‘Atlas of Cities’ overlooks cities of the south

Editor(s) Paul Knox
Publisher Princeton University Press
Year 2014

Atlas of Cities is packed with maps and illustrations, a remarkable volume for the exploration of cities from an armchair or a lively classroom. Its 13 main chapters mostly explore one exemplar of each of 13 categories of cities, from ‘foundational’ (Athens and Rome) to ‘transnational’ (Miami) and from ‘rational’ (Paris) to ‘intelligent’ (London). Its 17 contributors – all but one based in cities of western Europe and the United States – all write authoritatively on their subjects and the Atlas achieves a degree of ‘vibrancy’, as Edward Glaeser comments on the back cover. A short review cannot do justice to the skill, work and knowledge that has gone into this production, and whilst recognizing the achievement, criticism is also due.

The overarching theme of this large book is that cities are both alike and revealing of ‘incredible differences’ – plainly stated by Richard Florida in the introduction (p. 9), developed in the Paul Knox introduction (pp. 10-15) and running in various ways through the chapters that follow. This theme is tantalizing and potentially of great intellectual interest – possibly even of practical import – but the volume does not seek to develop it beyond the superficial.

The form of illustration is not for the lazy. Multitudes of maps large and small, hundreds of charts and diagrams, numerous small images, fill the pages, with only a minimum of large colour photographs at the start of each chapter. There is certainly material to which a reader could return many times – there is almost a superfluity of maps, not all neatly explained. Given the places most might, today, look for the kind of information contained in this volume, it is hard to avoid a feeling that the layout is competing on static pages with ever moving Wikipedia and other internet resources. But this is a volume that could excite exploration of those more flexible sources, and its prose, design and illustration will surely achieve that for some who come across it – perhaps in libraries or classrooms.

More examples from Atlas of Cities available at Princeton University Press.

My major concern about this book is that, in the end, the world of cities is not all descended from Greece and Rome, contrary to the editor’s claim on page 11 that ‘in many ways the foundations for today’s cities were laid by the Greek and Roman empires’. The vast majority of people in cities may well be influenced by the imperialisms and colonialisms emanating from Europe, but for me that is simply not the starting point for understanding or mapping their lives and spaces in the twenty-first century. The consequence of the view propounded is that overwhelmingly – and despite some nods in the direction of the global south where the large majority of today’s city populations live – the cities explored in more detail in this Atlas are the same ones to have dominated supposedly global accounts for decades or even centuries. The list of ‘core’ cities for the chosen categories includes just three cities of the south among 20 odd northern ones, and even adding the ‘secondary’ cities listed rather tantalizingly at the start of most chapters (yet which receive little or no detailed attention), fewer than 20 cities of the south appear amongst over 60 in the north. Apparently there are no industrial or ‘creative’ cities in the south of the world, and scarcely any ‘intelligent’ ones. I have no doubt that this is a misrepresentation which could be protested by the denizens of cities from São Paulo to Shanghai and from Delhi to Pretoria.

There seems to be a problem here. Certainly the weighting reflects the published literature on cities worldwide, but not the present scale of things. And from Chinese or Indian or African urban origins, to the possibility that today’s emerging southern urbanisms are more than just peripherally different from the range of phenomena in the north, the Atlas cannot really claim to be a source to help see ‘where cities might be going in the future’ – as the publicity material has it.

The consequence of this apparent myopia is that the spaces in which the large majority live receive far too little attention. One of the few southern cities to play ‘core city’ to a chapter is Brasília, an ‘instant city’ apparently. In that chapter, replete with representations of Lucio Costa’s [in]famous spatial conception, some of the smaller maps reflect the fact that the population of the plano piloto area is a small and non-representative minority of the metropolitan population. Major zones like Taguatinga and Ceilândia appear just once as names on a map, yet those zones are most of the reality of the Distrito Federal today – and, as Antonádia Borges’s work has shown, also the home of youth, the future of the city. More widely, the cities of Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, almost the whole of Africa, not to mention most of Latin America do not really join the parade of cities across the pages of this volume.

As one would anticipate from the oeuvre of the editor, none of this is to say that the authors are uniformly unaware of the global situation today. Among them, some stand out for their understanding of the interweaving of southern and northern lives and spaces historically and today: Jan Nijman’s two chapters on Mumbai and Miami can be mentioned.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the celebration of cities which the book reflects does have its limits: the omission of the most pained cities shows us that whilst city life can be wonderful and indeed provide a marvelous life for so many, not merely elites, city life can also be horrific for big sections of humanity – places like Baghdad, Beirut, Kinshasa, Tripoli are absent, just as are the less happy zones of Brasília. This absence is reflected in the lack of mapping of zones of depression or even desperation in cities from Los Angeles to Moscow.

Another gap is the sources of the statements and ‘facts’ presented on almost every page – the ‘resources’ section at the rear which covers just four pages and lists an eclectic selection of literature to which surely some additions in a volume of this scale would not have been a significant expense.

In the end, how similar are cities everywhere? How different? What are the abiding sources of similarity and what are the new forces of difference among them? To these questions the Atlas of Cities provides no substantial answers – possibly because geography by itself cannot take us that far in directions for which we need anthropology, social thought and politics. But perhaps the Atlas will succeed in provoking some to pursue these significant lines of research and conceptualization as cities become more and more the homes of people everywhere. As a marker of where this branch of city studies is now, it provides an archive, and is one which urban scholars should take note of.


Alan Mabin is research fellow at the Centre for Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria.  He presently leads the University’s Capital Cities programme.  Former head of the School of Architecture and Planning at Wits University, his research presently is presently concerned with cities, city regions and suburbanisms in Paris, São Paulo, Gauteng and Dar es Salaam.  


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