A salutary and timely history of America’s love-hate relationship with the city by the Professor of Urban Design at the Harvard GSD. Fortunate students to have such an eloquent and erudite teacher and lucky readers to have his wisdom distilled in 350 readable pages. Too much writing on urban design is heavy on theory and light on the human factors that shape our habitat. Krieger chronicles the idealism that inspired the first settlers to strive for perfect communities, and the succession of utopian settlements, garden suburbs and model towns that followed. All were conceived as healthy alternatives to the polluted, overcrowded metropolis—of London, and later, New York and Chicago. The quest for middle ground between urban and rural degenerated into suburban sprawl that offered neither excitement nor green space.

Now that the city has won out as the place Americans and most of the world’s population choose (or feel driven) to live, the challenge is to make it more livable and affordable. Civic improvements—from the City Beautiful of a century ago to the gentrification of poor neighborhoods today—can compel creatives, minorities and low-income residents to move ever further out, impoverishing their lives and the cultural diversity of the urban core. That has already happened in the big coastal cities and it’s likely to happen in favored parts of St Louis and Detroit if present trends continue. Krieger illuminates the problem and offers no solutions, beyond reducing inequality, nurturing the environment and making the most of what we have.

Government had its chance from the 1940s through the 1960s and botched it, destroying communities in the name of urban renewal, building low-rent housing projects but failing to maintain them, and effectively subsidizing white flight with freeways and tax concessions.

Over the past five decades government has been discredited and starved of funds. The market rules and it’s unrealistic to think that private developers will finance millions of affordable housing units and create mixed-income neighborhoods when the affluent and influential are clamoring for de facto segregation. Krieger explains how idealism morphed into a denial of realities and brought us to this impasse.

City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present. Alex Krieger (Harvard University Press, $35)

Michael Webb

Author: Michael Webb

Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.