This collection of papers, from keynotes, session rapporteurs and some special lectures, provides the reader with the tip of an iceberg of literature and research work that, together, has the potential to revolutionize the way we look at urban planning and large-scale construction. The book documents a meeting of the International Association for Engineering Geology and the Environment (IAEG) which took place in Nottingham, UK, in 2006. The period between the event and this publication is testament to the investment of editorial care and attention in bringing together this redoubtable collection of papers.

In some parts of the developed world, such as parts of the UK, land is at such a premium that its value distorts the development process out of all recognition. By contrast, there are many areas with a surfeit of development land. The economics of property development mean that the value of buildings tends to be dictated by the value of the land they are built on, rather than the buildings themselves. When I first realized this, I finally understood why the quality of so much construction is poor. It turned out that the location of a building is more important than the building itself. This seems to explain why people accept so much that is sub-standard in their buildings. The construction industry is capable of producing very high quality materials, workmanship and finishes, but the economics of property development rarely provide the kind of opportunities that enable architects, engineers and builders to excel. This book brought home to me the importance of two significant streams of thought that underpin much of my thinking about buildings. First, the study of what lies beneath buildings and, second, the strength of good science executed well. And these are two things that this book possesses in spades.

From the opening chapter, which is a careful and painstakingly systematic summary of the engineering geology of Nottingham, the book is redolent with empirical research reported in the best of scientific traditions, directed at real and present problems of urban development. In the following chapter, Mulder and Pereira comment that ‘there is little recognition that geoscience information and knowledge contribute to sustainable urban development’ (p. 25). This is depressing, especially given the robustness with which such research is carried out. But is this, perhaps, an issue that is connected with the sociology of scientists? There is so much science, and there are so many different disciplines, that an integrated approach takes a disproportionate effort to overcome the barriers between disciplines. Mulder and Pereira clearly intended to address the kind of meeting recorded here, being a polemical and personal reflection touching on many aspects where there is a rich research literature, but it seems the gaps between disciplines are not that easy to traverse. They oscillate between specialists and laypeople by touching on many issues where they seem unaware of the research. I am not sure of the value of these personal reflections. It is one thing calling for multidisciplinary approaches that include their science, but quite another thing to expect individuals to be specialists in all disciplines.

The feeling that the book is focussed fairly narrowly is consolidated by Marker, who asserts that ‘urban geology… involves the deployment of the full range of relevant geoscience techniques to urbanized areas’ (p. 33). I found myself wondering why it did not involve social sciences like economics and management. The idea that the relationship between buildings and land can be better understood by taking account of geosciences is a strong one, but significantly weakened if it does not also frame its questions in the context of sociological, economic and political factors that drive urbanization. In other words, it cannot be understood as purely technical issue, any more than construction can be.

Marker's chapter demonstrates that the rapporteur's task was daunting. This was a little like reading a catalogue, rather than a paper, particularly as there was no critique, merely summative statements. There was no attempt to sweep more broadly into more mainstream disciplines, despite the valiant attempt in the paper to characterize the process of urbanization. He asserts that ‘addressing the issues of urbanization involves social, economic and environmental considerations’ (p. 33). Clearly, it is not his responsibility to address these considerations; rather, to argue that geosciences should also form a part of the picture. Once I got the hang of the book, I realized that this paper was a rapporteur report, not a keynote or report of research. It would have been useful to flag up which is which, rather than leaving the reader with the task of trying to figure it out – but perhaps the book is only aimed at those ‘in the know’.

Rees et al. provide an interesting overview of an effective collation of various sources of knowledge into a digital resource that provides a basis for decision-making. I can see the utility and intelligence of this approach, but then they bring me down to earth with a bump, by showing what the computer screen input dialogue box looks like. There is really no need for this. First, it is some years since the conference and the computer interface has changed significantly in that time. Second, the appearance on the screen of an input dialogue is not interesting. Despite this, the paper was particularly strong, showing how modelling of geohazards is developing and offering important insights into what is happening underneath the ground surface.

