Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press


by John Reader

Declared “the most enjoyable book ever written about the matter of the city” (The Times, London), this is a magisterial exploration of these defining artifacts of civilization.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 384
  • Publication Date November 14, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4273-3
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

In this “captivating treatise” (Publishers Weekly), the acclaimed historian John Reader takes us on a journey of the city–from its earliest example in the Ancient Near East to today’s teeming centers of compressed existence, such as Mumbai and Tokyo.

Cities are home to half the planet’s population and consume nearly three-quarters of its natural resources. For Reader, they are our most natural artifacts, the civic spirit of our collective ingenu­ity. He gives us the ecological and functional context of how cities evolved throughout human history–the connection between pottery making and childbirth in ancient Anatolia, plumbing and politics in ancient Rome, and revolution and street planning in nineteenth-century Paris.

This illuminating study helps us to understand how urban centers thrive, decline, and rise again–and prepares us for the role cities will play in the future.


“A swift examination of the pleasures and problems of city life. . . . Lively . . . thought-provoking.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Often captivating . . . This thorough and readable look at urban growth will interest historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and urban dwellers.” –Publishers Weekly

“Vastly entertaining . . . Reading it is like wandering with an erudite companion through a great city in which the past rubs shoulders with the present and surprises lurk around every corner.” –Chris Redman, Time

“The reader discovers the basic commonality of the human urban experience across time and cultures and the largely beneficial nature of cities. . . . Reader recognizes the dynamic interplay between commercial and public interests. . . . This work has a place in all collections.” –Library Journal

“A lively and vigorous revelation of how cities evolved, what made them thrive or decline, and how they transformed themselves to cultural centers over the centuries ” [Cities] makes for an exceptional coverage which lends particularly well to leisure reading.” –The Midwest Book Review

“Well organized and evoluntionary in approach”The orientation is humanistic and personal, allowing readers to identify with events and places.” –L. Yacher, Choice Reviews

“The most enjoyable book ever written about cities. A sweeping panorama.” –Jan Morris, The Times (London)

“Reader dispels myths, discovers surprises, and offers a tour of the urban world in an intriguingly wide-ranging look at what happens when humans live near each other. One reason this book works so well is that Reader is well-read enough to break outside the limits of individual disciplines and build something that’s as much psychology and economics as geography and history.” –Focus (London)


1 – First Impressions

Cities are the defining artifacts of civilisation. All the achievements and failings of humanity are here. Civic buildings, monuments, archives and institutions are the touchstones by which our cultural heritage is passed from one generation to the next. We shape the city, then it shapes us. Today, almost half the global population lives in cities. By 2030, the proportion is likely to be two-thirds.

I was born in London. My earliest urban memories are of cuddly barrage balloons anchored to a skyline of roofs and chimney-pots, and of air-raids that sent us scuttling from the house in the middle of the night, down into the shelter at the bottom of the garden. Next morning, our street was littered with lumps of shrapnel which might still be hot if you went out to collect them early enough. I grew up in a city under reconstruction, much of it wrapped in a fascinating lattice of ladders and scaffolding and adorned with buckets dangling on pulley hoists.

Buddleia flourished on the best bombsites – their flowers attracting lots of butterflies – red admirals, lesser and greater tortoiseshells, peacocks and, more rarely, painted ladies. We caught them in nets made from old muslin curtains, and a popular How To ” book told us how to anaesthetise them in jam-jars half-filled with crushed laurel leaves, and how to prepare them for our collections with a pin through the thorax and the wings held outspread with thin strips of paper.

We took fruit from the trees of abandoned gardens (and some not so abandoned gardens – scrumping, we called it), built fires with matches illicitly obtained, experimented with Woodbines, baked potatoes we had pinched from the kitchen and ate them half-cooked. Sometimes, but rarely, we dared to venture at least a few stairs down into the frightening dark cellars of bombed-out houses. For an eight-year-old, post-war London was an adventure playground with minimal adult supervision.

Grown-ups used to joke that London would be a wonderful place when it was finished, but I could never understand what was so funny about that; it seemed perfectly possible that a time would come when all the building work would be over and done with and that would be that: London, finished. And though I don’t recall giving the matter any thought, I imagine now that my vision of the finished city would have been more or less the same as the London I knew, only just a bit tidier.

There were electric-powered trolley buses and trams as well as diesel-engined buses and you could often sneak on and off them without paying, but bicycles offered an altogether free – and freer – means of getting around the city. We were adventurous, but quickly learned to avoid getting a wheel stuck in the tramlines at tricky junctions, and after just one fall you never forgot to ride cautiously along the woodblock surface of Borough High Street on rainy days, when it was as slippery as a sheet of glass.

