was invented, subsequent Nationalist and Communist policies have resulted in its current state. And Dubai is portrayed as a rapidly built cagy program by a ruling famly that used taxing and zoning policies to build a massive trading center that serves the middle east as a place to let loose and to protect capital that has been created in riskier surrounding countries.

Weaving through the sketches of city history and political events are the threads of the actual architecture and infrastructure choices made in each city. For example, I had no idea that Mumbai had so much art deco architecture. Much of the architectural history is bound up with the economic boom and bust cycles that Brook describes, with the styles that predominate in city neighborhoods being the product of windows of expansion and patronage.

Well worth reading, especially if you read fiction or nonfiction set in these cities. It will help you visualize events and understand why people behave as they do. My only criticsm is some repetitiveness, but much less than is usual in popular nonfiction of this type.
Profile Image for Evelyn.
97 reviews
March 4, 2013
unputdownable! Which is saying ALOT considering this is nonfiction and coming from me, who's a complete fiction (and preferably escapist, Victorian science-fiction at that) addict.

A really fascinating history and present-day analysis of three cities - St. Petersburg, Shanghai and Mumbai/Bombay. Brook's argument, that we can only understand the idea of modern global cities (and in particular the rapidly-growing cities of what he terms the Asian Century) by understanding their pasts - is made intriguing and accessible by his structuring and writing. One might know all the facts of urban planning and history of these three cities already - the impact of the Bolsheviks, the international concessions, the Sepoy Rebellion, etc - but Brook connects them all with the common thread of his main argument: that these cities were a fascinating amalgam of imperialist ambition and planning and the spontaneous merchant enterprise, planting both the seeds of modernity as well as revolution against their autocratic forebears. Brook also traces both the success and failure of these historical events through the lens of architecture, making the historical, and his symbolic arguments, visual and tangible.

His conclusion, connecting these historic (or at least, in the history of modernity and globalization) cities with the newly sprouting Dubai and Shenzhen and placing them in this larger narrative, makes for an intriguing and thought-provoking comparison. Now I just need to actually visit one of these cities, so I can see these tangible architectural markers of either vaulting modernity or nationalist nostalgia, for myself!
Profile Image for Du.
1,757 reviews11 followers
May 31, 2015
3.5 Stars

This is an interesting look at Dubai and the cities that inspired it (St Petersburgh, Shanghai, and Mumbai). It was crafted very thoughtfully and full of interesting themes and causes. Each history was broken down by eras and the book moved back and forth between the cities. I found it to be quite a good rainy day read. I think I would enjoy a history just on St Petersburgh thought, as that was the most intriguing.

Unlike many other non-fiction books of late, there is no fictionalized aspects of this book, which is refreshing. I like the scope and the narrative of this book. It works really well to tell the tale.
Profile Image for Ciaobella.
48 reviews
October 30, 2014
What a fabulous way to think about what your home town could be...
This was an interesting read as I learned not only about St Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai, but reflected upon what creates social justice in urban settings.

As for the writing, I found the historical chapters on these cities quite readable. Once we arrived at the last 30 years, the links between topics and characters were much less smooth. Perhaps this was because his sources were more varied. It may also be more difficult to truly understand the impact of recent times on the future of the city.

