Book Review – “Underground Cities: Mapping the tunnels, transits and networks underneath our feet”

A nicely presented “coffee table” style book with plenty of information as well as plenty of pictures.

Perhaps because they are rare, and by their very nature hidden from sight and somewhat mysterious, the underground infrastructure beneath many of our cities is a source of continuing fascination.

There are rumors galore of what might exist beneath our feet.  Secret subways for elites, other subways and stations that have been closed and now forgotten, hidden refuges in case of nuclear attack, smuggler routes, homeless encampments, and all other possible things, limited only by our imagination.

So it is always with a frisson of excitement and anticipation that we open up a new book such as this one, “Underground Cities: Mapping the tunnels, transits and networks underneath our feet”, with a hope it may contain some new revelations about what is under our cities.

This book, published in September 2020, is a large sized “coffee table” style of hard-covered book – it measures 9 1/2″ x 11 3/4″ and is 1.1″ thick.  It weighs a hefty 3 lb 2 oz and comprises 224 pages, with color illustrations on almost every page.  The pages are matt rather than glossy, and as such, the pictures tend to be a bit flat and not quite as vivid as they might have been if printed onto glossy paper.

To be picky (which is of course what you expect) I was disappointed in the type choice – a sans serif light weight font that is not nearly as easily readable for older readers as would be a more classical serifed font – making it another book that fell victim to a designer’s desire to “look nice” rather than accepting time-honored and proven standards of typography to make it as readable as possible.  This minor fail is all the more notable in this book, though, because the author is an authority on typefaces.

The book is written by Mark Ovenden, a well published British author on public transportation topics.  I’ve previously enjoyed another of his books, London Underground by Design.

In addition to photos, the book has fascinating maps and also a really interesting feature – a depth scale showing the various structures under each featured city and their depth below ground level.  It was a small frustration though that the scales were in meters rather than feet.

The maps are interesting because they sometimes include some sewer lines as well as transportation infrastructure, although the sewers shown are nothing more than the barest hint of what exists.  In London’s case, the map shows underground rivers.

The book looks at 32 cities, including not only obvious choices such as London, Moscow, New York, and Paris, but also less obvious choices such as Sydney, Gibraltar and Cincinnati.

Lovers of the brilliant movie, “The Third Man“, will be disappointed, however – there’s no mention of Vienna.  Perhaps to come in a second volume?  One can hope.  Or perhaps not – there is a list of “Honourable [sic – it is an English book] Mentions” – other cities with underground systems but which didn’t make the book.  Vienna isn’t given even a two line mention there; neither is St Petersburg.  Unsurprisingly, the Pyongyang Metro is also unmentioned!

But don’t get me wrong.  There’s a great deal of content here, and even when reading the sections on cities I’m passably familiar with, I managed to learn new things.  Overall, the book strikes a good balance between pictures and text, with all the featured cities having a good narrative to accompany the pictures.  Recommended.

Amazon have “Underground Cities” available at a discounted price of $26.49 (it lists for $40), and also has a Kindle version offered optimistically at the criminally high price of $32.24.  It beggars belief that a book of this size and weight can be sold, complete with the massive printing and shipping costs involved, for less than an eBook with no such costs.

Lastly, if you like this book, you’ll probably like another book I reviewed last year, too :  London’s Underground, by Oliver Green.

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