Cities : The Most Important and Least Written About Artifact of Mankind

If you explore my website, and watch it over time, you will soon find that I love a lot of things, from trains to pinball machines, business history to musical instruments. But I don’t know if there is anything l love more than cities. Or perhaps more technically, “human settlements,” because I also love small towns and villages. 

Most of the original cities of ancient civilizations would be called small cities or big towns today. Egyptian Thebes and Memphis contained perhaps 50-100,000 people each.  Babylon around 400 B.C. was a giant at 200,000 – about the same size as such American metropolitan areas (in 2007) as Burlington, Vermont; Charlottesville, Virginia; Lafayette, Indiana; Longview, Texas; Medford, Oregon; or (the biggest of these) Chico, California.
Cities are perhaps the greatest and most amazing creations of mankind, and they are of course uniquely and intensely human. They are the nuclei of our social and economic worlds. Our ports of entry into art, science, culture, and commerce. 
Cities live, breathe, grow, compete, win, lose, die. 
No two of them are alike. The personalities of cities and their component neighborhoods are as diverse as those of their residents. Their shapes, forms, habits, and eccentricities are endlessly fascinating. Their parks, buildings, fountains, monuments, and residential areas are full of delights and surprises. The physical settings of Vancouver, Rio, Sydney and – I hear – Cape Town are staggeringly beautiful. The grace of the great low cities like Paris, Washington, and Oaxaca stays in your mind’s eye forever.
The greatest of them would take many lifetimes to fully explore, and even the smallest have character and can engage one for hours or days.
What are your favorite cities?
No human creation is more important in our daily lives.
And yet there is very, very little written about cities that is accessible to the general public and helpful to understanding them. Oh, there are plenty of books about individual cities – book after book about London and Paris and New York and Chicago – but few books outside of textbooks and academic books which talk about cities as a phenomenon, that compare the great cities. In fact, in my research, I have only found one book which really knits it all together.
Cities of the World: World Regional Urban Development, by Stanley D. Brunn, Maureen Hays-Mitchell, and Donald J. Zeigler (Fourth edition, Rowman and Littlefield, 2008) is that book. While in the future I will review and recommend other books about cities, in general and specifics, this is the book to start with.
Most texts on cities (or “urbanization”) break their chapters into topics like shape, development, politics, and transportation. Many are intensely academic, buried in jargon. But for me cities are best understood by looking at each one and considering its character and characteristics. Cities of the World meets this need, discussing and comparing many of the great cities of the world, region by region. These in-depth studies are prefaced by 50 pages of general introductory background about the nature of cities.
The section on each part of the world is written by experts on that region. For example, the chapter “Cities of Europe” by Linda McCarthy and Boian Koulov opens with 35 pages about the history, development, and nature of European cities – how did they come into being, how are they shaped, what is the role of town squares, how do northern European cities differ from Mediterranean cities? Then, in 12 packed pages, they describe in more detail the “representative cities” of London, Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, Oslo, Berlin, and Bucharest. In this way, you achieve a clear understanding of each type of European city. (I would gripe about the lack of a profiled city from Italy, which I think has a disproportionate share of the world’s great cities – but you will find plenty of mention of Rome and Florence scattered about the text.)
Unlike so many books, this one is not Eurocentric or focused only on “Western Civilization.” The cities of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are in many ways the cities of the future, and you will learn plenty about Havana, Lima, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Istanbul, Cairo, Damascus (probably the oldest of the great cities), Marrakesh, Dakar, Johannesburg, Hyderabad, Jakarta, Shanghai, and many others. Even Perth, Cleveland, and Detroit.
Cities of the World is both an easy read and a great reference book, well-written and chock full of illustrations, data tables, and references for further reading. It has both a subject index and a geographical index, so looking up places is a snap. If you love cities like I do, or just want to get the most basic understanding of these important parts of our lives, run to your computer and order this book!  
[An aside: In the future, I hope to add to HooversWorld a list of “the most important books that have not yet been written.” One of the titles on my ever-growing list is The Encyclopedia of American Urban Neighborhoods. How many Hyde Parks and Uptowns are there?   I have been in several of each, even lived in a Hyde Park (as did President Obama). How many Lafayette Squares? Is there only one Flatbush and only one Los Feliz? How many people live in each one, how did they get their name, how old are they, how do they differ, how has each one changed over the years, what are their architecture and politics like?]


  1. Have you had a look at Lewis Mumford’s,”The City in History”- San Diego, Harcourt Inc, 1961 ?

  2. Yes, I think every city lover probably has that book in their library. Mumford was an interesting man. I believe that time has proven some of his views wrong, or at least out of sync. He did not like Rockefeller Center, which is probably my favorite American building. This is a based on a review he wrote in December, 1933, when the building was half finished. I love the ornamentation, murals, and statuary, as well as the way the project led the way in mixed use development and still stands strong and proud as a symbol of New York and its commerce.

  3. […] gain understanding of the world’s cities and how they compare – a great textbook called Cities of the World: World Regional Urban Development, by Stanley D. Brunn and others. I also talked about how important I think cities are – […]