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The City: A Global History (Modern Library Chronicles) Hardcover – April 5, 2005

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The Transformation of Governance by Donald F. Kettl
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Startlingly brief for such an ambitious title, 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. A rejoinder to Guns, Germs, and Steel? Perhaps. Also a bold synthesis of urban historian Jane Jacobs and -anthropologist-theologian Mircea Eliade. Some readers may find each stop on Kotkin's whirlwind tour too brief, albeit nimbly presented. Luckily, he includes an excellent bibliography. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Chronicles
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; 1st edition (April 5, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679603360
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679603368
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #557,006 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California, and the Executive Editor of the widely read website He is the author, most recently, of The New Class Conflict, as well as The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, The City: A Global History, and The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape. An internationally recognized authority on global economic, political, social, and technological trends, Kotkin is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast and, and he writes a weekly column for the Orange County Reigster, where he serves on the editorial board. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Examiner, City Journal, Politico, the New York Daily News, and Newsweek.

Customer Reviews

Kotkin doesn't really define what he means by sacred.
S. Smith-Peter
I really enjoyed this as a historical approach to urbanism, but the book "the new geography" should be read after.
Alfredo Mejia
The book ends up coming off as very superficial in many spots.
C. Richard

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Izaak VanGaalen on May 14, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In this very short volume, Joel Kotkin outlines the 5,000 plus year history of the city and notifies us that what was fundamental to the cities of ancient Sumeria is still the case today: cities - to be successful - must be sacred, safe, and busy.

It seems a truism that a city needs some "socially important myths" to hold together large diverse groups of people. City planners today, according to Kotkin, do not take into account the sacredness of a place. How can they? Can you imagine a city planner calling for a more Christian city? or a more Islamic or Jewish city? or a more multiculural city? In these secular times, the latter is about the only thing they can attempt. But Kotkin considers multiculuralism a form of separatism. I say let the sacredness arise from the cultural ideas and pracitices of the citzens, not from the city planning office.

That a city needs security and a vibrant business community seems a truism so true that I won't belabor the point here.

The most interesting point made in the book concerns the impact of technology - especially telecommunications - on cities. For the first time in history global megacities no longer have the advantage of size and scale. With computers and telecommunications, businesses can now process and transmit information anywhere - the periphery of the urban centers, small towns, to places anywhere in the world. Moreover, businesses can locate anywhere in the world - anywhere they have skilled workers. The urban center is no longer necessary to operate a global business, in fact, it is no longer desirable.

The growth of the urban periphery and small towns as corporate centers has been called the rise of the "telecity.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Micky B. Hingorani on August 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Normally, I don't mean to be harsh. I also hardly ever write book reviews, but Mr. Kotkin's the City was so disappointing I felt a duty to warn others.

I should have been tipped off by the book's short length, but I only thought that Kotkin would therefore leave out a lot in favor of threading together an interesting thesis. Kotkin goes the other route, trying to stuff in as much as possible and therefore actually saying very little.

The author seemingly attempts to discuss every major city in the history of mankind. The bibliography starts on page 161 so there is very little room to do so.

With the chapters so short and divided so frequently, Kotkin could have gotten the same effect by asking a bunch of high school students to do a short (but admittedly erudite) summary of a major city. Put those together and you have this book.

Terribly disappointing for someone hoping for depth and substance.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By S. Nadeem on January 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
absurdly short given the subject. the thesis--that above all cities need religion or some sort of binding moral order, defense, and free-flowing commerce--is a bit odd. waste of money overall. read mumford or braudel instead.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Paul Frandano on November 22, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
That's the long and the short of it. I found Kotkin's little essay on "suggested reading" useful - as were many of the sources he cited - but the text? Hardly at all. Full disclosure/truth in lending would have required Kotkin to entitle his book, "The City: A Thin Schematic Outline That Raises More Questions Than It Answers Before Ending Discussions Abruptly." For this is indeed simply an outline.

Fine: it's a short book, a mere 160 pp of text, plus almost 40 pp of notes (a good thing), and the 7 pp of suggested readings. I suppose the Modern Library's "Chronicles" format - "featuring the world's great historians on the world's great subjects," all at less than 200 pp - should have tipped me off, but there was the offsetting kudos of Witold Rybczynski: "A compelling and original synthesis that belongs on the urbanist's bookshelf with Lewis Mumford, Peter Hall, and Fernand Braudel." Yes, Prof. Rybczynski, I suppose so, but perhaps only as the first book to pull off that shelf for kindling when the cabin grows cold. Kotkin really doesn't deserve this bonbon from Rybczynski; nor does he belong in this seminal company. His book doesn't seem to contain much that's original; it seems mostly derived from the insights of others. (I suppose that's why it's a "synthesis.") For the most part, much of it - and surely its central thesis that cities are built on sacred, security, or commercial foundations - is in Mumford and Hall, much else, particularly on the rise of commercial cities, may be found in Braudel, and in the later chapters more contemporary writers like Daniel Bell, Saskia Sassen, Manuel Castells, Kenneth Jackson, and Joel Garreau, are among the many authorities who show up.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By sean kroah on August 29, 2008
Format: Paperback
A more appropriate title for this book would be The City Through History, A Brief Synopsis. I would also downplay the central thesis to more of a whimsy on the authors part as it is never sufficiently developed and carried through to the end. I also did not find the thesis to be very descriptive of the city I live currently in or see living in in the next 50 years. Why would an author even try to present a 'Global History' of cities in 170 pages and then on top of that try to bolt on some grand scheme for how cities develop and operate?

What the book does offer is a very fast and readable sprint through 8-10 thousand years of urban history from Jericho to Los Angeles, mostly deferring details and finer arguments to other authors. If one takes the book as a brief introduction on the subject then it is capable of that especially given the many references and suggested reading chapter and these ultimately are the most valuable part of the book.
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