home    |    catalog    |    reviews    |    about us    |    coming soon

Open House Press Logo

review of
cities in transition

To view cities as both reflector and producer of society, if not civilization, is perhaps not an over statement. In history, cities had gone through a process of physical change: they expanded, decayed, shrunk, or underwent internal reorganization. There are, however, limits to thinking city's change only in physical terms; change has many facets beyond the physical and spatial. Cities, especially the large ones, rarely remain static in the physical, social, economic, and cultural arenas. In terms of generic change, cities of today are no different from their historical precedence. Nevertheless, what makes the case of today's city unique is the pace of change; cities of the 21st century are changing fast. The notion that the 21st century cities are in 'transition', in a given space and time, imply those cities are in a process of change; change from one state to another, albeit in a short timeframe. Where, why and how cities' built environment change are the core questions, arguably not exclusive to the design and planning disciplines. However, we, from within these design and planning disciplines, wish to understand city in all its complexities to play our role in its transformation as a better place for living, working, moving, and recreation. Recent developments taken place in social sciences help our probing these questions. Our ongoing quest to investigate these questions are becoming more important than ever as more people are now living in cities than rural settlements. On the other hand, we have also started reflecting critically on the autonomous design and planning paradigms; the reason is cities' failing to ensure equal and equitable opportunities they ought to offer to their citizens.

The book Cities in Transition - Transforming the Global Built Environment is about manifest changes of cities, observed in recent times in different parts of the world. Cities in Transition is a collection of fifteen articles, published earlier in the Global Built Environment Review (GBER) - a web-based journal. Contributors to this book are either academic or professionals from the fields of architecture and urban design/planning. The introduction sets its intention to identify some 'emerging trends' associated with the radical change cities across the world have been experiencing in the 21st century. The five generic themes identified from the contributions are as follows: cultural identity in transition; transforming participation and community; redefining the design institution interface; contested space and the new world order; and lastly, from multiple to multicultural built environment. The book is organized in five parts, along these themes, each part with three articles. Cities covered by the articles are within India, Pakistan, Oman, Kuwait, and China from Asia; Algeria, Egypt, and South Africa from Africa; Turkey, United Kingdom and the Netherlands from Europe; and Mexico and Cuba from American Continents. All papers except the opening article on the traditional Omani built environment are premised in the present context.

The title of the book under review- Cities in Transition -is powerful enough to create curiosity among the readers of the city. Being curious, I have found Cities in Transition an interesting book to read but rather challenging to review. Cities in Transition gives its reader glimpses into many different facets of rapid changes that are transforming the built environment and the quality of life lived within. Cities in Transition presents to its readers discrete snap-shots of changes and conflicts from both developed and developing countries. Not only are these snap-shots topically wide apart they even oscillate within specific themes in which they are grouped. Their variety and quality, within each theme, make readers aware of the changing nature of the global built environment. Readers would get a heavy dose of information and the associated debates while assimilating these enormous diversity and depth of these papers. The ease at which an informed reader would extrapolate the gist of and make links between the papers is not going to happen for a beginner. Cities in Transition, nevertheless, is a good introduction for the beginner if he/she can pick the specific topic or theme to focus on. This book will surely act for them as a gateway to the current states and debates within the built environment.

The value of an individual paper often rises above a set of papers in a given theme. We can note at least four papers whose inclusions add extra value to this book. First, Arif Hassan's close overview of how the informal sector in Karachi, Pakistan, has changed due to global restructuring and liberalization; second, Noha Nasser's depiction of South Asian diasporas' transforming the built environment for identity in the UK; third, Erik Bahre's critical insight in to the unforeseen intra-community conflicts and policy contradictions for access to housing in the post-apartheid South Africa; and lastly, Karen Leeming and Tasleem Shakur's sensitive portrayal of how groups within multi-cultural community contest for housing in urban regeneration in the Netherlands. These papers in their own unique settings, among others, are lucid description of where, and insightful explanation of why and how cities of the 21st century transforming.

Decades ago, Janet Abu-Lughod observed that the dichotomies of the first and third worlds are disappearing fast. Cities of these two worlds are indeed coming closer to each other due to allencompassing influence of capitalism, spread of information technology, and political reforms. Developed world's material culture and its values, among others, are now more visible in the cities of the developing world. Nevertheless, erosion of the cultural boundaries of the developing world comes with a cost. Erika Liu's commentary on major Chinese cities' uncritical acceptance of Western architecture makes a point. While the developed and developing worlds are coming closer, Cities in Transition asserts that segregation and integration remain burning issues in their respective cities. As major economic, social and political forces of society are in play community suffers in many different ways. Cities in Transition also shows how community fights back to restore its normalcy with the sustainable development and eco-design agenda. Papers by Karen Leeming in the UK, Pedro Moctezuma-Barragan in Mexico, Dania Gonzalez in Cuba. Peer Smets in India, Michael Clark in the UK, and Ian Jackson in the UK are significant case studies offering innovative methodologies for intervention at the community level. In addition, papers by Omar Khattab in Kuwait, Magda Sibly in Egypt and Algeria, and Hulya Turgut in Turkey touches issues from within an architectural premise.

While observed changes in cities are grouped within discrete themes, there is a possibility that common agent of change acts across themes to put cities in a state of transition. In this regard, all papers are also potential raw materials of a future project for tracing agents of change in the 21st century cities of both developed and developing countries. The wider coverage of Cities in Transition, apparently, poses no problem as to why one theoretical construct cannot deal both these contexts. One would then expect, a post-compilation discussion that gels both these context's position in a common ground. The editor, unfortunately, misses this opportunity in the introduction. This could also be a strategic omission, left for the future to reckon with. It is now up to the readers to pick up the relevant papers, across themes, toward outlining his/her version of the project, i.e. knowing cities in transition, and importantly, knowing their agents of change.

A major realization of this book is that the built environment of the 21st century cities are marginalized, politicized, and commodified; the nature and extent of these manifestations vary across the world with different consequences. While these top-down processes cause despair, hopes emerge as citizens mobilize to establish their claims on space, whether by negotiating with the local authorities for community development or by initiating changes at the domestic level.

Theorization that would emerge from all these discrete papers should naturally lead us to a discourse of the built environment. The editor has indeed hinted toward that possibility at the end of his Introduction by citing David Harvey's comments on "materialization of utopias of spatial form". Gone are the days of modernism when society had to wait to listen to what a visionary individual architect/planner had said. Alex Krieger (2004) from Harvard GSD supports - "After all, the twentieth century witnessed immense urban harm caused by those who offered a singular or universal idea of what a city is, or what urbanization should produce". We now live in a time when a local fit is preferred with a global relevance. In this context, Cities in Transition emphasizes a methodological shift from viewing the built environment only in concrete terms. Most of the papers, in one way or the other, suggest that the physical hardware is inadequate; scopes for software are necessary for making the built environment relevant to people and their way of living. This book, in this respect, supplants built environment per se to become a study in urban culture. Cities in Transition is a timely contribution to our ongoing project of understanding the conditions of our material existence. Cities in Transition deserves to be in the library, especially, alongside Harvey's Urbanization of Injustice, King's Spaces of Global Culture, and Appadurai's Modernity at Large.
Dr Shayer Ghafur
Associate Professor
Department of Architecture
Bangladesh University of Engineering And Technology

Back to Reviews of Cities in Transition