London’s main rail terminals were the grand grimy cathedrals of the steam age in which we congregated to collect engine numbers. At Waterloo station, Victoria, Charing Cross, Paddington, Saint Pancras, Euston and Liverpool Street we scampered from platform to platform as the trains pulled up to the buffers – engines hissing steam and smoke. The locals and the expresses disgorged their passengers from third class and first class, while we peered into the Pullman carriages with their little table lamps alight at the windows.

We all either owned or yearned for a Hornby-oo electric train set, and given the opportunity would spend hours sprawled on the living room carpet, devising complex routes around the furniture. I cannot recall that any of us ever seriously wanted to be an engine-driver, but boys generally were supposed to cherish such ambitions and certainly our respect for the men who clambered up onto the footplates of the huge Golden Arrow and Castle class locomotives was unbounded. With fire and steam at their command, in grimy overalls and greasy caps they drove those magnificent creations of bright painted steel and shining brass across the length and breadth of Britain: the Flying Scotsman, the Atlantic Coast Express. The driving wheels – taller than a man – always juddered and skidded on the rails as the pistons began to push, and the locomotives really did seem to pant with the effort – just like Thomas the Tank Engine. Awesome is the word recollections of those engines bring to mind now, but at the time – well, they were impressive, yes, but no more than a part of everyday city life. For us, their main significance was as bearers of the numbers we ticked off in our books.

Smoke was another awesome fact of life that seemed commonplace then. My recollection is that everyone smoked – at home and at work, in trains, buses, caf’s and cinemas. The entire country – not just the railways – ran on coal (though it was delivered to our houses by horse and cart). Smoke wafted from the chimneys of more than a million households. Every day, thousands of tons of coal were burned in London’s fireplaces, boilers, and furnaces. Clouds of steam, smoke and soot spewed continuously from locomotives, gas works, power stations and industrial smokestacks – with either Young’s brewery on Wandsworth High Street or the malodorous Battersea candle factory adding their own distinctive whiff to the air in our locality – depending on the direction of the wind.

Throughout the city, buildings were coated with a patina of soot which in some instances gave the impression that burnished black basalt, not white Portland stone, had been used in their construction. During most winters there would be occasions when a layer of cold air hung for days over London, trapping the smoke rising from the chimneys below. Soon a sulphurous mixture of smoke, soot and moisture would envelope the city – tinged green, and thick enough to become known as a peasouper. When you opened the front door, skeins of fog would drift into the hallway – and threaten to fill the house if you left the door open. On days when visibility was down to a yard or less, getting lost on the way home from school became almost a matter of pride: “couldn’t see my hand in front of my face,” you’d say.

The pea-soupers killed hundreds of people every winter – anyone with asthma, or another respiratory problem, was at risk from inhaling the toxic mixture of fog, smoke and soot-laden air. The word smog entered the vocabulary as a definition of this very serious threat to public health in Britain’s cities (London was not the only city affected. The problem was as bad in all industrial cities). Widespread public demands for action over the number of deaths forced the government to act and a succession of Clean Air Acts were introduced during the 1950s and ’60s.

I left London before even the first Act of 1956 could begin to take effect, and went to live in Cape Town, on the southern tip of Africa, where a prevailing weather system of wet north-westerlies from the Atlantic and powerful dry south-easterlies from the Indian Ocean alternately washed and swept the city clean. Later I was based in Nairobi for a number of years. Meanwhile, the London I had known was being transformed.

Oil, gas and electricity steadily replaced coal as the city’s fuel for factories, power stations and domestic use. The widespread introduction of central heating rendered household fireplaces and chimneys obsolete. Slum clearance opened up the urban landscape, and by the time I moved back to London in 1978 the city had become a markedly cleaner place – even to the extent of inspiring property-owners to have the patina of black soot scrubbed from the facades of their buildings. Smog and pea-soupers were bad memories that old people tut-tutted about over tea. And London seemed reborn – especially in the spring, when the plane trees had just come into leaf and the sun was shining.

Living and working in Africa for all those years, with only occasional visits to London, was absorbing and valuable in itself but also delivered an unanticipated bonus – in that it delayed the occasion of my first visits to some of Europe’s major cities until fairly late in life. And I believe that whatever I may have missed by not touring Europe at an earlier age has been made up for by the older eye through which I viewed Vienna on a first visit in 2001, for instance, or by an extended stay in Paris during 2000; and by going to Venice for the first time in 1997.

