The Mystery of Cities

The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History

by Spiro Kostof
Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 352 pp., $29.95 (paper)

The City Assembled: The Elements of Urban Form Through History

by Spiro Kostof
Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 320 pp., $50.00

Cities Without Suburbs

by David Rusk
Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 147 pp., $13.95 (paper)

There is so much bad news about American cities that it’s surprising to discover that they are not shrinking but growing. According to the last US census, the twenty-three largest cities, which have populations over one half million, grew by 6 percent in the period between 1980 and 1990; the forty medium-sized cities with populations between one quarter and one half million increased by 20 percent in the same period; as for the 131 cities with between 100,000 and 250,000 people, they have grown by more than 15 percent, and today, for the first time in the twentieth century, they are home to more people than the great metropolises.

If this urban expansion has not had much attention, it is probably because the form of these cities is both brash and ambivalent. “Impressive in scale but limited in vision, creating new opportunities but also providing massive new problems,” wrote Asa Briggs. He was describing Victorian cities in Britain, but he may as well have been writing about the American city of today: spread out, socially fragmented, recklessly entrepreneurial, relying almost completely on the automobile, often lacking a clearly defined center, and without the trappings of urbanity that have characterized cities in the past. In the eyes of many, a distinctly un-urban place.

But what is a city? Lewis Mumford asked the question more than thirty years ago in the opening of his great work, The City in History. Although Mumford never provided a single, simple definition of a city, he did point out that neither size, nor population density, nor physical extent, nor function provided reliable yardsticks. The cities of ancient Greece, for example, with only a few thousand inhabitants, were the size of today’s small towns; indeed, Aristotle maintained that the ideal city should contain about 5,000 people, and that a settlement with 100,000 inhabitants could no longer be considered a city. In medieval Germany, towns of 3,000 inhabitants were granted the status of cities, and in medieval France, there were numerous examples of walled cities with as few as 200 or 300 households, that is, probably no more than 2,000 or 3,000 people. In the American Old West, the grandly named Dodge City, which was laid out in 1872, was described by a contemporary visitor as consisting of about a dozen frame houses and two dozen tents, beside a few sod houses. Even in its heyday, when Dodge City had the reputation of being the Western frontier’s wildest town, rivaled only by Deadwood and Tombstone, the permanent population was probably well under one thousand people, by today’s standards a small town.

Most people take it for granted that there is an important difference between a city and a town, a difference of kind as well as degree. It comes as a surprise, then, to discover that in most of the European, languages, the same word can be used to refer to a “city” and a “town …

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