Book Review: The City, A global history (Joel Kotkin)

Kotkin, Joel. The City: A global history, Modern Library: New York, NY. 2006.

Joel Kotkin’s The City: A global history is a worthwhile, short read for those interested in the history and development of cities. Though he presents an overarching framework in the first chapter (more on this in a bit), he doesn’t always explicitly state the links between historical and current cities and this framework. Thus, it is useful to recall the points made in the first chapter as you read in order to evaluate Kotkin’s framework. From the standpoint of Geography, I think Kotkin does an effective job of introducing his readers to urban geography and the history of urbanity. They key word is introduction, at 160 pages of text and covering major cities from Mohenjo-daro (2600 BCE) to contemporary developing megacities like Mumbai or Shanghai Kotkin can only offer a brief introduction to each city and the trends and factors affecting each city’s development. Despite this wide-breadth in temporal and geographic scale, The City is a great introduction for high school students to the study of the city in Geography.

Kotkin’s framework is summarized in the title of the first chapter “Places Sacred, Safe, and Busy.” Joel Kotkin argues that a city’s prominence is due to three factors that determine “the overall health of cities…the sacredness of place, the ability to provide security and project power, and last, the animating role of commerce.” When these factors are present, a city can be “great,” when they are not the city can wither and fade. The first section (comprising three chapters) is devoted to the ancient cities and how they set the standard of all cities being places of sacredness, security, and commerce. In these short chapters he primarily focuses on the cities in Mesopotamia, the progenitor of modern civilizations, as he further develops his framework of scared, safe, busy with ancient examples.

Parts two, three, and four focus on what we know as classical and renaissance civilizations. Here he covers the development of cities from the Greek city states through Rome to the collapse of the “classical city.” In part three, he switches the focus from Europe to the Islamic, Chinese, and Indian civilizations, during Europe’s descent into the Dark Ages. Of particular interest to me was the rapid de-urbanization of Europe following the fall of Rome, Kotkin does an effective job of highlighting the population loss in just a few generations in a number of European cities. In part four, Europe reasserts its primacy as the hub of urbanity. Chapter Nine “Opportunity Lost” sets the stage for part four but is worth a mention because of its wider applicability.

In this chapter, Kotkin points to the “problem of prosperity” as the culprit of Asian and Islamic stagnation and ultimate decline. He points to ethno-centric attitudes borne out centuries of political, economic, and social domination. He also points to the limits of autocracy among kingdoms prevalent at this time in world history, which stifled innovation and entrepreneurship. Though Europe suffered autocracy as well, Kotkin points to the rise of the urban merchant and artisan classes as effective counterweights to the political elites, who often had the ability to influence policy.

The second chapter of part four, “Cities of Mammon,” and part five take us from Europe’s imperial cities, Venice, Amsterdam, and London through to industrialization and the creation of high rise cities (especially in New York). The industrialized city, Kotkin primarily points to the U.S. and UK as his cases, is counter-balanced in the cities’ of industrialism’s discontents, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. The problem, as Kotkin argues, with the Western industrial city was the overemphasis on commercialism. The primary conflict underpinning this discontent was also found in the “West”, the environmental and social degradation of an earlier society. Discussing the effect that the Soviet Union had on its urban architecture, Kotkin argues that the Soviet Union “stripped” city’s of their sacred function. Formed in response to the excesses and perceived lack of moral order in the industrialized “West”, the Soviet Union created cities with a “destitute urban legacy.”

The final section brings us to the rush to suburbia and the population loss (notably of whites) that Western cities endured throughout this century. Kotkin points to the automobile, mass transportation (to a certain extent), the fear of crime in the inner city, and prevailing cultural preferences for “a six room house with a big yard”. Of course, the ultimate manifestation of this kind of city is Los Angeles. While suburbanization gripped the “West”, the former colonies and imperial territories of Africa and Asia grappled with their colonial legacies. In this chapter, Kotkin highlights the impact that Europeans had on the urban landscape of conquered territories (often creating capitals despite an existing infrastructure elsewhere, like Calcutta instead of Delhi). Importantly, Kotkin also discusses the dualistic nature of many former colonial cities. This dualism is in the relative affluence for a small proportion of the population, often very visible in social and international media (think of Mumbai and Cairo) and the near destitution and poverty afflicting the vast majority of the rest of these urban dwellers. In the concluding section to this chapter he describes these socially stratified cities in the Middle East and Africa (in particular) as “social time bombs.”