“The thing about Venice, is that it never fails to exceed expectations,” a friend remarked when I told him of plans for that first visit. “Whether you’re going for the first time or the tenth, however much you already know and have planned for in advance, you always come away feeling that Venice has given you something extra.”

In an age that regularly oversells its offerings, arousing the jaundiced expectation that the reality will be less than the hype, this seemed highly improbable. On the other hand, Francis did not have a reputation for needless exaggeration and, true to form, he was absolutely right. Venice did exceed my expectations. The city did give me something extra. But not just the mental image and recollection of novel experiences, nor even the roll of pleasing photographs. More than that, I came away from Venice with nagging questions about its status as a city, and about the phenomenon, function and ecology of cities in general. Why do they exist? How do they work? Why do some seem so much more alive than others?

Venice is crowded, smelly, decidedly dirty in places, and much of it appears to be in a state of imminent collapse: crumbling and sinking into the murky waters of the lagoon. It has magnificent churches and palaces, the four wonderful gilded bronze horses of San Marco, numerous splendid galleries and Harry’s Bar. Venetian history is richly documented in literature, painting and music; the city prompts echoes in the mind of Gabrieli, Monteverdi and Vivaldi; it gives three-dimensional form to the familiar paintings of Canaletto and Turner, and awakens recollections of Shakespeare, Bryon, Henry James and Thomas Mann.

John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain wrote fond accounts of Venice. Goethe and Proust spent time in the city; Ezra Pound is there still, in the San Michele Cemetery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. This improbable assortment of palazzos and piazzas, both linked and divided by meandering canals, was the setting for Visconti’s lavish Death in Venice and Nicholas Roeg’s haunting Don’t Look Now. Even Woody Allen made a film here, in which he sits musing with Julia Roberts on steps beside the Grand Canal. There are comfortable hotels, good restaurants, an efficient water transportation system and it is a joy simply to wander about the city on foot – exploring, guidebook and map in hand.

As John Julius Norwich, an authority on the city, has remarked: ‘venice, for its size, made a greater contribution to Western civilisation than any other city in Europe or anywhere else.”1

There is no other city for which even the most casual visitor is so well prepared. Its influence touches every individual – whether it is absorbed by scholarly immersion in history, by enjoying music and the arts, or by simply frequenting the cinema, reading the papers, eating a Veneziana pizza, or drinking coffee in a Rialto or Lido caf”, everyone has some sense of what Venice is – not so much a knowing, as an unconscious feeling for the city. Venice gets under the skin in a way that no other city does. Which means that although the prospect of going to Venice seems no different from going anywhere else – in that the same kind of arrangements have to be made and the same trials of travel endured – the actual experience of being there evokes a unique sense of recognition, of belonging, even when in the company of several thousand other visitors. And the experience is accumulative. Venice is so stuffed with points of unanticipated recognition that its appeal never fades, just intensifies with each visit.

But is this what the city, a city, this city is for? Is it simply a reassuring touchstone at which to confirm our place in the centuries-long procession of Western civilisation? Where generations of Venetians once stood, we stand now, exposed to the history and the wonder of the place, and sensing the continuity of human endeavour which has kept the city going for hundreds of years. We are the latest cohort, but it is not just time that separates us from the generations that built and sustained Venice. We use the city differently too.

From its origin and for centuries, Venice existed primarily to serve the interests of its residents. But today Venice exists primarily to serve the interests of its visitors. In truth, Venice is a large, very fine museum which attracts over 12 million visitors per year – up to two-thirds of whom are day-trippers. The maximum tourist capacity of the historic centre has been calculated at 21,000 visitors per day, but numbers of up to 60,000 are not unusual and on some occasions over 100,000 people have flooded into the city – totally overwhelming the amenities and obliging the authorities to close the road bridge between Venice and the mainland.2 And in February 2004 the city authorities decided that although Venice has always been free of cars it will no longer be a pedestrians’ paradise, where people are free to walk wherever and however they like. The city’s narrow streets and alleys become so congested during the tourist season that a system of one-way walking is to be introduced. Furthermore, anyone attempting to walk against the flow is liable to be fined – anything from #eu25 to #eu500, depending on the severity of the offence.3

Meanwhile, the permanent population of Venice appears to be in terminal decline after holding up well for centuries. There were about 200,000 people living in Venice when the city was at the height of its power in the sixteenth century, and probably not much less than that in the nineteenth century, when it first began to attract a significant number of visitors from foreign parts. The population was still as high as 170,000 in 1960, but since then the outflow of permanent residents has been as dramatic as the inflow of tourists. The resident population of Venice fell by nearly two-thirds during the forty years to 2000,4 when it stood at around 60,000 and the city’s simmering love–hate relationship with tourism had split the community into two conflicting and irreconcilable groups: one living from tourism, the other in spite of it.

