Here’s CityMetric’s summer reading list

A book! On a beach! Who'd have guessed that'd be the title illustration for this piece? Image: Usestangerines via Flickr

It's been a largely wet, dreary summer here in London, and if you're sensible you'll have booked yourself a sweet escape to some sunnier clime – be it Cornwall or Santorini. No doubt that trip will involve lounging by the pool (or the secluded Cornish cove) for hours on end, reading a book and sipping some beverage or other. 

But what to read? Contemporary fiction is exhausting and overrated, you've covered the classics already, and there's no point reading political books as everything's changed too much by the time you get to chapter two, anyway. 

Fear not: here's a collection of the best summer reads for fans of urbanism, infrastucture, cities, public transport, and all such good things. 

A Walk In The Park: The Life and Times of a People's Institution, Travis Elborough

What good is a city with no breathing space? From the historic (and etymological) origins of parks in manorial Norman Britain to the foundations of royal forests and the formalisation of public parks in the 18th and 19th centuries, this book covers the full story of the lowly but vital park. And if you can't live without a political diatribe in your tome of choice, the afterword is full of the predictable rampages against austerity, Donald Trump, and privatisation. 

Mmm, green. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Historical, green, everyone loves a good park.

Cons: Touches of soapbox, tangetial at times, dangerous whiffs of NIMBYism. 

Fun tidbit: Charles II grew rather fond and jealous of Versailles during his exile on the Continent and shoved a Versailles-style avenue of trees in St Jamess Park, along with a long, fenced court for playing a game called Pelle Melle. This game inspired the names of Pall Mall and The Mall, in the area. 

Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital, Franz Hessel (translated by Amanda DeMarco)

1920s Berlin. Christopher Isherwoods playground, the Weimar Germany of culture, glamour, cultish art-films like Metropolis, and the faint but definite smell of Nazism – the full package is laid in this deliciously colourful, cosmopolitan book. With essays divided into geographical chunks, you can tackle the book in daily doses – if youre one its adoring followers – or peruse it in bitesize chunks from afar if youre not. Its more than just a travel guide, though.

Its got definite touches of novel and confessional to it, too, which make it all the more enjoyable, if a little outlandish. 

Comes with groovy cover imagery. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Look intelligent, Berlin is fabulous, historical chic. 

Cons: At times pretentious, lots of Hessels spots dont exist anymore, not that fun to read if you're not in or into Berlin. 

Quote to fire at ex-London-hipster Berlin emigrés: Theres really no reason to visit Neukölln for its own sake.

Night Trains: The Rise And Fall Of The Sleeper, Andrew Martin

Trains! Finally. For true train fans, the night train has a particularly seductive mystique. The son of a British Rail employee, Andrew Martin chronicles the long historical arc of the European night train via todays Eurostar, the chat-up venue of the Blue Trains bar car in the 1950s, the Orient Express, and Agatha Christie herself. It's an attempt to relive the glory days of these great locomotives – as much cultural landmarks as mere timetabled services – through their modern counterparts.

Obviously, this is equal parts nostalgia, appreciation of modernity, and grumpish growling, but Martin has great insight, and knows an awful lot about trains. 

A seductive billow of smoke. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Trains, fuzzy European feelings, chic mid-century vibes.

Cons: May elicit sad European feelings, not enough pictures, can feel too much like youre reading about someone else having fun on trains youd like to be on.

Enjoyable moment: A visit to Hell Station, just around the corner from Trondheim Airport in Norway. 

Wild Ride: Inside Uber's Quest for World Domination, Adam Lashinsky

Uber is the tech worlds (and the urbanism worlds) marmite, so if you're going to love or hate something so passionately, you might as well try to get clued up on its history. Lashinsky plots the rise of Uber, and its seemingly inevitable global takeover, through exclusive interviews with Uber's founder and ex-CEO, Travis Kalanick, and other bits and bobs along the way. 

