Book review: Cities in the Urban Age. A Dissent

by Robert A Beauregard and reviewed by Gerardo del Cerro SantamarĂ­a

19 Jul 2019, 9:42 a.m.
Gerardo del Cerro SantamarĂ­a

CIties in the Urban Age book cover

Book review: Cities in the Urban Age. A Dissent

by Robert A Beauregard and reviewed by Gerardo del Cerro Santamaría

Chicago, IL, and London: Chicago University Press, 2018; 213 pp.: ISBN 13:978-0-226-53538-8, $30.00 (pbk)


A hyperbolic, equivocal view about the city is still hegemonic among urban scholars and commentators. Such a view portrays cities and urban life in an optimistic and one-sided fashion as the foundations of global economic growth and human progress. Robert Beauregard’s Cities in the Urban Age is a ‘dissent’ from this hegemonic perspective. As the author flatly notes in the preface, ‘this assumption of progress is wrong’ (p. ix). Cities are not necessarily the best expressions of human achievement: ‘the city is not a solution to life’s dilemmas; it enables them’ (p. x).

Thus, the book is devoted to highlighting the Janus-faced character of cities; its main idea is that cities are essentially ‘contradictory’. The author forcefully and convincingly shows that cities (US cities illustrate the book) have historically generated both enthusiasm and contempt, growth and decline, wealth and poverty, democracy and oligarchy, tolerance and intolerance.

Today’s cities are still essentially contradictory settings when we look at money, power and human interaction (both among humans and with non-human life and environments). Cities generate and concentrate both wealth and poverty (Chapter 2); they are both environmentally destructive and sustainable (Chapter 3); they can be simultaneously oligarchic and democratic (Chapter 4); in cities, both tolerance and intolerance coexist (Chapter 5).

That cities are essentially ‘contradictory’ does not just mean that they have become ‘dual’ (Mollenkopf and Castells, 1992) or ‘quartered’ (Marcuse, 1989) by the effects of neoliberalism and globalisation. Beauregard is not merely describing a contemporary state of affairs, or a historically contingent condition. ‘Contradictory’ is how cities essentially are, have been and will continue to be. It is a structural condition of cities, best captured by the dialectical thinking that highlights ‘the tensions that stalk society’ (p. xii).

Ignoring the essentially contradictory character of cities and, most importantly, ignoring the fact that city contradictions cannot be permanently solved (‘never surmounted, only renegotiated time and again’, p. x), is a risky business that can too often lead (and has led) scholars to portray cities as something they are not and expect certain outcomes in cities that never materialise.

Beauregard makes his views about urban studies explicit in the first chapter of the book. He believes that the urban is incomplete, in agreement with Roy (2015) and others, and contends that scholars need to be receptive to perceiving and describing ambiguity as much as explanatory precision (p. 15). Nevertheless, the city has a ‘structure’ and, within certain limits, is knowable. Contrary to Lefebvre (2003), ‘the urban’ is, for Beauregard, not relatively independent of capitalism. Rather, society engenders contradictions ‘and then they are crystallized and mediated within cities’ (p. 16). This view is similar to that of, among others, Manuel Castells (1979), for whom cities ‘are expressions or reflections’ of larger social forces, rather than destinies or causal contexts.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the ‘wealth–poverty’ contradiction. Poverty and inequality coexist in cities with wealth and prosperity, suggesting that ‘these conditions are inseparable’ (p. 17). Although cities are great at generating wealth, ‘they perform poorly in distributing it’ (p. 25), which leads the author to describe how cities foster the conditions for wealth-generation and ‘concentrate it among a few business, institutions, and households’ (p. 25). For Beauregard, ‘public investments are major contributors to the benefits of agglomeration’ (p. 35); in fact, ‘public wealth enhances the creation of private wealth’ (p. 23).

