Advanced Introduction to Cities, by Peter Taylor, Cheltenham, UK, Edward Elgar, 2021.
Reviewed by: Paul L. Knox, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Peter Taylor confides in the Preface that he had fun writing this book. It shows. Like many of us, he finds endless fascination in cities, and in this book he brings a lifetime of scholarly reading and writing to bear on the subject. His style is direct and unpretentious; unafraid to challenge conventional perspectives and interpretations but always willing to explain his position. Here, more than anything, he seeks to transfer his exuberance for cities to readers. Neither the author nor the publisher suggest just what this readership might be, but I believe that anyone with a background in the social sciences and the related professional fields will find the book stimulating. Not because it is a comprehensive handbook-style compendium, but because it offers a stimulating thread through the academic specializations and fragmentation that have developed around the topic of cities. ‘In 1964, when Urban Studies first appeared,’ Taylor observes, “it was feasible to keep up to date with academic publications featuring cities.” But the explosion of publications and the emergence of specialized journals dedicated to particular aspects of cities and urban studies—geographic, historical, functional, technological, methodological, etc—has brought the danger ‘of losing sight of the complex whole that is the essence of what makes a city” (p. xiv-xv).
The book is an attempt to step back and organize thoughts around a generic understanding of cities. Readers familiar with Taylor’s work will not be surprised to find that his thoughts are broadly framed around an emphasis on process, with a strong materialist position and historical orientation, building on the legacy of Jane Jacobs, in particular. For Taylor, the defining generic features of cities are organized complexity, agglomeration, connectivity, power relations, and relations with states. These are themes that are probed throughout the book. Meanwhile, Taylor recognizes that all cities have unique attributes—distinctiveness that can be accounted for by a particular combination and sequencing of generic processes—and so he weaves into the text brief illustrative examples of uniqueness that acknowledge this. We should, of course, recognize that every city also exhibits singular attributes: distinctive, but remarkable because no general statements can be made in reference to them. They are an important contributor to the fascination of cities, but are best left to individual city biographies.
The book ranges deftly over a great range of material in just 122 pages of text, beginning with ancient cities and the birth of civilizations and ending with the author’s observations on cities in Nature. In between, there are chapters on ‘Busy Cities’ (framed in terms of agglomeration externalities), ‘Cities connected’ (interdependence), ‘Demanding cities’ (consumption), ‘Divided cities’ (socio-spatial structure), ‘Cities in states’ (political fragmentation), and ‘Cities globalized.’ In the course of these loosely thematic chapters Taylor draws on an impressive array of illustrative examples, some of them extended into ‘City Insights.’ They draw not only on the author’s own observations and reading but also those of journalists, essayists, and a variety of academic specialists. Thus we are offered insights from life in contemporary Tehran and life in seventeenth-century Delft; from bioarchaeology; from a contemporary history of Rio de Janeiro, from fourteenth-century Hanse traders in England, from William Cronon’s history of Chicago and the West, from rural-urban migrants in China, from the fall of Berlin in 1945, and from a Kenyan refugee camp. This may sound like a catalog of city singularities, but in each case the insights are geared to an aspect of uniqueness that can be traced to the ways in which particular generic processes have interacted and unfolded.
Overall, Taylor provides an effective, thought-provoking approach, though it tends to leave cities rather disembodied from the brick and stone, steel and concrete of cities: attributes that are, arguably, another generic feature of cityness: fundamental to their metabolism, critical in framing certain aspects of economic and social behavior, and important in projecting and reflecting political power. The book is not geared to assist directly in formulating or implementing urban programs and policies, but it should certainly be of interest to any ‘reflective practitioner.’ It is not geared to any of our siloed academic course structures, advanced or otherwise, but it should certainly be rewarding for both students and teachers studying cities from any perspective.
The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.
The reviewer may be reached via e-mail at Knox@vt.edu.