City and Environment (book review, 2007)

This is another minor book review, albeit one that allowed me to rant at the stylistic conventions of academic book titles. (The title of my senior thesis was an early and not terribly successful attempt at parodying the tendencies of academic titles: strip the title down to a list of nouns and don’t even try to explain how they’re connected.) Published in the Journal of Planning Literature. 22(1):17-18.

City and Environment

Boone, Christopher G., and Modarres, Ali. 2006. City and Environment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 221 pp. $74.50 unjacketed cloth, ISBN: 1-50213-283-9. $25.95 paper, ISBN: 1-59213-284-7.

Christopher Boone and Ali Modarres’s City and Environment is in effect an introductory trade paperback textbook on urban ecology worldwide. Its ability to serve that role, however, is partially limited by its being paradoxically short but also diffuse. The name of the book is the first indicator of diffuseness, for it, like that of the upcoming Routledge title City and the Environment, announces two topic areas without revealing what unifies the work. In fact the connections between chapters are so implied and the chapters themselves so self-contained that the book feels liked an edited volume. An instructor would likely want to assign specific chapters, yet the strength of the book is the panoramic effect of reading it all at once: it is only slowly that the main themes emerge: sustainability, environmental justice, and the artificial divide of cities and Nature.The shortness of the book does make it possible to read quickly. But that brevity is a thankless virtue: while it takes discipline to keep the written text on such a range a topics to just shy of two hundred pages, any book trying to be global within such limited space will be accused ignoring something critical, though readers may disagree on what. I, for instance, found it puzzling that a book that talks about exorcizing the “demons of nationalism and capitalism” has so little to say about why they are inherently damaging, especially when it can devote four pages to a census table for India.

Chapter one is a whirlwind tour of the history “from Ur to postmodernism” as one section title puts it. Between those bookends is, except for an interesting aside on the Middle East, a straightforward urban history of the West: Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution. With a focus on urban ideals and designs, an opportunity is missed to use the relatively simpler dynamics of earlier city systems to showcase the dependence of urban populations on rural areas, as Morley (1996) does so well for Rome. (Chapter three, however, includes a brief but nice discussion of the conceptual shift from hinterland to ecological footprint.)

Chapter two shifts to the rapid growth of urban populations worldwide, a topic obviously much closer to the authors’ hearts. The main theme is the question whether the overconsuming denizens of wealthier countries are more ecologically destructive than the burgeoning populations of poorer countries.

The third chapter discusses the enormity of trying to feed these growing populations, which is not made easier by cities expanding onto prime agricultural lands. The authors note that the green revolution has increased production on the remaining farmland and bioengineering promises to do so in the future, but the costs and benefits are unevenly distributed. The chapter ends by arguing that urban agriculture, while not as productive as large-scale farming, has disproportionate social benefits.

Chapter four is closer to home for planners: transportation, sewer, and water infrastructure. The topics are a mixture of the familiar — the problems of smog and impervious surfaces — and the new or eclectic — increasing fuel efficiency and the uses and disadvantages of cobblestones.

The fifth chapter deals with the health implications of cities, addressing the relative risks of living in urban and rural areas, the drawbacks of cars, and the successes and limits of the environmental justice movement. More historical perspective would have been useful here: with death rates often exceeding birth rates, many premodern cities only survived on a steady diet of peasants, and cars were initially seen as an environmental improvement over horses.

The final chapter is on urban reform movements. The early discussion focuses on urban parks before getting into greenbelts, Smart Growth, and New Urbanism. The book ends with six ways to make cities sustainable, all of which are widely accepted by American planners (e.g., better urban design, reduced dependence on cars).

These disparate chapters give a sense of the sheer magnitude of urban environmental problems, making it suitable for an upper-division course — or in a graduate course if the students have little previous exposure to such issues (e.g., in a sociology department). There’s plenty for an instructor to pick and choose from, though some sections are much better than others at presenting the relevant controversies. The section on Smart Growth, for instance, all but ignores the growing European literature on compact cities (Neuman 2005) and thus downplays doubts about the positive changes brought on by increased densities.

Morley, Neville. 1996. Metropolis and Hinterland: The City of Rome and the Italian Economy, 200 B.C.-A.D. 200. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Neuman, Michael. 2005. The Compact City Fallacy. Journal of Planning Education and Research 25:11-26.