Chapter 3 shows that cities are both destructive and sustainable. Sustainability and resilience establish the basis for additional urban growth. Cities are ‘not a displacement of nature, but a collaboration of it’ (p. 59). For Beauregard and other researchers ‘cities might be less environmentally destructive than other forms of human settlement and have a great potential to be sustainable’ (p. 76). In this reader’s view, Beauregard’s approach paves the way for a possible characterisation of a sustainable city as ‘organized complexity’ (Jacobs, 1992), able to account for the capacity, fitness, resilience, diversity and balance of its urban ecosystem, including environment, economy and community.

Chapter 4 argues that cities are simultaneously, independently and inseparably oligarchic and democratic. By focusing on governance rather than government, the chapter describes how cities allow and nurture both democratic and undemocratic practices and how residents manage their relations with institutions (p. 90). This contradictory character of the US polity is present at all levels, from civil society and urban movements (pp. 90–102), to local governments, how political machines work, and how access is usually limited to those with political or economic influence (pp. 102–111), to relations of local governments with state and federal government, and intra-metropolitan municipalities (pp. 111–115). Cities also ‘look outward to the world as well’ (pp. 115–116).

Chapter 5 shows how both tolerance and intolerance coexist in cities. Tolerance and intolerance constitute ‘political acts that signal a willingness, or not, to allow others into the public realm’ (p. 121). The chapter then turns to forms of intolerance, focusing on marginalisation and violence. In many instances intolerance engenders and brings tolerance to the surface as a reaction; likewise, intolerance ‘draws meaning from its opposite’ (p. 151). The chapter ends with a discussion on urbanity, a quality of public togetherness by which people ‘can act together without the compulsion to be the same’, as quoted from Richard Sennett (1992: 146).

In Chapter 6, a concluding chapter, Beauregard reflects on his own approach in Cities in the Urban Age. ‘Does it matter that I think of cities as nurturing contradictions?’ he asks (p. 154). It does, because those contradictions have tangible consequences for city life, and because as urban citizens we have a responsibility towards others to confront ‘structural injustice’ (p. 161), and to promote civility, sociability and cohesion. Besides these ethical affairs (a similar focus of other recent books by Soja (2010)Fainstein (2011) and Sennett (2018), the chapter returns to the analytical concerns shown in Chapter 1, in particular how we know and understand the city: ‘Our understanding of the city is imaginative, experiential and emotional through and through. Yet, an actual city, in all of its physicality, exists independently and beyond these imaginaries’ (p. 169).

Beauregard’s work goes beyond disciplinary limits and embraces a holistic perspective, pivoting around ‘what matters to those who use the city’ (p. 21). This holism is not only fitting but also very helpful for urban studies, a field that would benefit from a transdisciplinary logic and vocabulary (del Cerro Santamaría, 2018). Cities in the Urban Age never curtails the fuzziness of empirical richness, openness and complexity to service a clean-cut set of theoretical propositions. Yet, it conveys the impression that much of the urban world is relatively stable by offering pointed theoretical insights and a good degree of wisdom about the contradictory nature of cities.

This work puts us closer to understanding the ‘mysterious’ character of cities (p. 14) and our moral obligations as urban citizens. It is also an erudite display of perspective and balance, both in structure, elegantly organised around the four structural contradictions described in Chapters 2 to 5, and narrative style, which successfully conveys the author’s intention to describe ‘what happens in as unfiltered a way as possible’ (p. 21).

Throughout the book, Beauregard embraces and substantiates the notion of the unavoidable limits of human knowledge. This approach is particularly welcome in times when we are led to believe that we can know more than ever about cities, given the widespread availability of information, computing power and ‘big data’. Such is not the case. Just as the city contradictions cannot be permanently solved, there will always be a degree of ambiguity in what we know about the city and a limit to what we can know (du Sautoy, 2016).

This is so not only because the knowing subject is part of the object of knowledge, but also because the human brain, language and senses offer some possibilities and not others. Beauregard shows how to embrace these limitations and how to include them in our research frameworks in a productive manner. This analytical stance stressing a degree of indeterminacy while proposing a relative stability in the empirical world around structural relationships, as well as the book’s substantive focus on the idea of the ‘contradictory’ nature of the city, are the two main lessons of Cities in the Urban Age.




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