loren Eric Swanson: The City: A Global History

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The City: A Global History

Finished up a book last night called The City: A Global History by Joel Kotkin (2005). Kotkin argues that all thriving cities, despite their infinite variety, serve the same basic functions and have the same basic characterisitcs. So when Cortez, saw Mexico City for the first time, he was amazed at how similar it was to the great cities of Europe. Kotkin provides a nice outline of the major cities of the world and what made them stand out. Here are a few salient quotes from the book.

“Cain has built a city, for God’s Eden he substitutes his own” Jacques Ellul

“Two central themes have informed this history of cities. First is the universality of the urban experience, despite vast differences I race, climate, and location. This was true even before instant communication, global networks, and ease of transportation made the commonality among cites ever more obvious. As the French historian Fernand Brauden once noted, ‘A town is always a town, wherever it is located, in time as well as space.’”[1]

“This leads to a keen generalization about what characterizes successful cities. Since the earliest origins, urban areas have performed three separate critical functions—the creation of sacred space, the provision of basic security, and the host for a commercial market. Cities have possessed these characteristics to greater or lesser degrees. Generally speaking, a glaring weakness in these three aspects of urbanity has undermined life and led to their eventual decline.”[2]

“Cities compress and unleash the creative urges of humanity. From the earliest beginnings, when only a tiny fraction of humans lived in cities, they have been the places that generated most of mankind’s art, religion, culture, commerce, and technology. This evolution occurred most portentously in a handful of cities whose influence then spread to other centers through conquest, commerce, religion, and, more recently, mass telecommunications.”[3]

“What makes cities great, and what leads to their gradual demise? As this book will argue, three critical factors have determined the overall health of cities—the sacredness of place, the ability to provide security and project power, and last, the animating role of commerce. Where these factors are present, urban culture flourishes. When these elements weaken, cities dissipate and eventually recede out of history.”[4]

“The country places and the trees don’t teach me anything, and the people in the city do.” Socrates[5]

“Cities can thrive only by occupying a sacred place that both orders and inspires the complex natures of gathered masses of people. For five thousand years or more, the human attachment to cities has served as the primary forum for political and material progress. It is in the city, this ancient confluence of the sacred, safe, and busy, where humanity’s future will be shaped for centuries to come.”[6]
[1] Kotkin, Joel, The City: a Global History, Modern Library, New York. (2005) preface
[2] Kotkin, p. xvi
[3] Kotkin, p. xx
[4] Kotkin, p.xxi
[5] Kotkin, p. 21
[6] Kotkin. P. 160


At Wednesday, March 08, 2006 1:15:00 PM, Blogger Steve Van Diest said...

Very cool. Thanks for the post on cities. I'm excited to be moving to a city and see what is in store for the future of Mexico City ,Mexico, Latin America and the world.


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