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.
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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
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