If humankind can be said to have a single greatest creation, it would be those places that represent the most eloquent expression of our species's ingenuity, beliefs, and ideals: the city. In this authoritative and engagingly written account, the acclaimed urbanist and bestselling author examines the evolution of urban life over the millennia and, in doing so, attempts to answer the age-old question: What makes a city great?
Despite their infinite variety, all cities essentially serve three purposes: spiritual, political, and economic. Kotkin follows the progression of the city from the early religious centers of Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China to the imperial centers of the Classical era, through the rise of the Islamic city and the European commercial capitals, ending with today's post-industrial suburban metropolis.
Despite widespread optimistic claims that cities are "back in style," Kotkin warns that whatever their form, cities can thrive only if they remain sacred, safe, and busy-and this is true for both the increasingly urbanized developing world and the often self-possessed "global cities" of the West and East Asia.
Looking at cities in the twenty-first century, Kotkin discusses the effects of developments such as shifting demographics and emerging technologies. He also considers the effects of terrorism-how the religious and cultural struggles of the present pose the greatest challenge to the urban future.
Truly global in scope, The City is a timely narrative that will place Kotkin in the company of Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and other preeminent urban scholars.
With this slim text, Kotkin offers his readers a history of the city from the first urban centers of the "Fertile Crescent" in 5000, B.C., all the way to post-September 11th New York City. At the same time, Kotkin argues that three key factors distinguish successful cities: commerce, security and power, and the "sacredness" of urban space. Such an ambitious dual project would prove daunting for any work, and this brief, occasionally terse attempt often falls short of its lofty goals. Kotkin, a senior fellow with the New American Foundation and the author of five previous books, including Tribes and The New Geography, is certainly a fine, engaging writer. His discussion of the rise of Rome as the "first megacity" efficiently covers vast historical ground while consistently bringing that history back to his central argument. But Kotkin spends far less time analyzing contemporary megacities such as Mexico City and Sao Paulo. And in those over-hasty moments, the book reveals its wider gaps, biases and shortcomings. Kotkin's book may serve as an accessible general introduction to the history of urban life, culture and spaces. But readers seeking the global history the text purports to offer may be better served by the "suggested further reading" that follows this sketchy narrative. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 08, 2006
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Excerpt from The City by Joel Kotkin
Long before the first cities rose in Mexico, China, or Europe, the essential patterns of urban life evolved slowly in the Middle East. Homo sapiens is said to have achieved its present basic physical evolutionary form twenty-five thousand to forty thousand years ago and spread throughout virtually the entire habitable planet, including the Americas and Australia, by around 8000 b.c.1
With the end of the last Ice Age, stock breeding and agriculture spread and with them a more sedentary way of life. Small villages developed as centers of artisanal activities and trade. The most advanced, what might be called "proto-cities," appear to have developed most rapidly in a wide region that spread across the Syrian steppes, in Jericho, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey.2
This region--extending from the west coast of Palestine to the Nile Valley in Egypt to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers--constitutes what is called the "Fertile Crescent." In the earliest period of recorded history, the farther one gets from this region, observed the German historian and archaeologist Werner Keller, "the deeper grows the darkness and signs of civilization and culture decrease. It is as if the people on the other continents were like children awaiting their awakening."3
The alluvial basin between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in contemporary Iraq, proved an ideal environment for a precipitous leap to urbanism. Here, in the area later known to the Greeks as Mesopotamia, the arid desert was broken by reedy swamps, with waters overflowing with fish, and banks teeming with wildlife. Here, too, sprouted native grains, wheat and barley, which could be cultivated into reliable crops, rewarding the Neolithic farmer with the critical surpluses upon which the beginnings of urban civilization depended.4
The early city builders also faced many critical challenges in this fecund environment.5 Minerals, building stone, and timber were scarce. Rain was sporadic, and the rivers did not naturally, as in Egypt, inundate the large areas of dry land around them. As a result, the settlers in this region were forced to develop complex systems to irrigate their land.6
This huge effort required a moral and social order allowing for the intricate regulation of society and for a more dominating relationship toward nature, a major step away from the familial and clan relationships that had conditioned traditional village life for millennia. These earliest cities arose as the command posts for the carrying out of these functions. By modern or even classical standards, these urban agglomerations, the earliest of which can be traced as far back as 5000 b.c., were very small. Even by the third millennium, the powerful "metropolis" of Ur may have been no more than 150 acres and accommodated roughly twenty-four thousand people.7
The priestly class emerged as the primary organizers of the new urban order. It fell to them to articulate the divine principles placing man over nature, inculcate systems of worship, and regulate the activities of a large number of often unrelated people around complex communal tasks.
It is difficult, perhaps, to imagine in our current secular era the degree to which religion played a central role during most of urban history.8 Like the Catholic Church, or Buddhist, Muslim, Aztec, and Hindu priesthoods later on, the Sumerian ecclesiastics provided these ancient urban centers with a critical sense of order and continuity. Priests set the calendars that determined times for work, worship, and feasting for the entire population.9
Given the primacy of the priestly class, it is not surprising that temples celebrating the gods dominated the earliest primitive "skyline." One of the earliest of these ziggurats, the shrine at Ur of Nannar, the Moon God, towered seventy feet over the flat Mesopotamian landscape.10 The high temple, suggests Mircea Eliade, constituted a "cosmic mountain" connected directly to the cosmos.11