Friday, May 27, 2005
Hip cities without a soul
City: A Global History"
INFORMATION:A Modern Library Chronicles
Book, 2005, 218 pages, $21.95
It's easy for anyone interested in cities, suburbs and what
architects call "the built environment" to think only in terms
of recent history and the world that we know. There are big
cities with their towering downtowns, trendy neighborhoods and
run-down ghettos and then the endless suburban sprawl in which
most middle-class people reside.
Hence, planners, architects and developers debate
philosophies such as Smart Growth and New Urbanism, which are
designed to stem the supposed destruction of open space and
replace dispersed development patterns with urbanized living.
Many of my discussions of this matter have devolved into angry
debates between those who think that suburbia is evil and
those of us who find it to be a grand advancement of living
standards for the majority.
Joel Kotkin, an author who specializes in urban affairs,
has published a new book that promises a broader outlook. "The
City" is an ambitious and dense effort despite its mere 218
pages. It looks at cities not just in terms of modern America
and the European model, but in full historical perspective.
The first chapter starts with the evolution of urban life
40,000 years ago (!) and proceeds to describe life in
Mesopotamia, ancient Rome, Constantinople and then onward to
modern Los Angeles.
"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. He
reminds us that the ancient Romans created a vast system of
infrastructure, including the aqueducts, but that after Rome's
fall, it collapsed into a tiny echo of its former glory. He
provides a quick tour of city development in the Middle
Kingdom, the Middle East and even Middle America.
Perhaps the most fascinating insight: Cities need a sense
of moral purpose to survive and flourish. It's not enough, he
argues, for them to serve merely as a center of commerce. It's
that idea that helps me the most as I continue my critique of
the modern planning movements.
In a recent interview, Kotkin complained to me that New
Urbanists and others who want to recreate urban living as a
rebuke to suburbanization tend to miss this almost-spiritual
side to city planning. The hip, vital cities modern planners
are most enamored of, such as Portland, Ore., are geared
almost exclusively toward "young people and the nomadic rich
and trustafarians," those childless trust-fund elites who are
seeking high culture but eschew child-bearing and
In Europe, he said, all the major cities are mostly devoid
of children. Yet planners refuse to acknowledge that "the
evolution of suburbia is part of the continuum of urban
history." He calls the people who run cities the worst enemies
of them, as their hamfisted regulations, the destruction of
schools and the bloated bureaucracies are unfriendly toward
average middle-income families.
He derides the emphasis on hipness rather than on
traditional city planning that focuses on good infrastructure,
good schools, safe neighborhoods. Unfortunately, people come
out of the planning schools with the same ideas, he said. So
those who don't fit this narrow demographic move to the
suburbs, where they are criticized by the urban elites who
accuse them of selfishly promoting sprawl. In the book, Kotkin
makes the case by comparing the new planning ideas to the
lessons of the past. "Broader demographic trends also pose
severe long-term questions for these cities," he wrote. "The
decline in the urban middle-class family - a pattern seen in
both the late Roman Empire and eighteenth-century Venice -
deprives urban areas of a critical source for economic and
"The City" provides necessary historical context for modern
debates, and to that end serves a valuable