HG Wells, global urbanism and the city

Just came across this passage by HG Wells in his 1902 essay, ‘Anticipations’. Interesting to see Wells anticipating some of the debate going on now, in urban research and in policy and public domains, about a world becoming urban:

“And as for the world beyond our urban regions? The same line of reasoning that leads to the expectation that the city will diffuse itself until it has taken up considerable areas and many of the characteristics, the greenness, the fresh air, of what is now country, leads us to suppose also that the country will take to itself many of the qualities of the city. The old antithesis will indeed cease, the boundary lines will altogether disappear; it will become, indeed, merely a question of more or less populous. There will be horticulture and agriculture going on within the “urban regions,” and “urbanity” without them. Everywhere, indeed, over the land of the globe between the frozen circles, the railway and the new roads will spread, the network of communication wires and safe and convenient ways”.Wells

Wells anticipates not just cities simply spreading across the surface as they become more populous, but the world itself – ‘between the frozen circles’ – becoming urban. Through infrastructure and communication, the air itself will be urbanised, and notions of ‘city’ and ‘country’ will lose their meaning as boundaries disappear into a pattern of more or less dense distributions of ‘urban regions’. Terms like ‘town’ and ‘country’ will become as “obsolete”, he argues, as the mail coach.

I was left wondering whether Wells would have used terms like ‘city’ had he been writing today. By coincidence, I was re-reading a recent piece by Mark Davidson and Kurt Iveson (2015: 652) in City that takes up some strands of this debate. I’ve found this passage useful for thinking about this question, in which they summarise some of the ‘generative affects’ of the notion of ‘the city’ as part of a broader argument about why it remains an important concept to hold onto even in the face of an increasingly urban world:

“‘The city’ is multiple things, such as an object, a political boundary, a geography identity, a brand, a community, a unit of collective consumption, and more. A term such as ‘London’ therefore refers to an object with multiple socio-spatial configurations which, in ways not always directly tied to the said object, have various generative affects”.

The global nature of urbanism presents one of the most challenging and fundamental epistemological debates for contemporary critical urban research. I don’t think Wells offers a great deal of help in thinking these problems through, but it is worth keeping in mind that the debates have histories, speculative or otherwise, that likely inform some of the ideas buzzing around now in various publics.

Reference

Davidson, M. and Iveson, K. (2015) ‘Beyond city limits: a conceptual and political defense of ‘the city’ as an anchoring concept for critical urban theory’. City, 19:5

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