2013年3月10日 星期日

A History of Future Cities (book review wsj)

The Rise of the Cosmopolis

Four cities that have provided financial and intellectual rocket fuel for the world.

The economic progress of nations has come to be inseparable from the progress of cities. First comes the great population shift, as farms are abandoned for high-rises, jobs in the rice fields for jobs on the production lines. Once you have most of your population in the cities, all kinds of forces can turbo-charge growth: the faster sharing of knowledge as people see one another more frequently and their productivity intensifies; envy and competition, as people look out over air shafts and alleyways and see their neighbors clawing up the economic ladder and determine to outstrip them. It happened in Europe and the United States, and it has been the story of the growth of newer markets in Asia, Latin America and now Africa.

A History of Future Cities

By Daniel Brook
Norton, 457 pages, $27.95
MATTIAS KLUM/National Geographic Stock
New view Downtown Dubai.
For the Davos class, the world long since ceased to be one of nations and became one of cities, seamlessly plumbed together to enable the flow of high-end capital, both financial and human. An expanding class of the rich and their service providers can now whoosh to and from Tokyo, São Paulo, Geneva, London and New York, barely noticing the difference.
It is more useful to think of the leaders of these cities less as local political hacks than as Doges with influence far beyond their city walls. When he only headed his own company, Michael Bloomberg was merely one of the richest businessmen in the world. With the mayoralty of New York filling his sails, he has become much more.
In "A History of Future Cities," Daniel Brook describes the rise of four cities that were designed to thrive far out on the economic and social frontier: St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Shanghai and Dubai. They were intended by their planners to be sources of financial and intellectual rocket fuel, venues for the world's most ambitious organizations and people. And so they proved to be.
St. Petersburg was the heady fantasy of Peter the Great (1672-1725), one of the most engaging characters in Mr. Brook's book. Peter had developed a taste for Western Europe as a youth, frequenting the taverns of Moscow's German Quarter, an orderly, elegant pocket of the city whose residents kept up-to-date with European ideas and technology. It was, Mr. Brook writes, a great contrast to the "xenophobic, theocratic Russia into which Peter was born." So restless and curious was Peter, he set off in his mid-20s for Amsterdam, "not as Peter I, Tsar of All the Russias, but as Peter Mikhailov, a simple Russian carpenter hoping to augment his skills."
He drank in all that the mighty Netherlands had to offer and determined to create a Russian port city as open and innovative as Amsterdam. The great difference between Peter and the conveyor belt of politicians who travel to Silicon Valley these days in the hope of re-creating its magic is the scale of ambition. Peter wanted not just to match the best of Western architecture but to outdo it. He wanted not just communities of scholars but museums and a university to rival any in the world. Catherine the Great, later in the 18th century, inherited his addiction to building and pillaged Europe's art collections to adorn the Winter Palace. "The more you build, the more you want to build," she said. "It's a sickness somewhat akin to being addicted to alcohol."
Of course not all great cities are guided by the hand of despots with cultural aspirations; sometimes it is the invisible hand of commerce that does most the work. Shanghai and early Bombay were developed largely to serve the trading interests of the British. In the mid-19th century, Shanghai was known as the "El Dorado of the East," an extra-territorial city that drew ambitious men from all over the world. There were still racial hierarchies, Mr. Brook tells us, with the whites on top and the Chinese on the bottom, but Shanghai's great appeal was its social fluidity.
Even while the rest of the Chinese empire imploded, Shanghai kept busy getting rich. The Shanghai Chinese who came into contact with the foreigners developed different habits, ideas and ambitions from the rest of their countrymen. And more than a century later, when the Communist leadership decided to seed its own form of Chinese capitalism, Shanghai became its natural greenhouse.
On the Asian Subcontinent, Bombay Island was a wildly diverse port town that attracted opportunists from across Asia—even before the British decided to invest heavily in its development. The Indians in the city were among the most commercially minded and Westernized in the country, and the most friendly to the British.
In return, the British, and the city's mid-19th-century governor, Sir Bartle Frere, decided to create what Mr. Brook calls a "factory for producing Westernized Indians—people who, though they still practiced their non-Christian religions and wore their distinctive fashions, would be English on the inside." In a spirit of cultural uplift that Peter the Great might have admired, Frere hired the best architects in London to build a new Bombay, inspired by English architecture but tailored to the climate of southern India.
All three of these cities—St. Petersburg, Shanghai and Bombay—suffered while their countries pursued centralized economic planning. Robbed of their freedom and the oxygen of unfettered trade, their entrepreneurial spirits went out and with them their reasons for being. It took dramatic changes at the end of the 20th century for them to rediscover their footing, or something approximating it.
St. Petersburg sloughed off its Soviet name, Leningrad, in 1991, and the city and its people were in the van of Russia's rush to privatization. The excesses and mismanagement of that process hit the city hard, and it became a magnet for criminals. But President Vladimir Putin has scrubbed up the city's historic buildings, trying to make it the most European of Russia's cities. Today it is affluent, cultured and elegant but lives under Mr. Putin's peculiar shadow.
Shanghai's skyline has become the image of capitalist China. Even Daniel Craig's James Bond had to go there in "Skyfall," to prove his modernity. But as Mr. Brook notes, Shanghai is a success that the Chinese government struggles to control. "In its de facto deal with the central government, Shanghai's economic openness is contingent upon the authorities keeping the city's cultural and intellectual life under wraps." When Tom Cruise's "Mission Impossible III" was shown in China, scenes were cut that showed laundry hanging from Shanghai buildings. It was inconsistent with the city's image.
Mumbai may generate an outsize share of India's gross domestic product, given that it accounts for just 2% of its population, but according to Mr. Brook it is a deeply dysfunctional place. The rich have turned inward, creating First World colonies for themselves in a city where clean drinking water remains a privilege rather than a right. The rich have their special sphere, air-conditioned and clean, the poor their slums, and there is no sense of community shared between the two.
In the meantime, Dubai has seized its moment. Starting in the 1970s and accelerating through the late 1990s, under the leadership of Sheikh Mohammed, it built extraordinary hotels and office parks long before there were people to fill them. It attracted international businesses and universities, offering them sweet deals to set up branch offices. After 9/11, the investment paid off, as Dubai became the most important safe haven in the Middle East.
The pleasure in Mr. Brook's unusual history is in his descriptions of the creation of these cities. The deeper message, though, is about the tensions such cities create. It takes an autocrat to design something so ambitious as a city of the future. But if successful, such a city will chafe under autocracy. You cannot attract the world's best and brightest and expect them to work brilliantly in silence.
The built environment of London, Bartle Frere once noted, "expresses what the people think, feel or mean, and not what they are told to think, feel or mean." It "grows from within." We may swoon at the engineering and organizational feats of these new cities, with their gleaming airports and sleek monorails. But as Mr. Brook writes: "The true city of the future is not simply the city with the tallest tower or the most stunning skyline but one that is piloted by the diverse, worldly, intelligent people it assembles and forges." For a city truly to succeed, it must allow individuals their freedom as well.
—Mr. Delves Broughton's latest book is
"The Art of the Sale: Learning From the Masters About the Business of Life."
A version of this article appeared March 9, 2013, on page C7 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Rise of the Cosmopolis.