Unruly Places. Photo by Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. powells.tumblr.comUnruly Places. Photo by Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. powells.tumblr.com

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett

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At a first glance, I didn’t think I was going to find anything worthwhile in this book. I know the adage, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but what I felt went deeper than that. I was sincerely confused as to why a book about a series of snippets regarding seemingly random places (some of which do not even exist) was at the top of Amazon’s urban planning book list. The confusion stuck even after I looked at other reviews and clicked through Amazon’s “see what’s in this book” feature. Everything about Unruly Places seemed reminiscent of the bargain-bin books you find at Barnes & Noble, next to the various “50 shades” knockoffs and “1,000 Laws you won’t believe exist!” non-fiction. I was also less than intrigued by the author’s credentials, which seemed as though most of his research and writing was based around race relations. Despite my doubts, I decided to give it a try. I figured the collection of short stories would, at the very least, offer an entertaining read on the subway to and from work, and one that wouldn’t require my brain to keep track of what happened in a particular chapter the previous day.

The beginning of my journey through Unruly Places fulfilled my initial goal of easy reading on the metro. It seemed I could learn a lot of the topics in the book by skimming its table of contents and simply reviewing the Wikipedia articles connected to each chapter. The more I got into the stories, however, the more I realized Unruly Places isn’t merely a collage of abridged online articles. It is a collection of short stories about interesting places that Bonnett tells in a way someone would share a tale with a group of friends around a campfire, strumming guitar chords. He takes you on a journey to places that range from well known disaster sites to formerly classified CIA detention centers in foreign lands.

As a result, you don’t just learn facts and figures about these places. You get a sense of the policy successes and failures that created them. With these added interest points come critiques of the urban planning practices that birthed these places, allowing the user to examine aspects of history not typically written about, let alone discussed.

There are also times when the book strikes personal chords, talking about how people will fight to the point of their own near-extinction for the right to inhabit land they feel is rightfully theirs. It includes a passage that has been at the forefront of my mind since reading it, where Bonnett writes:

“A place is not a thing…that can be thoughtlessly disposed of and replaced. The ferocity and ingenuity with which people hang on to the place they care about show that it is a defining feature of who they are; that to lose one’s place can seem like losing everything.”

A mental “kick to the stomach” for every kid whose parents announced they were moving to a new state at the age of 10, as well as some of us older folks forced to move from place to place as we chase new opportunities in a bad economy.

Bonnett gives the whole situation a personal touch by including a great number of  interesting personal antidotes from his visits to the sites themselves. In this way, he takes places that are somewhat interesting on their own and makes them very interesting. Bonnett helps his readers feel connected to the places in his book. Even if it is a place you are already familiar with, odds are you’ll learn new information within the stories of Unruly Places. 

Most importantly, it sends the message that while Twitter may be a hotbed of images from Mars and other assorted elements of space, there are still places right under our noses that are ready to be discovered and re-discovered. As if to say, “I dare you,” Bonnett includes the coordinates of each place in his book, allowing the reader to visit a place that is within their means and see if their experience matches his findings (within reason, of course, as some of the Unruly Places no longer exist).

Naturally, a collection of short stories is not going to be very comprehensive. Many chapters left me saying, “What, that’s it?!” but there can only be so much. This isn’t a complete guide to unruly places, it is the tip of the iceberg of what could easily be researched into an anthology. So many times it feels lacking, incomplete. There are also chapters where I wish the author had taken another approach to the location, instead of focusing only on a single aspect of its uniqueness. Alas, with this type of book, you are only going to get so much on each place. It is a victim of its own nature.

I enjoyed Unruly Places greatly. It served its purpose of keeping me entertained on the metro and has been an interesting point of conversation (there’s a lot of stuff in the book that can easily be applied to conversation in the right company). It helps create dialog, and has made me look at the world around me a little differently. While not a classic by any stretch, I say that makes it well worth the read.


Unruly Places. Photo by Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. powells.tumblr.comAuthor: Alastair BonnettGenre: Geography, Urban PlanningPublished:2014Published by: Houghton Mifflin HarcourtLike what you see? Purchase this book here.
John Cruz
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John Cruz

Editor-In-Chief at The Urbanist Dispatch
John Cruz, MUP, is an urbanist, photographer, and city planner. He has lived in Detroit, Montréal, and now resides in St. Louis.
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John Cruz

John Cruz, MUP, is an urbanist, photographer, and city planner. He has lived in Detroit, Montréal, and now resides in St. Louis.

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