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The City: A Global History by Joel Kotkin

The City: A Global History
Published by Modern Library

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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; theindustrial 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.

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Ever since the emergence of the first proto-cities in the Middle East more than five millennia ago, human beings have been congregating in progressively larger and more complex communities to carry out their daily business. And although this increasing urban concentration has created more than its share of problems, it has also served as a crucial spur to human creativity and accomplishment. "From the earliest beginnings," Kotkin points out, cities "have been the places that generated most of mankind's art, religion, culture, commerce, and technology."

Urban Sociology Blog

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Drawing upon the inspiration of urbanists and historians, Kotkin (senior fellow, New America Foundation) attempts to define the city throughout human history and into the future. This brief, readable volume is based on a wide variety of scholarly English-language studies of world cities from the earliest times to the present. Though historical in organization, nearly half of the book is devoted to the recent past and near future. Moving beyond the city's functional aspects of politics, security, and economics, Kotkin focuses on his theme of the city as a powerful moral and spiritual ethos to explain the rise and fall of particular urban cultures. By focusing on the city's cultural and ethical dimension, Kotkin gives readers a powerful lens for understanding the lifespan of historical cities and urban cultures, and perhaps a tool to forecast the city of the future. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General and undergraduate collections.

—J. Rogers
Louisiana State University at Alexandria

March, 2006 issue of Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries.

“Choice reviews significant current books of interest to those in higher education, and both professors and librarians often use it as a reference when making book selections.”

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The Fifth Annual Planetizen Top 10 Books List,
2006 Edition

Top 10 Books - 2006 Planetizen

The City: A Global History By Joel Kotkin Modern Library Chronicles, 218 pp.

A history of all the major cities of the world, from Jericho to Los Angeles, in 200 pages? The work of Joel Kotkin, renowned author and frequent columnist on urban issues, is certainly ambitious and, for the most part, it works. Inevitably, covering so much ground in so little space spreads some content thin, but this fast read succeeds most with Kotkin as storyteller, flying through time and around the world to weave so many disparate histories into one urban tapestry. Kotkin theorizes that there has been a universality of urban experience since the beginning of civilization, primarily due to three critical functions performed by cities: the creation of sacred space, provision of basic security, and hosting of commercial marketplaces. When one or more of these functions are absent, problems can arise. Indeed, "even affluent cities without moral cohesion or a sense of civic identity are doomed to decadence and decline."

Grandiosity aside, by taking what could be called an "ancient" approach to urban studies, Kotkin reminds readers of our collective urban roots. In the 21st century, as cities become increasingly fragmented due to their immense size and the rise of tele-communities, it's important to remember the fundamental elements that caused them to come into being in the first place. As in Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, The City suggests a call for urban citizens to reevaluate their connection to local communities. In the end, Kotkin argues, urban areas "must be held together by a consciousness that unites their people in a shared identity."

Beyond its theories, The City provides a handy resource for those looking for an introduction to the history of cities. Chapters on ancient cities, classical cities in Europe, "The Oriental Epoch", the industrial city, and the modern city include pocket histories of places from Mesopotamia, to Alexandria, Baghdad, Shanghai, and New York. Complete with a chronology of urban history and a suggested reading list, the book is a useful reference to the evolution, and vital organs, of cities.

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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.

—Owen McShane
Centre for Resource
Management Studies,
New Zealand

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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.

—Howard Kozloff
Urban Land

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

— Tom Condon
Hartford Courant

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"...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."

— The Financial Times
Sacred, safe, busy
By Crispin Tickell

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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.

— Chicago Tribune
Sacred, safe and busy

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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.

— By Bill Steigerwald
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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

— Reviewed by Gary Krist
Washington Post

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"The City informs us of the universality of the urban experience."

— Philippe Petit
The Times of London

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"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."

— Steven Greenhut
The Orange County Register

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

—Alan Ehrenhalt
Governing Magazine

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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.

—Francis Morrone
New York Sun

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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

—Kirkus Reviews

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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.

—Publishers Weekly

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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.


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"readable and pithy"

—Susan Barnes-Gelt
Denver Post

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

—Kelly Jane Torrance
The American Enterprise

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

—Bob Lanier, Mayor of Houston, 1992-1998

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"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."

—Fred Siegel, author of Prince of the City: Giuliani's New York and the Genius of American Life, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute

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

—Witold Rybczynski, Martin & Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism, School of Design, Professor of Real Estate, Wharton School

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"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."

—Michael Barone, Senior Writer, U.S. News & World Report and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics

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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.

— Harold Meyerson
LA Weekly

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"Greenurbia is the suburbs of the future. The suburbs of the 1950s were bedroom communities for people who commuted into the city. Today, there’s much more employment in the suburbs, and the big change is the number of people working full-time or part-time at home. Having people commute from one computer screen to another doesn’t make sense."

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Praise for The Next Hundred Million

Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

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