Nonetheless, I'd recommend this nonfiction book for any active participant in public city planning.
2 reviews5 followers
December 12, 2014
The cunningly titled A History of Future Cities tells the tale of four metropolises - St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Dubai - which were founded in an attempt to emulate the West and now find themselves - at the start of this Asian Century - leading the world. The first two-thirds of the book provides an easy overview of each city's history, while the final third turns polemical, as the author looks more critically at the architectural and political follies of each city. It's a compelling thesis, and Brook's serious but accessible approach is refreshing. It does, however, need far more pictures!
Profile Image for Joni Baboci.
Author 1 book44 followers
July 7, 2016
A fantastic book looking at the growth and development of 3+1 world class cities: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai + Dubai. Diversity and Trade as well as possibility and a chance at succeeding seem to be drivers of change in developing booming urbanscapes. Cultures, races, architecture, cheap labor, and total lack of any sense of egalitarianism seemingly are the ingredients one would need to be able to propel border towns and fringe ports into megacities. A very interesting read into city-making history and the lessons learned through the last 400 years.
Profile Image for Susan.
Author 6 books165 followers
July 15, 2013
Fascinating account of four cities, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai, that have been "built to look as if they were not where they are." Brook weaves together history and theory and creates a lot of excitement in thinking about what cities mean and what a utopian city might be.
73 reviews2 followers
January 26, 2014
It seemed like a better idea than it was. Insufficiently focused, interesting or comprehensive. I'm left with a collection of interesting facts about some interesting cities, and little to bind them together.
Profile Image for Michael.
249 reviews5 followers
May 18, 2020
I really enjoyed this book. The main contention is that St Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai all follow similar historical patterns, in that they were formed as transplantations of West to East, but were primarily only transplantations of the exteriors of the Western cities, without their values. As such, they developed into hotbeds of Western value importation (i.e. freedoms) which eventually led to crackdowns by the authorities until they spurred liberation movements. However, given their foreignness and association with foreign ideas, along with the fact that the three states were anti-Western during their revolutionary periods, all three were rejected by the very liberation movements they fostered. Finally, each city has to a certain extent regained its place in the country, but the history has left its unique mark. And then he expects Dubai to follow much of the same path.

This is pretty different from what I expected coming into the book, but I think the thesis is well supported. He jumps frequently between the architectural, cultural, socio-economic and political spheres which is pretty interesting and well done. I'm realizing that my knowledge of China and India is almost exclusively through discussions of ancient history, usually in the context of "world history" as well as limited parts that involve US history, and my knowledge of Russia is pretty much limited to the extent it affects European/US history.

The Dubai section and the modern Shanghai sections feel slightly out of date, even just seven years later. We've seen oil shocks. Dubai has built a new airport. Qatar has copied much of the Dubai model. With Xi's new attitude and One Belt One Road, China too has changed. In India it feels like some of the stuff he discusses (especially the breakdown of a unified Indian identity) is very relevant to today. I often find myself wanting authors to revisit their work every couple of years.

Overall very interesting, well written, well argued. I liked this alot.

As an aside, I don't think he was making an exhaustive argument (i.e. JUST these four cities) but I do wonder how they compare to especially Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. I also think there'd be fruitful exploration of the same cities placed against their local "old" cities (Beijing, Moscow, ?Delhi?) and also regional cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Cairo.
Profile Image for David.
Author 26 books165 followers
January 24, 2017
Written from a Left Leaning Corporate Globalist perspective, which is confusing in itself, A History of Future Cities offers an interesting history of globalization via the histories of St Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai.

Essentially, Mr. Brook is engaged in a demonstration that civilization, as a local phenomenon is a quaint bit of xenophobia and it is only through the effacing of local identity and the adoption of a global identity that humans may find prosperity. Little is said, that is not excoriating, about the nihilism existing at the heart of this enterprise.

Much of the populism sweeping the globe today would not support Brook's thesis, but, then, the author is writing from the corporatist perspective supported by a Left Leaning, West-hating, academic perspective.

The reasoning behind the 4 Star rating is that this is an interesting history of these cities, imperialism, and how globalization came about. The author's conclusions are mostly incorrect, but the history is accurate, honest, and fascinating. If the reader pays close attention to the history and discounts the bizarre, postmodern conclusions this will be a very enjoyable book.

Recommended for those interested in a city based history of globalization.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars.
Profile Image for David Montgomery.
247 reviews23 followers
December 14, 2017
An intriguing case study of four attempts to plant Western cities in the global East: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay and Dubai. The first and last were created by local autocrats, the middle two by foreign imperialists, but all four saw a polyglot population, an architectural mashup and cultural collision.

All four also saw significant limits to the rights and freedoms normally granted in the Western cities they emulate, intense poverty alongside opulent riches and simmering tensions between locals and outsiders.

Author Daniel Brook highlights these contradictions, mentioning but not dwelling on both sides of the Future Cities' stories. His case studies are offered up as lessons for other developing cities hoping to borrow from the West without losing what made them unique before.

