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Vertical: The city from satellites to bunkers

Published on: 11 October 2016

A self-confessed “geography geek” has just written a book that will change how we understand our place in the world.

New book is a life-long project

Vertical, published today in the UK (11 Oct 2016), is a revolutionary re-imagining of the cities we live in, the air above us, and what goes on beneath our feet.

Newcastle University’s Professor Stephen Graham has been writing Vertical for the last eight years, but it’s been in production for a lot longer than that. “I’ve been writing this in my head since I was a kid,” he explains.

When he first discovered Landsat satellite images in his teens growing up in Newcastle, Professor Graham was instantly hooked. “They were amazing for a teenage geography geek like me,” he says. “I would get the images and overlay them onto local maps to work out where places were. Ever since I’ve been pretty much obsessed with satellites.”

Cities are a series of vertical layers

His new book shows us that the world can no longer be read as a two dimensional map, but as a series of vertical layers reaching from the satellites that encircle our planet to the tunnels deep within the ground. Professor Graham rewrites the city at every level: how the geography of inequality, politics and identity is determined both above and below the surface.

There’s some pretty harrowing subject matter covered in the book, including a chapter on lethal drones. “We’re misled all the time as we’re saturated by images from planes and don’t get that ground level view,” says Professor Graham. “My book is very critical and exposes a lot that people would probably rather not think about – I’m not pulling any punches.”

But dealing with such heavy-going subject matter for so many years understandably has a downside. “This book almost killed me – there was a time when I had nothing outside of it,” he admits. “I’m not a politician; I don’t have a lot of power, but I know what I can do and that’s write. Hopefully it’s enough to make a difference.”

The politics of vertical housing

Vertical explores each layer of the city at length, from looking from the viewpoint of an aerial bomber, to skyscrapers, lifts, sidewalk design and hidden underground bunkers. It also delves into how even our language becomes ‘vertical’: going up in the world, down at heel etc. “They’ve become ‘dead’ metaphors and in doing so, are now even more powerful because people just don’t see them as metaphorical anymore,” says Professor Graham.

In just one of the many questions raised within this book, he asks why Sao Paulo’s super rich live in penthouses far above the street and yet billionaires in London build vast subterranean basements to highlight their extreme wealth.

Professor Graham also highlights the irony of elite housing developments being built in London and New York on the same sites as vertical social housing deemed such a problem that it had to be demolished.

Stephen Graham is Professor of Cities and Society at the Global Urban Research Unit, based in Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape and also wrote the critically-acclaimed Cities Under Siege.

Vertical is published by Verso on 11 Oct in the UK and on 8 November by Penguin Random House in the USA. It will be launched at Newcastle University on Tuesday 8 November.


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