I agree.

The final chapter (a brief description of the preceding chapter: it examines the growth and success of eastern cities like Singapore and Hong Kong) deals with the future of urbanity, particularly in the United States. There are three points that stuck with me, the first is the “destruction of distance” and can be seen in the rise of such modern concepts as “tele-commuting” and “tele-working”, in effect, being able to do a job that was formerly in the city, but from wherever you live (not in the city). Obviously, this sort of phenomena is primarily oriented to service-based economies in the “West”, rather than manufacturing centers elsewhere. This destruction of distance also threatens the megacities of economically developing countries, which have outrun their colonial infrastructure. In the “West”, its becoming apparent that it is no longer necessary for humanity to congregate in an area to maintain an economically viable enterprise. In response, Kotkin sees cities everywhere becoming “ephemeral” and relying on their cultural industry to set trends and to become places for tourism and wonder. Perhaps most interestingly, Kotkin sees a limit to “gentrification” by wealthy youths and relative social elites. As middle-class urban families are priced out and banished to the suburbs, Kotkin sees a loss of “economic and social vitality” characteristic of urban stagnation and decline. A word here on gentrification as Kotkin sees it, rather than urban revitilization by young families, he references “older affluents…’wealthy cosmopolites'” seeking to convert cities from “economic centers” to “residential resorts.” The final threat is the lack of a common moral vision to hold cities together. Kotkin points to the lack of religion or any other binding force in contemporary cities as a serious problem to the lack of stable communities. Most interestingly in this regard, he notes that academics and planners rarely discuss the lack of a “powerful moral vision.” In quoting Daniel Bell he says that “the fate of cities still revolves around ‘a conception of public virtue.'” Here again, I agree.

Kotkin’s The City gives us plenty of points to ponder and discuss, I’ve presented a number of the most interesting in this review. I’m inclined to agree with Kotkin’s assessment that our city’s lack a “powerful moral vision”, though I don’t think that religion is necessarily the answer, I generally believe that an overemphasis on the individual and lack of emphasis on individual responsibility for the community is a serious problem. A Washington metropolite for over a decade now, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen young men (and some women) refuse to budge for elderly women (and men) or pregnant women on public transportation. A similar symptom of the lack of personal responsibility is the wanton way in which we flout laws. Cars (taxis in particular) driving well over posted speed limits, running red lights, failing to stop at stop signs, pedestrians jay-walking or crossing against the light, bicyclists running through lights or weaving between traffic. While I don’t think we should be mindless automatons while in a city, some consideration for others (a general acknowledgement of their humanity, for instance) would be a welcome change.

Beyond the “moral vision,” I find other interesting parallels between America’s decline and the stagnation of China and the Middle East before the Renaissance. Would many of us really argue that a certain ethno-centrism is well-entrenched in the United States and that its almost celebrated here, and elsewhere in the West? While Europeans continue to struggle with its persisting irrelevance politically and economically, Americans are beginning to understand what it feels like. And yet, despite the widespread knowledge that Americans are geographically illiterate, we seem surprisingly ok with this condition. I suppose we’re content with our ephemeral fads and styles (so long as we can pay for them), confident that we’ll remain the jewel of the world. As a rule, we seem to be completely unaware of the increasingly disparate and rigid social hierarchies in our, and other societies, which occasionally explode into violent conflict.

Joel Kotkin’s The City provides a brief introduction to the geography and history of humanity’s urbanity. Using a framework emphasizing the city as sacred, secure, and commercial places, he not only highlights the myriad cities that came to dominate the surrounding landscape (sometimes the known world) but also provides useful insight into their eventual decline. It is this latter perspective that is most important for planners, politicians, and students, because as a rule, we tend to learn much more from our failures, than our successes.

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