In gentle rebuke to those who never saw the good side of a city, urbanist and commentator Kotkin (The New Geography, 2000, etc.) 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.