Alex Marshall on the Underside of the City

Amongst the pop culture urbanists like Richard Florida and Jane Holtz-Kay, there are some that do good, accessible, interesting work and others that produce self-indulgent jeremiads (not to mention any names cough JamesHowardKuntsler cough …). Alex Marshall belongs in the former category. His book on suburbanization, How Cities Work, is both intelligent, accessible, entertaining, well-written, and delightfully non-histrionic in world full of repetitive screeds about the evils of American suburbs.

His latest book is Beneath the Metropolis: The Secret Lives of Cities, and I was reading it for my class on the The Urban Context this past week. Since I am not going to teach the class, I won’t be using it, but I had to talk about it. It’s a wonderful look at 12 cities: New York, Rome, Paris, Moscow, London, San Francisco, Cairo, Syndey, Tokyo, Bejing, Chicago, and Mexico City. Here, he discovers the roots of urban density that go way, way back. He provides a timeline for each city with major events, and the best part: cross-sections of the city by infrastructure era. So for Moscow, you have ascending from the bedrock: the secret subway system, the subway, the secret tunnels, Ivan the Terrible’s secret library and torture chambers, the sewer, water lines, and river culverts.

His thesis is that density doesn’t come through design or through policy. It’s the product of centuries-long urbanization processes. So perhaps my beloved Los Angeles can be forgiven for its settlement pattern given the fact that no planner visiting here in the late 1950s could have foreseen the millions of new people who would arrive, en masse, over the next few decades. Perhaps we should check in after another 100 years and see what LA looks like then.