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  • The City: A World History by Andrew Lees
  • Antonio Carbone
The City: A World History. By andrew lees. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 160pp. £12.99 (paper); £47.99 (cloth).

“What defines a city?” is a question that has kept busy many generations of urban historians and sociologists. In his book, Andrew Lees conceives the City as a transcultural phenomenon, which existed throughout human history. In his narration, single cities in different regions and epochs illustrate various stages in urban history. Lees fulfills in this book the hard task of summing up in less than two hundred pages almost six millennia of the world’s urban history.

The rise of the City is connected with the introduction of agriculture and husbandry, which allowed human settlement and the production of agricultural surplus. Lees identifies Uruk and Babylon in Mesopotamia as the first major cities, which brought together political, religious, and commercial functions and exercised power over vast hinterlands. Athens, Alexandria, and Rome follow as urban champions of Antiquity. Deploying a conventional narrative, Lees declares the fifth century b.c.e. to have been Athens’s “golden age” (p. 15). The torch of “leader of urban life in the Western World” (p. 19) passed then to Alexandria, which was laid out in a grid pattern after Alexander the Great’s instructions. Unlike Alexandria, Rome grew “over a period of many centuries” and “did not reflect the unifying vision of a master planner” (p. 22). Lees characterizes the specific contributions of the Romans in urban history as being founders of many cities in Eurasia and supporters of the idea that “public space was an essential ingredient of a good city” (p. 24).

Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages see a decline—so says Lees—of urban civilization in western Europe. He thus seizes the chance to shift focus from Europe to Constantinople, Baghdad, Chang’an, Nanjing, and Tenochtitlán. Whereas Baghdad was beneficiary of its “strategic position along . . . trading routes” (p. 34), China’s main cities, for example, Chang’an and later Nanjing and Dadu (Beijing), were administrative centers.

Urban growth in Europe resumed from the eleventh century, especially in Italy and in the “Low Countries.” Echoing orientalist fantasies, which oppose Oriental despotism with Occidental individual freedom, Lees argues that “in contrast to Constantinople, Baghdad, Chang’an and Tenochtitlán, cities in medieval Europe were not founded by hereditary rulers as capitals of large states. They instead arose gradually, as a result of decisions by individuals who chose to live there” (p. 41). Early modern Europe is described as being the golden age of capital cities such as Paris and London and of planners who were “seeking to overcome the disorderliness that characterized medieval cities” (p. 46). The high [End Page 175] pace of urbanization in northwestern Europe, which stemmed from the shift in trading toward the Atlantic, was accompanied by the foundation of “numerous colonial cities, which fostered economic links that contributed to urban growth around the world” (p. 50).

After lingering on the case of Edo (Tokyo), which from the eighteenth century rose as military center of the shogunate system, Lees concentrates on urbanization in Europe, the United States, and Japan in the long nineteenth century. He identifies industrialization as one of the main motors for urban population growth. Rising numbers of urban inhabitants “led to intensified overcrowding, whereby more and more city dwellers lived in what came to be known . . . as slums” (p. 67). This caused a worsening of hygienic conditions and epidemics. Urban reformism emerged as a reaction to this crisis, at first as a philanthropic movement and later anchored in “public institutions that operated under the authority of either national or, to a greater extent, municipal governments” (p. 72).

Cities outside of Europe, the United States, or Japan in the long nineteenth century fall in the book under the category of colonial cities. The author differentiates between two main typologies of colonial cities. He draws the main distinction between regions where cities already existed and in which, “when Westerners arrived, the newcomers had to adapt to local customs, narrow, twisting streets and high residential densities” (p. 83) and areas where new cities were founded and...


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