• May 2015

A History of Future Cities

“Every month, 5 million people move from the past to the future,” writes Daniel Brook, author of the 2013 tome, A History of Future Cities.

“Pouring into developing-world ‘instant cities’ like Dubai and Shenzhen, these urban newcomers confront a modern world cobbled together from fragments of a West they have never seen,” he explains, asking: “Do these fantastical boomtowns, where blueprints spring to life overnight on virgin land, represent the dawning of a brave new world? Or is their vaunted newness a mirage?”

In a captivating blend of history and reporting, the journalist — whose work has appeared in Harper’s, The Nation, Foreign Policy, and Slate — travels to a series of major metropolitan hubs that were once themselves instant cities: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai.

The goal, he says, was to step back and watch their “dress rehearsals for the 21 century” — and help readers do the same.

Brook argues: “Understanding today’s emerging global order requires comprehending the West’s profound and conflicted influence on developing-world cities over the centuries.”

For example:

  • In 1703, Tsar Peter the Great personally oversaw the construction of a new Russian capital, a “window on the West” carefully modeled on Amsterdam, that he believed would wrench Russia into the modern world.
  • In the 19th century, Shanghai became the fastest-growing city on earth as it mushroomed into an English-speaking, Western-looking metropolis that just happened to be in the Far East.
  • Meanwhile, Mumbai (then Bombay), the cosmopolitan hub of the British Raj, morphed into a tropical London at the hands of its pith-helmeted imperialists.
  • Now, in our own time, the sheikh of Dubai has endeavored to transform his desert city into a Vegas-esque skyscraper-studded global hub.

By juxtaposing the stories of the architects and authoritarians, the artists and revolutionaries who seized the reins to transform each of these precociously modern places into avatars of the global future, Brook demonstrates that the drive for modernization was initially conflated with wholesale Westernization.

The first section of Brook’s book provides us a deep dive into the history of the evolution of cities, including chapters on:

  • New Amsterdam: St. Petersburg, 1703-1825
  • Shanghai Race Club: Shanghai, 1842-1911
  • URBS Prima in Indis: Bombay, 1857-1911
  • City on Spilt Blood: St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad, 1825-1934
  • Great World: Shanghai, 1911-1937
  • The City Under Progress’s Feet: Bombay, 1896-1947

Brook then brings us into the present, introducing us to Dubai, and concluding with a chapter that provides “Glimpses of Utopia.”

Throughout, Brook says his goal is to show readers the ambiguous legacy of the birth (and rebirth) of Chinese capitalism in Shanghai, the origins of Bollywood in Bombay’s American-style movie palaces, and the combustible mix of revolutionary culture and politics that rocked the Russian capital — and how it may be transcended today.

Click here to listen to our Q&A on the Inkandesent Radio Network, where Brook explains:

  • What inspired him to write “A History of Future Cities”
  • How a trip to St. Petersburg as a kid changed his life
  • How he selected the cities he wrote about
  • The most fascinating facts he discovered — that he didn’t expect to find
  • What he thinks the future of cities will be 50 years from today


Daniel Brook is a journalist whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Slate, and The Nation. He is the author of The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America.

His architecture writing won the 2010 Winterhouse Award for Design Writing and Criticism.

To research “A History of Future Cities,” Brook lived for a month each in St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai and conducted archival research on a semester-long fellowship at the Library of Congress. Originally from New York and educated at Yale University, Brook lives in New Orleans.

Learn more at daniel-brook.com.

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