Thursday, September 6

Book: The City: a Global History

By Joel Kotkin. I wanted a bird's-eye-view history of urban development. The City: a Global History seemed to be the best starting point, and it didn't hurt that it was packed into 160 pages.

Summary: Throughout history three forces have worked together to form the city: "the sacred, the secure, and the busy." The earliest cities from every culture were centered around a temple and reinforced by a shared religious belief system. As imperial powers emerged, the sacred space was shifted from various smaller city-states to a central megacity. Babylon was the first case of this. The imperial power brought military protection to the city, which allowed it to flourish.

Finally, cities established themselves as centers of commerce, acting as trading and shipping hubs. Rome became the archetype city, and it's immense population forced the intentional creation of urban infrastructure and order. Rome eventually fell because of decadence and the lack of a cohesive moral vision.

By the 7th century, cities in the vast Islamic world began to rise. Islam itself has its roots in Muhammad's urban development and proved to be a catalyst for further city-building. At the same time, Chinese cities grew as important administrative capitals.

The Italian renaissance mixed the classical Roman philosophy with an intense focus on commerce. Western cities were revived. Eventually national capitals (Paris) replaced city-states (Venice) as the most powerful cities. Colonial expansion greatly increased the wealth and size of several European cities.

The industrial revolution in England and later in the U.S. spawned explosive growth of cities based on mass production. New York quickly became a global commerce center, and because of its geographical barriers it grew upward to accommodate a dense population. The horrific conditions of these industrial cities created a backlash against city life in general. Those who could afford to moved out to the periphery. Suburbanization was later accelerated by technological advances in transportation.

Millions of people in the developing world are moving into cities, but these metropolises don't have the economy to support them. The exceptions are various cities in East Asia.

Engagement: Kotkin contends that the three principles of urban growth are universal. A city must be a sacred place, offer physical protection, and have a thriving economy. He suggests that the first point has been lost. Cities lack a religious and moral core. They have become ephemeral, obsessed with fads and entertainment. He essentially calls for a civil religion, much like Rousseau had, to provide a common moral structure. The trouble is that he does not provide much guidance, beyond hinting at some enlightenment ideals, for how to do this in a pluralistic culture. Furthermore, it isn't clear to me that a pragmatic civic religion can be truly transcendent at the same time.

This prescription, however, does make sense:

"A busy city must be more than a construct of diversions for an essential nomadic population. It requires an engaged and committed citizenry with a long-term financial and familial stake in the metropolis."

There is one glaring omission in this book. There is very little mention of the environmental impact of city planning. Kotkin sees the ideal of suburban home-ownership as universal to human nature, but he doesn't question whether suburbanization is a sustainable trend.

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