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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Appifying Geographic Education: Not quite there

Wired.com touts the TouchWorld app as a tool to help “learn World Geography,” while I agree with the article’s sentiment that “we need more education in [G]eography in this country” I’m not quite sure that the TouchWorld app is the answer. To summarize the app, it allows the user to take a Geography quiz of identifying countries, continents, and capitals with the possibility being redirected to their wikipedia page.

Pretty simplistic. Referring back to the proposed model of Geographic Education (and reproduced below), this is (at best) very basic foundational stuff that kindergartens should already be familiar with. Think I’m joking? Taking a look at the Texas Education Agency‘s (see link to downloadable PDF) learning outcomes for kindergarteners shows that they are expected to be able understand the “concept of location” and “the physical and human characteristics of place”. Of course, we know that neither of these is really associated with Geography in the popular imagination.

Geographic Knowledge and Education (via ME!)

Geographic Knowledge and Education (via ME!)

While I’m for the popularization and dissemination of geographic data, because that’s essentially what TouchWorld does, I’m not that excited. As all Geographers are keenly aware, the profession is stigmatised as simply being rote memorization of place names and locations, essentially what TouchWorld is. I appreciate the integration of wikipedia into the app, that at least gives the veneer of being something beyond spatial memorization.

Had I the capability to make an educational app it would follow combine aspects of a Geography Bee and map-based locations. This would at least take education, for young adults and adults who primarily use phones anyway, out of simple geographic data to geographic information. For instance, “identify the countries from which the Gurka migrate from, and to, for military service”. The user could then click on Nepal and the United Kingdom. From a physical geography perspective one could ask “identify the countries through which the Nile Rivers flow”. Though this format would still require users, students, to learn and be able to find the location of geographic features, it would also promote awareness of the cross-cutting nature of earthly phenomena.

Geographers know that few things on Earth’s surface are confined by the boundaries set by states. To me apps like TouchWorld only reinforce this misconception, though a step in the right direction more should it be done. If someone has the capability to write the app I would happily devise a questions for the project.

Happy Valentine’s Day, from the District of Columbia

Map projections are fascinating areas of geographic study, we’re all intimately familiar with the Mercator projection, all of us having seen it for years in schools around the world. The primary problem is that the Mercator map was not designed for use as a political or physical map on the world. It was designed for navigation. Map projections are coerced compromise, the coercion comes when cartographers and geographers attempt to display the three dimensional form of our planet onto a two dimensional surface (like a computer screen or piece of paper). The compromise is in one of several areas: area, shape, direction, bearing, distance, and scale. It is impossible to preserve each of these components, although very large scale maps (meaning maps of very small areas) come the closest to reality. Maps of the entire world, on the other hand, have significant compromises. In Mercator’s map, direction and bearing is maximized so you could pick a heading in your boat from New York, follow it on Mercator’s map, and know exactly where in Europe you would land. As a political map, its horrible. Area, shape, and scale are horribly distorted. Greenland looks big enough to be its own continent, as a kid I think I even asked my teacher why Australia was one but Greenland wasn’t.

Other maps make compromises between all of map’s components, distorting each one. While not totally accurate in any one area, they aren’t completely inaccurate either.

While the Bonne projection could have been made for Valentine’s Day, it was probably not meant to depict the entire world. The wikipedia page for Rigobert Bonne (1727-1795) notes that he worked as Royal Hydrographer in France. His occupation suggests that the projection was meant for depictions of coastal areas, indeed the projection itself preserves scale along latitude (which are concentric circles). In addition, shape is not distorted along the central meridian and the standard latitude, that is the north-south and east-west line on which the projection rests. These properties would make the projection effective for depicting coastlines where distance and shape are important to map accuracy. Bonne was not the original developer of this projection, as the wikipedia article explains.

the Sylvano, Honter, de I'Isle, Coronelli, Bonne, Bonne projection

the Sylvano, Honter, de I’Isle, Coronelli, Bonne, Bonne projection

I would have suggested that Sylvano’s map from 1511 was made in the (modern) spirit of Valentine’s Day, but I don’t think cannibalism is a part of the modern Valentine tradition. Don’t believe me? Go take a look, just above the equator in what would be “the New World.”

Z Geography’s Map

There are few things better than a good map of the world. As a kid I would remember poring over world and regional maps and atlases. A National Geographic map of the world, political edition, was the one hanging in my room and I’ve kept the map for almost 30 years. Curiously I’ve kept the physical map of the world for the same amount of time, but I don’t think I ever put it up. If putting up a map and spending your time examining it is indicative of a budding geographer, I’m sure that my preference for the “political map,” that is cities, capitals, boundaries, and administrative areas, is indicative of a future human geographer. One of these days I’m going to have to force myself to write a post just on physical geography. Stayed tuned!

Truthfully, I’m in an ivory tower (but since I’m not a professor, let’s call it a wooden keep) myself. I routinely forget that not everyone I meet has four years of undergraduate and three years of graduate study in Geography. This a perceptual problem, a particularly big one when dealing with a culture that remains aloof of maps, as Catholicgauze over at Geographic Travels pointed out in organized, but “unofficial,” survey of inauguration attendees. While I can’t make anyone read a map, I offer the below map to stoke the ember of curiosity embedded in all of us. Curiosity is often driven by the belief that something is different, but as I have found, things are fundamentally the same no matter what place you find yourself. Only the facades are the difference.

About a year ago I stumbled upon a way to organize geographic knowledge and education, there are a number of ways to tweak it but its a start. We all begin with geographic data, answering the questions what is it? and where is it? What’s the capital of Belarus and locate it on a map! This post is about geographic data, below is Z Geography’s human and physical map of the world. Countries and territories across the continents with most regions broken into several insets to facilitate the identification of countries and their relative locations with one another. The next stage is the development of geographic information, its about understanding why Minsk is located where it is in Belarus. Its about understanding what else is in Minsk or co-located with it. Why are most Belarusians Orthodox, like Russians, and not Catholic, like the Poles? Poland and Russia both border the country. Finally there is the attainment of geographic knowledge, how does this geographic information, Belarus being primarily Russian Orthodox affect its people? How does it affect its relationship with Poland, with Russia? Does this religious relationship reflect a wider cultural affinity between “Belarusians” and “Russians”?

This week, I offer you two maps. The first is Z Geography’s human and physical map of the world. Download it, save it, print it (but its a bit large so maybe don’t print!), and enjoy it. The second map is conceptual, poke that ember of curiosity as you look over the map. Take yourself from gathering geographic data to developing geographic knowledge to generating knowledge.

Human and Physical Geography

Human and Physical Geography

Geographic Knowledge and Education

Enjoy!