Brook's historical analysis takes a middle ground between the nationalists who want to keep foreign influence out and the copycats who want to erase the local. Both are necessary, he argues. In a closing metaphor, he points to an exhibit in St. Petersburg's Hermitage art gallery, in which Roman copies of Greek statues are displayed. "That the Romans copied does not mean that history is nothing but copying," Brook writes. "But it does mean that copying is an integral part of history."
Profile Image for Victoria.
3 reviews
June 13, 2019
This book offers an amazing overview of the origins, highlights and lowlights of St. Petersburg, Shanghai and Bombay (Mumbai). It effectively connects the influential factors from Western culture which acted upon these sister cities, eventually leading to unity of citizens of each of the respective countries and the current state of these cities today.
In a sweeping tale which incorporates a bulky amount of history, the author has somehow managed to make it all coherent and interesting. He brushes upon main characters, from Peter the Great to Gandhi, without fail and follows urban planning with compelling descriptions of monumental buildings of each era. The author's fascinating focus on the architectural stylings and moments of the cities foregoes the need to waste pages with photographs.
Brook then takes into account Dubai as the newly dubbed sister city. The only drawback is that there isn't much offered here due to it being a recent development. I would've liked to hear more on the author's speculation of what might happen due to existing factors which match it to its sister cities.
Overall, I would definitely recommend delving into cities of the past and present with this book.
156 reviews2 followers
January 5, 2021
Dit boek gaat niet over steden. Het is wel een cultuurgeschiedenis van de complexe begrippen ‘modern’ en ‘westers’ aan de hand van vier steden waar deze begrippen hun betekenis hebben gekregen.
Sint Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai en Dubai zijn steden die in hun hele bestaan een verbindingen hebben gelegd tussen het zogeheten ‘Westen’ (vaak Europa, meer in het bijzonder het Verenigd Koninkrijk) en het ‘Oosten’ (het achterland wat direct buiten de eigen stadsgrens begon; Rusland, China, India en de Arabische wereld). Rode draad is dat internationale elites profiteerden van de lokale arbeiders. Die lokale arbeiders kregen daar, naast heel veel ellende, een blik op een welvarende wereld voor terug waar zij deel van konden uitmaken. Dat leidde vervolgens tot de nodige revoluties: de ideeën van Lenin, Mao en Gandhi kregen vorm in de in dit boek genoemde steden. In Dubai is dit (nog?) niet gebeurt.
Daarnaast gaat het boek natuurlijk wel over steden. Het is het meest overtuigende pleidooi voor de aantrekkingskracht van steden. De interacties tussen mensen in die steden tot nieuwe ideeën die de wereld veranderen. Het is de wereld bij elkaar op één plek.
Brook heeft een overtuigende stijl. Natuurlijk worden hier en daar wat bochten te kort afgesneden of wordt er te veel betekenis gehecht aan toevallige parallellen tussen de stad; het is een journalistiek boek, geen academisch. Toch is het voor iedereen die zich met planning van en onderzoek naar steden bezighoudt een aanrader. Een deel Peter Hall en een deel Peter Watson in één boek.
(en o ja; je krijgt er zin van om te reizen)
Profile Image for Heather Denigan.
169 reviews12 followers
November 2, 2018
Fascinating parallel histories of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai. I don't know if this book could have been written and published today, a few short years later, with the rise of "grievance studies" without substantially more apologies for imperialism and capitalism. The paradoxes, contradictions, cultural clashes, and fault lines of these international cities are well told with humor and compassion. Brook is never over-reverential toward any one figure or place but he is equally fascinated and enthusiastic about all of it. A great educational supplement whether you're into history, business, political science, urban planning, geopolitics, or economics. Brook brings together all these threads of human endeavor.
I started War and Peace about halfway through reading this book and Brook's history of St. Petersburg was enormously helpful to understand much of W&P's backdrop.
Oh, and as you read, look up landmarks on Google Images or Pinterest. It adds color and a sense of place to an already colorful story.
Profile Image for Anyatuzova.
3 reviews
November 10, 2019

The book makes the reader see the described cities in a new light through a historical journey explaining political, social, psychological and architectural factors which formed Saint-Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai. I really enjoyed the idea of describing urban development through analysis of the historical environment.

Also very interesting are the ideas on how cities create outstanding personalities and how those personalities influence later the cities they represent.

What I didn’t entirely like was a bit of a one-sided judgement of the history (I just judge from the description of the history of my own country but dare to assume that can apply to the whole book). On the other side, it might have been necessary to make a point because in the end the book is aimed to show the consequences of political events as they shape the cities and how those cities in result shape the history and not to go in depth of elaborate roots and numerous sides that history always has.
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