Book Review (Brenner and Keil 2006)
The Global Cities Reader
Neil Brenner and Roger Keil (Eds)
Routledge: London (2006), xvii + 436pp., £95.00 (hbk), 0-415-32344-4 and £26.99 (pbk) ISBN 0-415-32345-2
Reviewed by Dr John Harrison, Loughborough University.
Courting excitement and controversy in apparently equal measures, the study of urban life at the beginning of the twenty-first century has been a veritable hot-bed of debate. While people predicted the demise of urbanism due to the rise of new informational technologies, such predictors have been gravely mistaken and research on global cities has exploded throughout the social sciences over the last decade. With the urbanisation process being “consolidated, intensified and accelerated” (p5) under the conditions of globalisation, The Global Cities Reader is a timely addition to the literature.
One of a number of edited volumes within the Routledge Urban Reader Series, The Global Cities Reader displays masterful editorship by Neil Brenner and Roger Keil. Avoiding the temptation to take the easy road by producing a Global Cities “Greatest Hits” volume, Brenner and Keil are much more sympathetic to the reader than many other editorial teams who are producing similar contributions across the academy. Adopting the more challenging approach of introducing the reader to the broad contours within this research field, and to explore its nuances more comprehensively, Brenner and Keil attempt to navigate the reader around what is a diversified, and sometimes complex, research terrain. In contrast to the advised thirty-six chapters for an edited volume within this Routledge series, The Global Cities Reader reflects the diversity of conceptual beliefs and methodological approaches evident in this research field, with fifty short and punchy chapters. I say short and punchy deliberately because this volume is anything if not ruthlessly efficient. This ruthless efficiency means that original materials were trimmed down by as much as seventy-five percent, with much discussion, context, and evidence omitted in the form presented in this edited collection. For the purist in all of us, this approach should be hard to stomach, given that in any other context a lack of conceptual depth would be frowned upon. Yet the result here is a book which is much more than a hollowed-out account of global cities. While not conforming to academic convention carries its own dangers, for me the success of this particular volume lies entirely in its ability to ride against the conventional view. There is no other global cities book on the market that can dispense with so much material and yet retain such a strong context.
For all the credit afforded to Brenner and Keil, it must also be highlighted that one should remember that the success of the editors in achieving their task reinforces the acumen of the original authors and their conceptualisations, given that their work does not collapse under this often brutal editorial style. Some of the finer points and nuances will obviously escape the readers attention as a result of this editorial style, but I would suggest that the abbreviation of the contributions proves to be the books major success, rather than a frustrating hindrance that constantly leaves the reader one-step removed from the debates.
As with all the edited volumes in this Routledge series, the editor’s introduction to each of the seven parts and to each of the individual chapters is an excellent mechanism by which the editors can increase the accessibility of the material to the reader. Not only does the editorial introduction highlight the linkages between each contribution – a worrying omission from many edited volumes – but in this context, the editors seek to maximise the capacity of these often overlooked bridging sections in order to provide the reader with important information about the contributors themselves. Important questions such as where this chapter fits within the intellectual project of each author or set of author’s, and the impact that their contribution made to the advancement of knowledge within the study of global cities, are expertly presented in each of the short editorial commentaries. Furthermore, these links prove particularly important given that the clear danger presented by this brutal editorial style is that the reader is taken through the various literature too quickly (though this is probably an unfair criticism given that not many readers will read through this book in one sitting – in contrast to a reviewer). Avoiding the danger of become mired down in a myriad of dense factual details, the editors should thus be commended, and not condemned, for presenting the reader with an accessible, informative, and stimulating insight into the complex world of global cities research.
Having talked up the editorial style of Brenner and Keil, I do not wish to push the question of ‘what is missing’ too far, but for the purposes of this review I feel that there are two aspects of global cities research that are potentially underplayed in this book. First, although these global cities are increasingly seen to operate outside the regulatory controls of their respective national government, I would argue that each city retains a strong link with the state, and one that is often overlooked in the literature. Indeed in this present volume, the focus upon city level politics is an understandable one, but I feel that this book continues the trend of neglecting the role played by the state in the design of global cities. Possibly surprising given the current political climate – and to which I was ironically alerted to by the unveiling of Michael Bloomberg’s twenty-five year “sustainable city” vision for New York City (The Economist, 2006) – it is also interesting to note that issues surrounding global environmental change and sustainability have largely been overlooked in this volume; indeed each receive just one page referal in the index. In both instances, I feel that this edited volume could have benefited from more explicit engagement with these two aspects of global city research. Written by the very scholars who have shaped our understanding of global cities, there is no book currently on the market that comes close to matching The Global Cities Reader for its breadth of coverage and the ease at which the material can be accessed. When it comes to introducing the conceptual elements of global cities, The Global Cities Reader is an invaluable gateway for newcomers to global cities research, and provides the starting point for understanding this dynamic, diverse, and distinguished research field.
The Economist (2006) ‘The new New York’. 13 December