The Works: Anatomy of a City
© 2005 Kate Ascher
Cities are, for my money, mankind’s most astonishing invention. Their complexity is stupefying — system within system, handling tons of material at any given time, whether the subject is cars across a bridge or the contents of a thousand home’s flushing toilets. And the stakes are always high, with the health and happiness of millions on the line — or at least, thousands. The Works is a dream of a book, a visual-rich guide to the many systems that keep cities thriving. Author Kate Ascher throws light not on just the expected — roads and utilities, say — but also minor things like the postal service. Using New York City as case study, Ascher explores systems for transportation, energy, communication, and sanitation in turn.
The Works stunned me again and again with its visuals. Readers are treated to an astonishing array of informative little diagrams: cutaways that show what’s inside the Holland tunnel, for instance, or the underbelly of a street-sweeper, or the waterworks inside your average skyscraper. The pictures also demonstrate systems — the chain of equipment required to convey power from a generating station into the average home, the links involved in a cell phone conversation, Some of the visuals are clever: for instance, to illustrate the variety of goods a train might carry, a cartoon representation of a real train runs along the bottom of every page in the chapter, each car marked with its contents. The same tactic is used to illustrate the electromagnetic spectrum in the chapter on communication. The bounty of visual information here is ludicrous — showcasing fleets of sanitation vehicles and subway cars, mapping out train yards and container ship docks, — it’s staggering, really. Statistics are presented visually, too, and of course there are tons of maps — including one that shows all the traffic cameras in the city. There are a few sample pages on Streetsblog, all from the chapter on streets.
That’s not to say The Works is merely a picture book, because there’s no small amount of text here explaining the importance of all these systems, reviewing their evolution within New York City, and sharing the particulars of their operation. Reading this book is kind of like reading Gone Tomorrow, Picking Up, The Grid, Flushed! On the Grid, etc, all at once, all rolled into one, and with gobs and gobs and gobs of illustration. It does lack a chapter on the infrastructure of the internet, which isn’t an oversight that would be made if it were published today.
- On The Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work, Scott Huler. Kind of like this but on a smaller scale with more detail and sans pictures.
- Straphanger, Tom Standage
- Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of NYC, Robin Nagle