'City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age' by P.D. Smith

McClatchy NewspapersJune 6, 2012 

“City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age” is a well-written ramble, a delightful book for dipping into for new discoveries. It is a love song to cities, large and small.

In “City,” P.D. Smith, a journalist and researcher takes you across time with one central concept — cites as homes, as civic centers, as sparks for creativity or lost by destruction, man-made or natural.

Smith nips into Cuneiform inscriptions from 3,700 years ago from a father whose school boy son who “instead of practicing his writing, the boy wanders the streets and hangs out in the city square with his friends.”

In 1519 the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan awed the Spanish soldiers when Conquistador Hernan Cortes. It was destroyed three years later by war. Through the prism of Ellis Island, New York is the gateway to a new world for millions.

China’s Imperial cities were constructed symbolically. “For at least four thousand years, Chinese imperial cities were consistently designed as four-sided walled enclosures with twelve gates, three in each side” because “as the earthy residence of the Son of Heaven, the imperial city was seen as a microcosm of the celestial realm: the universe was believed to be square, and therefore the emperor’s city had to reiterate that cosmological fact.”

Smith doesn’t only look back in history, he looks at the future. A chapter on “eco-cities” brings up the way modern cities are dealing with today’s changing environment. “Some people may still dispute the evidence that suggests we are responsible for climate change. But what is beyond doubt is that the planet is warming.”

In an interesting tidbit, he says many cities’ carbon footprints are less than the countryside. “In 2006, each Londoner produced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 6.18 tons of carbon dioxide, just over the half the national average.” He introduces you to Masdar City, created by the government of the United Arab Emirates, with its solar power plant and geothermal power sources as an attempt at a sustainable city.

So who is the audience for this wildly entertainment book? Anyone with an inquiring mind. It might be a good summer reading book for children who have an interest in science, history and connections. Good for adults too.

Finally, he blows one last kiss to his topic. “Today’s mega cities are the largest artificial structures ever built. They are awe-inspiring examples of humankind’s ability to control and transform its habitat.

“City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age” by P.D. Smith; Bloomsbury, New York ($40)

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