Nothing like the sweet smell of allegations of misogyny and exploitation to get you up in the morning. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Important subject matter, lengthy and exclusive interviews, not too long.

Cons: A little glorifying at times, history may not be kind to this book, things around Uber are moving a little too quickly. 


Cringe-inducing closing line: Adversity, after all, had become part of the journey. 

The New Urban Crisis: Gentrification, Housing Bubbles, Growing Inequality, and What We Can Do About It, Richard Florida

Though written from an American perspective for a US audience, this book clearly has vast significance on our side of the pond – and Florida write an appropriately-sized preface to the UK edition that claims London is, in fact, the epicentre of what I have come to term the New Urban Crisis. There are graphs, charts, and maps galore, and a healthy dose of case studies in specific cities and neighbourhoods alongside more generalising pictures based heavily in facts and studies.

The book closes with a manifesto of sorts, firing of a series of guiding principles for policy makers that are reasonably hard to disagree with: make clustering work for us and not against us, invest in the infrasturcture for density and growth, build more affordable rental housing, turn low-wage service jobs into middle-class work, tackle poverty by investing in people and places, lead a global effort to build prosperous cities, empower cities and communities. The usual sort of stuff. 

BIG WORDS little words, Shard on the side. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Comes endorsed by Michael Bloomberg, hits all the big issues, good basing in facts and pleasing charts. 

Cons: Can veer towards tub-thumping, very American-focussed.

Best map: London's neighbourhoods broken down geographically into primarily creative class, primarily service class, and primarily working class, produce by the Martin Prosperity Institute using Office for National Statistics data. 

Brutal London, Simon Phipps

A classic. Though detractors would call it a coffee table book, at best, its just as fun to take a slice of Londons Brutalist corners with you to the beaches of the Algarve. Beautiful black-and-white photography throughout pairs with sparing touches of text at the front and back of the book to please both lookers and readers.

Brutalist works are divided by London Borough, and each section comes with a handy map so you can easily locate your nearest local slice of Brutalist goodness if you fancy an excursion. If you hate Brutalism, look away now. 

Calm down, Brutalism fanatics. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Beautiful Brutalism, great photography, good for sun-tired eyes as there aren't that many words 

Cons: Horrible Brutalism, barely any words, the black-and-white effect can get a little monotonous after your 37th hi-rise. 

Fun tidbit: Thamesmeads Southmere Lake – which Stanley KubrickA Clockwork Orange uses in a particularly gruesome scene to violently dunk the droogs underwater  was originally intended to mirror the calming effect of water in Swedish housing developments. 

Seeking New York: The Stories Behind The Historic Architecture Of Manhattan – One Building At A Time, Tom Miller

The texture and detail of the contents page tells you that this is going to be an enjoyable read. A colour-coded map divides the island of Manhattan up into sections, each with four or so choice architectural intrigues, on a pleasingly small scale. Think Sugar Hill and Bowery, rather than just a vague North of Harlem or Downtown.

The book is full of beautiful sketches of buildings alongside quality colour pictures of sites as they are today, occasionally alongisde historical shots of the buildings or their developers or early owners. Miller goes into great detail with each building he chooses, but manages never to bore.

Whether its witty extractions from the New York Times of the day, or extracts from historical documents pertaining to the original owner or developer of a particular site, he gets behind the archiectural conversation into the personal historical level that makes this more than just an archi-wonks pastime. 

As much an encyclopedia as anything else. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Beautifully laid out, attention to detail, wide range of sources. 

Cons: Several key buildings aren't discussed, and some of the contemporary photography is disappointing. 

Fun tidbit: The death of 14-year-old John McTaggart on February 6, 1903, was blamed on the newly erected Flatiron Building due to the bizarre wind currents its unusual shape occasionally whipped up. The messenger boy was attempting to round the 23rd street point of the building against the wind, Miller writes. After attempting three times, he was reportedly blown into Fifth Avenue and fatally injured by an automobile.” 

Got any others? Tweet us. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”