Top 10 books about building cities | Jonathan Carr

From Mary Beard’s Roman history to Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction, Jonathan Carr chooses the best writing about citizens’ eternal challenges

A big city is rather like an overcrowded cruise ship, direction unclear, belching smoke, the lives of the many controlled by a few. Except that citizens are not, of course, on vacation. We have become a predominantly urban species. More than 80% of us, in Britain and the US, live in cities. So shouldn’t we know by now what makes them work?

Despite a changing world, many of the fundamentals have indeed stayed the same. There must be a viable economy, social inclusion, technological innovation, sufficient housing, clean water and sanitation. Growing cities require visionaries, inventors, engineers and a ready supply of immigrants. Inevitably, cities will breed crime, inequality, corruption and cause environmental degradation.

I encountered all of this while researching Make Me a City, my novel tracking the rise of Chicago between 1800 and 1900. Whether we talk about Ancient Rome, 19th-century Chicago or a futuristic New York, the same problems recur.

As we cruise into an uncertain future, the book selection below invokes, among other things, the human ingenuity that we will need to stay afloat.

1. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
It’s only right to start with Rome. I was fascinated by Beard’s exploration of why and how an unpromising location should have spawned such a remarkable city. Her account is scholarly but accessible, a serious and seriously entertaining read. One factor crucial to the city’s success was the role played by immigrants. Whether they liked it or not, foreigners were turned into citizens, required to share in both the responsibilities and the benefits of life in a multicultural world.

2. Pompeii by Robert Harris
What has survived in Pompeii is staggering, not least evidence of the Roman penchant for sophisticated water and sanitation systems. How wonderful, then, that a sleuthlike plumber, Marcus Attilius Primus, should take centre stage in Harris’s thriller set in the days leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Technical information is inserted seamlessly into a suspenseful narrative – itself no mean achievement given that we know this is all going up in lava. Plumbing has never sounded more fascinating or more important.

3. Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon
A book that focuses on commodity flows – grain, lumber and meat – does not sound enticing. But Cronon’s insights into the troubled relationship between a city and its hinterland are revelatory. We learn how the rise of Chicago in the late 19th century created social and environmental havoc, with effects that are still felt to this day. Chicago is the crucible for Cronon’s analysis, but his thinking is pertinent to an understanding of the hidden forces at work in any contemporary city.

4. In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
Much is juggled in this atmospheric novel set in early 20th-century Toronto – time, place, characters, genre, fact and fiction. Much, too, is left unsaid. But bold definition is given to the lives of the labourers whose criss-crossing exploits hold both novel and city together. We venture into the perilous worksites of loggers, construction workers, tanners and tunnellers. Though these are down and dirty places, inspiring instances emerge of nobility, even of art. Included is what must be the most excruciatingly tense and moving scene ever set on a construction site. A nun is blown off the strut of an unfinished bridge at night in the middle of a gale and … (read on).

Jane Jacobs walking on streets of New York.
Foot people’s champion … Jane Jacobs walking in New York in 1963. Photograph: Bob Gomel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

5. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
It is more than 50 years since Jacobs, fighting to preserve cities for those she dubbed “foot people”, challenged the prevailing orthodoxies of massive housing projects and intrusive freeways. Courageous, blunt and sure of herself, she argues that for a city to thrive it should foster neighbourhoods with a mix of demographics, activities and architecture. Her appeal still resonates. She challenges us to identify what makes for a “creative and workable” city, one that will benefit society as a whole. “Decaying cities,” she says, “declining economies and mounting social troubles travel together.” Exactly.

6. London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
In what is neither a brief nor a conventional look at London, Ackroyd pitches stories about the clay from which the city has been built alongside portraits of eccentrics who have lived in the resultant streets. His “biography” is encyclopaedic, discursive and wonderfully entertaining. While moments of reflection do take place, London mostly lives a life of frantic activity. It’s all there, all mixed up: art, architecture, building, disease, disasters, money, food, drink, violence, madness, poverty. And like any big city, it would never have taken shape without immigrants. London, as Ackroyd puts it, is “a labyrinth, half of stone and half of flesh”.

residents of Annawadi go about their daily lives as a luxury hotel rises in the background in Mumbai.
Undercity life … residents of Annawadi go about their daily lives as a luxury hotel rises in the background in Mumbai. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

7. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
This is an account not precisely of a city, but an “undercity”. On one side, Annawadi teeters beside a lake of sewage; on the other stands a concrete wall, behind which traffic flows towards Mumbai’s international airport. The symbolism, if it were fiction, would sound trite. Other books have been written about contemporary undercities, from the tents of Dadaab in Kenya to the favelas of Brazil, hellholes built to house refugees and economic migrants struggling to survive against all the odds. But Boo’s depth of enquiry and insights into the desperately harsh realities faced by human beings building homes in this congested corner of Mumbai are exceptional.

8. Smart Citizens, Smarter State by Beth Simone Noveck
With the term “expert” routinely undercut in our public discourse, it is refreshing to read about the effectiveness of open-source databases through which individuals with specialised knowledge are making valuable contributions to our world that I, for one, knew nothing about. Novak urges officialdom to open up and use technology to harness the untapped expertise of knowledgeable citizenries. Richly informative, unafraid to address problem areas (transparency and elitism), she offers an inspiring prospect of smarter cities in a smarter future.

9. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
It is our generation’s failure to combat climate change that has led to sea rises of 50 feet and billions dead. Through the eyes of seven diverse protagonists, we see a New York in 2140 that is partly under water. This is an age of climatic extremism and a perverse financial structure (sound familiar?). The gritty details of how the city has been rebuilt to adapt to climate change, from the sewers to the skyscrapers, are remarkably imagined. Despite mounting catastrophes, Robinson has an optimistic take on the future and that, in itself, makes for a welcome change.

10. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Marco Polo reports to an increasingly sceptical Kublai Khan on the cities he has seen while travelling the world. This is Calvino at his alchemical best. As one brief portrait follows another we are forced, in ways miraculous, to reflect on our own behaviour as members of a society. The cities’ construction may be fantastical, but each portrait flags up uncomfortable contemporary truths. A favourite of mine is Penthesilea. It has no centre and no end: “outside Penthesilea does an outside exist? Or, no matter how far you go from the city, will you only pass from one limbo to another, never managing to leave it?”

• Make Me a City by Jonathan Carr is published by Scribe in the UK and Australia, and Henry Holt in North America. To order a copy, go to Free UK p&p on orders over £15.

Jonathan Carr

The GuardianTramp

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