By Joel Kotkin

Modern Library

Purchase at:


Barnes &

Foreign editions available in Portuguese, Chinese (Social Science Press), and Spanish (Debate Press) as well as from Orion Books in the United Kingdom. Japanese and Korean editions are also available.

Cities are the fulcrum of civilization. In this short, authoritative yet winningly informal account, urbanist Joel Kotkin examines the evolution of cities and urban life over thousands of years. He begins with the religious roots of urbanism in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China, and takes us to emergence of the Classical City; Byzantium and the cities of the Middle East; the rise of Venice and subsequent commercial city-empires; the industrial city (from London to Shanghai to Detroit); and on to the post-industrial, suburban realities of today. He concludes with a shrewd diagnosis of the problems and crises facing cities in the 21st-Century.

Unlike other books on cities, Kotkin’s is truly global in scope (even Lewis Mumford confined his vision to the West). For Kotkin, cities are not merely “machines for living” but embodiments of the highest ideals: how we can live, cooperate and create together. In looking at the history of city life as a continuous whole, THE CITY is nothing less than a breathtaking account of the human achievement itself.

Kotkin does not waste a word. You can read The City in an afternoon, but if you are interested in cities, and the great debate about how to ensure their success, you will turn to it for reference again and again. You will get your money’s worth.

The City: A Global History succeeds in relaying the lofty ambitions of its title by combining history with Kotkin’s analysis. At the beginning of the book, he lays out a seven-page chronology of the history of cities that alone provides a wealth of information. Kotkin’s writing is concise, and every word seems to have been chosen to convey knowledge. Aspiring urban scholars, former urban scholars in need of a refresher course, and anyone with even a passing interest in the urban built form will find The City: A Global History to be a virtual encyclopedia of cities, packaged neatly in a compact book.

“A most interesting and readable account of cities from ancient to modern.”

“…Serves to illustrate the background to one of the major problems of our time – and contains important lessons for those who will have to manage our cities in the future.”

What makes a great city? Kotkin, author of an intriguing book, The City: A Global History, is big on solid infrastructure, good schools and a vibrant middle class. Cities can’t exist merely as cultural hubs filled with trendy art galleries and funky restaurants. Sure, those features enrich communities, make life interesting, but vibrant cities don’t live on art alone.

Joel Kotkin, an internationally recognized expert on the economic, social and political trends of cities, knows what makes cities grow, what makes them die, and what it takes to make them worth living in.

Over the course of this breakneck survey of 5,000 years of urban history, Kotkin makes a credible case for his ideas.

“The City informs us of the universality of the urban experience.”

“The City offers fascinating insight into the ideologies that have created different city designs, and into the natural human desire to gather together to live and for commerce.”

The book is taut, elegant, informative and lots of fun to read. When I got to the end, I wished it had been longer.

Kotkin’s is a bracing book, one whose theses and arguments must be taken seriously and dealt with by anyone who wishes to forecast the urban future, or even describe what is going on today.

In gentle rebuke to those who never saw the good side of a city, urbanist and commentator Kotkin looks at the bright side, calling cities “humankind’s greatest creation.”

Cities concentrate not just people but also energy, talent, and wealth. Kotkin adds to these the element of sacredness: Ancient cities, he observes, were dominated by religious structures, suggesting “that the city was also a sacred place, connected directly to divine forces controlling the world.” Accidents of geography and history dictate how cities will rise, flourish and fall. Interestingly, Kotkin ventures that monoculture is one recipe for collapse. Carthage, he writes, was a mere commercial center, though it began with all the cultural values of its Phoenician ancestors; absent “any broader sense of mission or rationale for expansion other than profit,” it fell under the weight of unenlightened self-interest. Readers will remember that Rome had a hand in Carthage’s end, and Kotkin does a fine job of showing how the Romans instilled civic virtues and engineered their way to greatness in their own metropolis. Carthage’s example looms as Kotkin turns up other instances of cities done in by greed, such as Athens and Constantinople. Even Amsterdam of the Golden Age might have benefited, he suggests, from some of Elizabethan London’s drive toward the “democratization of culture” and, he adds, some of its moral fiber: Otherwise the Dutch might have fought a little harder to hold on to New York, soon to become a city of world importance. Artificial cities like the ones the Nazis planned usually don’t work, Kotkin notes, but more-or-less planned cities such as Pudong and Abuja are springing up everywhere, changing the face of the developing world. Kotkin closes his already useful, literate essay by pondering the future of the urban order, with the hope that the Islamic world, “having found Western values wanting, may find in its own glorious past . . . the means to salvage its troubled urban civilization.”

A thoughtful survey, of interest to students of urban affairs and of world history alike.

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.

Kotkin’s evolutionary narrative is less an examination of individual urban centers than a strategic, accessible narration of urbanism in general from ancient Mesopotamia to the present. As places “sacred, safe, and busy,” cities rise and thrive by their ability to become and remain concentrated, effective sites of worship, security, and commerce. But, as Kotkin’s gently functionalist comparative analysis shows us, cities struggle when they fail to cultivate a sense of community and common identity among their diverse inhabitants. Whether threatened by barbarians or suburbs, he continues, a city’s health depends upon its ability to keep the centrifugal forces of politics and economics from dispersing its sacred urban space.

“readable and pithy”

“an elegant paean to a form of living so many of us complain of while we reap its benefits.”

“Unique and powerful insights into urban life… This book is a great read.”

“If you want to understand why the future of American and European cities is mixed at best; if you want to understand why George Bush won the 2004 election, you need to read Joel Kotkin’s account of how and why cities have developed and declined.”

“A compelling and original synthesis that belongs on the urbanist’s bookshelf with Lewis Mumford, Peter Hall, and Fernand Braudel.”

“No one knows more about cities than Joel Kotkin, and has more to teach us about them. In The City, Kotkin takes us on a brisk and invigorating tour of cities from the Babylon of ancient times to the burgeoning exurbs of today. It is impossible not to learn a lot from this book.”

Kotkin is an eminent L.A.-ologist, and the author of The City: A Global History, a synoptic history of cities coming from Random House next month that I quite admire. As a big-picture guy, comparing the Chinese and European cities of the year 1000, Kotkin is nuanced and authoritative.