Saturday, April 21, 2007

Beneath the Metropolis: The Secret Lives of Cities

I have always been fascinated by what lies beneath. I love caves. I have also been pleased on several occasions to have had the opportunity to explore the tunnel system beneath my campus. And during my Dungeons & Dragons days, my favorite adventures happened far beneath the ground in the "underdark."

Not surprisingly then, I really enjoyed Beneath the Metropolis: The Secret Lives of Cities by Alex Marshall. The description of the book notes, "The pulse of great cities may be most palpable above ground, but it is below the busy streets where we can observe their rich archaeological history and the infrastructure that keeps them running. In The Secret Lives of Cities journalist Alex Marshall investigates how geological features, archaeological remnants of past civilizations, and layered networks transporting water, electricity, and people, have shaped these cities through centuries of political turbulence and advancements in engineering — and how they are determining the course of the cities' future.From the first-century catacombs of Rome, the New York subway system, and the swamps and ancient quays beneath London, to San Francisco's fault lines, the depleted aquifer below Mexico City, and Mao Tse-tung's extensive network of secret tunnels under Beijing, these subterranean environments offer a unique cross-section of a city's history and future."

What is beneath cities? Well, there may be catacombs, sewers, subways, utility lines and tunnels, water lines, secret bunkers, tombs, mines, etc. Many of these connect forming a vast undercity which is rarely visited except by city workers, the homeless, criminals, and explorers.

Marshall does a good job of connecting the history of a city with the landscape beneath. Projects relating to sewage, water, transportation, and mining always impact the city above. The growth of the undercity allows for the growth of the city above. Marshall includes a time line with each city he covers showing how underground developments connected with the history of the city above.

I found Beijing to have an interesting underground city. While the sewers and water lines have been neglected until recently, the city has a large underground city which was built to house millions in case of a nuclear war with the USA or the Soviet Union. This undercity is still in use in some places but is mostly abandoned now. I will be in Beijing in June and July this year and I bet my imagination runs "deep" when I visit Tienanmen Square.

This is an easy to read and colorful book. Although it is not a classical history text, it is indeed a history book. I enjoyed it and I think it is worth a look.

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