So here’s a paradox: because Venice awakens an empathetic sense of belonging in those who make a brief visit to the city, not many people want to live there permanently. The city has effectively abandoned the first duty of a viable and self-sustaining city, namely to generate the kind of environment and social ambience that will attract and retain residents.

Venice is one city among many – a very particular city, but nonetheless at root an expression in time and space of a phenomenon that is as old as civilisation. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the city is the defining artifact of civilisation. All the achievements and failings of humanity are encapsulated in its physical and social structures – in the buildings that give it substance, and in the cultures that give it life. From its inception, the city’s concentration of physical and cultural power has broadened the scope of human activity and hastened the pace of everyday life. City buildings, monuments, archives and institutions are the accumulated cultural heritage of society and the touchstones by which that heritage is passed from one generation to the next.

Of course, the widespread distribution and growth of the world’s great cities could not have occurred without a parallel growth and dispersal of the human population. Even so, the proportion of the global population living in urban communities remained low for a surprisingly long time. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, by which time cities in some shape or form had been around for over six thousand years, only about 10 per cent of the global population lived in cities. The other 90 per cent still lived and worked in small, largely self-sufficient communities – most of them of a predominantly agricultural nature. But the pace of urbanisation has accelerated dramatically rapidly since then. By 1900 city-dwellers comprised one-quarter of the global population, and now – at the beginning of the third millennium – almost half the world’s population lives in urban communities. And the proportion is expected to increase still further, so that by the year 2030 two of every three people on Earth will be living in a city.

Fundamentally, the advent of the city as a centre of human activity freed ever-increasing numbers of people from the burden of finding food and shelter for themselves, directly from the land. Human ingenuity, tied for thousands of generations to the task of feeding and managing small groups of people, was now free to pursue its seemingly infinite potential. Cities provided food, security and a cultural environment in which select individuals like Michelangelo Buonarroti could paint and sculpt, Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking could ponder the mysteries of the universe, and Adolf Hitler could hatch schemes to conquer the world. But for every genius or despot whose ambitions the city fostered there have been thousands to whom the city gave no favours at all.

Until comparatively recently, every large city was a potential death-trap (some still are), with death rates exceeding birth rates by a considerable margin. Indeed, it was only during the nineteenth century, as medical science and civic planners managed first to contain and later to conquer urban disease, that large cities could sustain numbers and actually begin to generate an increase in population from among their own inhabitants. Until then a city’s survival was entirely dependent upon its ability to attract new residents.

Some people moved to the cities because they were surplus to requirements at home – and thus a drain on resources; others because they wanted to take advantage of the opportunities that cities appeared to offer, and doubtless some responded to both the push and the pull effect. In the cities of the ancient world, however, many newcomers had no say in the matter, having been brought in – or should we say bought in – as slaves. Without a steady stream of people coming to live within its boundaries, a city would shrink to insignificance. And only a very substantial influx of new residents would enable it to grow. Thus the city can be seen as a dynamic entity – not exactly a living organism, as the ancient Greeks believed, with recognisable cycles of birth, growth and death,5 but certainly something that was nurtured by generations of people whose own life cycles kept the city functioning.

There is a tendency in the developed world for people to look upon cities as inherently bad, or at best necessary evils. They seem to exist in stark contrast to the countryside, one bad the other good. At its simplest, the dichotomy can be defined in terms of what is regarded as “natural” and what is not. The countryside, fecund and brimming with a potential for growth, seems natural while the city, with its demands for maintenance constantly reminding us of decay, is labelled unnatural.

Bearing in mind that the term “natural” itself is not wholly applicable to the modern countryside – most of which has been altered by human activity – and that decay is a natural process too, to what extent is a city “unnatural”? After all, every bit of a city was originally a part of the earth, no less formed by a geophysical or biological process than the Grand Canyon or a ball of elephant dung.

Admittedly, the city is different in that it was assembled by the conscious direction and effort of people – but why should that make it unnatural? No one suggests that a termite mound is unnatural because it is a built structure. Of course, termites build their mounds by means of unconscious behaviour, each working instinctively for the good of the whole, but who is to say that the complex cooperative behaviour required of people as they construct, inhabit and maintain cities is not equally instinctive, equally directed to the good of the whole – which in this case means “advancing civilisation”?

Clearly, the integral role of the city in human affairs runs deep – well beyond the streets and buildings and into the realms of conscious and sub-conscious awareness that make us who we are. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: “We shape our cities, then they shape us.”6