There is no doubt about the supremacy of the city as the choice for living--a majority of the world's people choose to live in cities. In this book, Kotkin explores the thousands of years of human history that build up to the supremacy of cities as the choice for living arrangements.
This book is a compact outline of urban history. Kotkin's thesis is that cities succeed when they can balance needs for sacredness, security, and commerce.
The study of cities is an important issue today, as the year 2007 is when it is expected that the majority of the world's population will live in cities.
Kotkin starts with the oldest known settlements of people on earth and then hopskotches about the globe as population growth, power, and importance flourish in one area, decline, and then start up in another place. Kotkin looks at the rise of cities, classical cities in Europe, the Oriental epoch, Western cities, the industrial city, and the modern metropolis.
He covers the early known examples of concentrated human settlement in Jericho, Mesopotamia, Egyptian Thebes and Memphis, India, China, and the Americas and goes on to Sargon's founding of what would become Babylon in approximately 2300 BC. He shows, through the examples of Phoenica, Carthage (p. 16), and Greek city-states how cities intent only on commerce and which did not develop an overall ideology or stable confederation were vulnerable to conquest by others (p. 23). (See how Anothony Orum shows the urban v. suburban lack of confederation drags down American industrial cities in City-Building in America.)
Kotkin identifies problems, including political corruption and conflicts among ethnic groups, contributing to Alexandria's decline in the 1st century BC (p. 26). Ancient Rome flourished with its strong emphasis on security, commerce, and concept of citizenship (p. 33), but Rome declined as it relied on slavery, lost its moral sense of purpose, and struggled to maintain security over a vast empire (p. 35).
The pattern of ascendancy and decline is a common theme throughout the book. Although city magnificence should not be a zero-sum game, Kotkin observes that history seems to have many cases in which cities flourish and then get caught up in a variety of self-destructive pursuits or a malaise that sends new development to better opportunities elsewhere.
Most of the book equates growing population and city size as a measure of importance, but Kotkin pulls a switch late in the book. The dawn of the 21st century is seeing cities--Mexico City, Cairo, Mumbai, Manila, among others--with such girth and sprawl that their size is a detriment, not an asset, and are losing out to "smaller, better-managed, and less socially beleaguered settlements" (p. 147).
Kotkin questions contemporary trends in New Urbanism as the surface reflection of style not supported by some system of moral beliefs (p. 159).
Kotkin concludes by stating that, "Cities can thrive only by occupying a sacred place that both orders and inspires the complex natures of gathered masses of people." (p. 160).