Nathaniel and Banks, another rapporteur paper, picks up numerous facts from a wide range of the presented papers, with little synthesis, and not much sense of direction other than making the case for practicing engineering geologists to be involved in advising, modelling and meddling with climate change. It is difficult to do justice to so many papers in such a large conference; perhaps there was a need for more specificity in the aims of the meeting.

Petley provides a fascinating insight into urban landslides, and the interaction between natural and athropogenic causes, focusing on urban fatalities. The meta-analysis in this paper is both interesting and well executed. Research of this kind can be used to develop strong mitigation measures for reducing urban fatalities. Climate change seems set to increase the incidence of urban landslides, so governments would do well to pay attention to this research in planning the expansion of settlements in affected areas. Petley's use of the information tables in the conference is good, not over-stated and not riddled with masses of summative statements about what his colleagues have done. A no-nonsense analysis of reported facts added an interesting extra dimension to his paper.

As I went through the chapters of the book, I noticed various themes emerging. The science of risk management is clearly very important in this book, as is the notion that human intervention in the landscape is an underlying cause of many disasters and geohazards. Clayton's keynote paper on urban site investigation was a welcome insight into a mature discipline that works well alongside the geology, but maybe this appealed to me because it is closer to my own academic life. This is followed by an overview of 51 papers submitted on this theme. It is striking to realize how re-development of a piece of land is so much more difficult than the original development, an example of human proclivity to transform simple things into complex and awkward circumstances. This impression was reinforced in subsequent chapters about urban geotechnics, being very much more difficult than the geotechnics of undeveloped land; similarly with the impacts of substructures, contamination and pollution, and the difficulties of development where archaeological remains are present.

I was left in no doubt that this group of people is dealing with a set of problems of mighty proportions. It is no surprise that we are only really at the stage of documenting the scale of the problems that lie at the interface between urban form and Earth sciences. The book heralds potentially useful developments in risk management, vulnerability reduction, sustainable use of resources and the future of engineering geology internationally. Bock's paper, on core values, competences and issues in engineering geology resonated particularly with me. I am familiar with the difficulties of establishing societies, professional groups, journals, conference and syllabuses for multi-disciplinary projects of this nature. It is difficult reading a rapporteur's paper to see what the source literature for this kind of work is like, but one would hope that they are drawing on the literature about the development of professions and the sociology of science. Baynes, Griffiths and Rosenbaum finish the book with a piece on the future of engineering geology. They have provided a useful and interesting roadmap; I got the impression that the IAEG is in good hands and they have a clear vision about where it is going. They have a long road to travel and I wish them well. Their ambition and drive reminded me of the admirable Victorian engineer/entrepreneurs that fuelled the processes that lead to urban development in the first place.

In terms of presentation of the material, while the contents pages split papers into categories, this was not echoed in the main body of the book, so I was constantly flicking back to the contents page to see if I had finished with a section. Some of the plates were less than useful. One extreme example was a monochrome photograph less than 75 mm wide depicting a large area of land from a great distance. Apart from many white dots in the greyness, I could just about make out something that could have been either a road or an escarpment. The caption told me that this showed urban densification, incorrect use of space and questionable quality of both housing and infrastructure – all in a small grey rectangle (p. 107). But apart from some dubious figures the quality of production of this book is first-rate.

I spent a lot of time living with this book, dipping in and out at different times, absorbing and reflecting. This led me to appreciate the humungous effort of the editors who have managed to portray the complexity of this emergent discipline as represented by 449 papers that were submitted to this conference. To have polished the keynotes and rapporteurs' papers to the extent of providing an integrated and coherent book of this nature is a feat for which I admire the editors. Anyone with an interest in the interface between the Earth and the urban form would benefit greatly from this book, now and for some time to come. I recommend it most highly.