Much has been written about urbanization over time, but not so much about the role of modern cities in fostering political change. American journalist Daniel Brook has taken an interesting look at four cities that sought to gain greater importance by emulating the West. His new book, A History of Future Cities, investigates what he calls four “instant cities.” As he told VOA’s Jim Stevenson, they include two prominent entries from Asia.
The moment I got to Mumbai, I was struck first by the physical similarities of the city that is built to look somewhere it is not. Bombay is very consciously modeled to be a kind of tropical London. St. Petersburg is modeled as a kind of new Amsterdam. Then, digging a little deeper, it became clear to me that the psychological space that the cities occupy in the Russian and Indian mind is very similar. If you ask any Russian or Indian what is your west-facing city, where is the city where the international trends come into your country, the Russian would say of course St. Petersburg and the Indian would say Bombay, now Mumbai. From that, I thought, that was the seed of the book.
STEVENSON: There is a common theme throughout the book as to whether or not a Western model is needed for a city to become great and influential like these cities have.
BROOK: That’s right. I try to pivot at the end of the book. I want to describe the past. This world we begin with in the book in 1703 and continue through the Age of Empire where the West is in ascent and the rest of the world is working to catch up to it, often through these model modern cities, to today’s moment where Asia is ascendant and has many things to teach the West. Also, my hope is that we can have some equal exchange. The book ends actually not in any of these Asian cities, but in a Chinatown neighborhood in New York city where an Asian expatriate developer and architect has [placed] a multi-level urbanist building [of the kind] that you see all over East Asia. This one has a fruit stand on the bottom and a restaurant above it – the type of thing you see in Tokyo or Seoul. In New York, you see this having been imported from Asia, yet it fits New York like a glove. It is sort of a perfect urban form for this most urbanized of American cities and yet New York learns it from Asia. I see great hope in that.
STEVENSON: Mumbai, or Bombay as it used to be known, is quite an interesting city, and especially one of pride among Indians.
BROOK: Yes, Bombay is where India meets the world and it has been that for 150 years. This period we are in right now since the reforms of the early 1990s, Mumbai today is rediscovering many of its traditions. You have global companies flocking back to Mumbai and you have major urban development projects. Mumbai has skyscraper projects going up, it has megamalls and it has all of the satellite cities developing across the creek on the mainland of the subcontinent, but of course all linked to central Mumbai by the railroads that have defined the city really since the 1850s when the first railroad in Asia was built in that city.
STEVENSON: We can’t ignore one of the other main cities that you discuss in the book, and a model even though it is not directly in our Asian (broadcast) region, it is a model for much of Asia and the rest of the world, and that’s Dubai.
BROOK: Yes, Dubai is certainly a major city in the Asian imagination and an incredibly important city particularly for the business class and even the humble laborers of South Asia. There are more South Asians in Dubai than there are Arabs. There is of course this famous Indian joke that the best city in India is Dubai. But there is some truth behind the humor.
Dubai I chose because it is a superlative city. All of the cities I have written about have claimed that at a certain time, often in a very “Dubai” manner. It is often described as the Las Vegas of the Middle East, but all the buildings of Las Vegas are just hotels whereas the buildings of Dubai are financial offices, trading ports, all manner of economically crucial activity going on there. It really is a crossroads of the world and should be taken seriously.