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Book Review


Andrew Lees, The City: A World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. x + 145. Bibliography and index. $19.95 (paper).


     It is obvious to state that the city is one of the most important phenomena in the history of humanity. This is where people come together to find protection and engage in commerce. In cities we find places of entertainment, education, and worship. In politics, economics, and culture, cities are where it happens. For world historians, cities are the preeminent nodes, the connecting points, of the larger global web. One of the field's foundational texts, Janet Abu-Lughod's Before European Hegemony, uses cities from Bruges to Cairo to Malacca to explore the world system of the 14th century.1 Andrew Lees' The City: A World History attempts to cover over 5,000 years of urban history. While the book offers a strong narrative for the development of the city in the West, this slim volume fails to achieve a true world history. Sadly, this book is a classic example of Eurocentrism.

     The City is composed of eight chronological chapters, all about fifteen pages. There is no introduction or conclusion. Admittedly, any 123 pages of text that claims to tell the world history of cities is likely to frustrate many readers. The book lacks an overall argument and favors narrative over analysis.

     Chapter One covers the three millennia from the first cities to roughly 500 BCE. The emphasis is on Mesopotamia and Egypt with only a quick paragraph for the Indus Valley's Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. A subordinate clause mentions Ayodhya and Benares as wealthy but fails to discuss their profound cultural significance (so much for the Ramayana). Only one Chinese urban center, Yin, is actually named. Lees argues that the initial moment of urban growth was dependent upon the agricultural revolution producing a sufficient surplus to feed the non-farming city dwellers.

     In Chapter Two, entitled "Great Cities, 500 BCE300CE," there are eleven pages devoted to Athens, Rome, and Alexandria but only two and a half pages for the rest of the world. This chapter notes that in these centuries cities reached new levels of population and complexity. The discussion of the Classical World contains the traditional teleological celebration of the "Cradle of Democracy" and the glories of the Roman capital. When the author turns to Mauryan Pataliputra, he relies on a Greek source. Initially skeptical of claims about the city's size, Lees admits that it may have been larger than the city of Rome. Chinese cities get a paragraph in which Chang'an and Luoyang are mentioned. The chapter concludes by acknowledging the Mayan urban tradition.

     By the third chapter the Eurocentric approach is  driving the structure of the book. This chapter, entitled "Decline and Development, 3001500," starts with the collapse of cities with the end of the Roman Empire and finishes with the re-urbanization of Renaissance Europe. While the glories of Constantinople, Baghdad, Chang'an, and Tenochtitlan are discussed, the argument centers on Western Europe. There is a short and superficial paragraph on Ife and Benin. The City briefly mentions but does not name the Khmer Empire's capital, Angkor Thom, and ignores the flourishing port cities of the Swahili Coast and the West African cities of the Mali Empire. If fans of Mansa Musa, Ibn Battuta, and Jayavarman VII will be disappointed, those interested in Florentines will be pleased. Lees inaccurately holds that the pattern of Western urban collapse and rebirth was a global phenomenon in this era.

     Starting with Paris and London's demographic growth and ending with the French Revolution and political groups in the late English Enlightenment, Chapter Four, "Capitals, Culture, Colonization, and Revolution 15001800," literally begins and ends with Europe. Lees argues that early modern state formation made European capital cities significant. Meanwhile, early colonialism gave a boost to the economic development of the port centers of the new Atlantic World. If India and China are only mentioned, the great Southeast Asia port city of Malacca gets some attention, and there are several pages on urbanization in Tokugawa Japan. Latin America is discussed in the context of Iberian colonial development. Lees makes an excellent point about the new American cities being tied to maritime commerce and culture.

     The next two chapters, "Urban Growth and Its Consequences in an Age of Industrialization, 18001914" and "Colonial Cities, 18001914," discuss cities in the West and Japan as distinct from urban centers of the global south. Such a division runs against the approach of world historians who see industrialization and colonialism as interdependent, if not symbiotic. In Chapter Five Paris and London receive the most coverage. Lees also makes keen observations about the impact of rapid economic growth and socio-cultural transformations in German, Russian, and American cities. The following chapter discusses a range of cities in the age of the New Imperialism. While Lees notes different categories of colonial cities such as occupied ancient sites like Hanoi, settler colonies like Melbourne, and imperial creation like Singapore, he gives all agency to the European colonizers. According to this narrative, the subject populations had little or no impact on the history of their cities. Critical empire studies and post-colonialism certainly would challenge the assumption of subaltern silence if not impotence.

     Chapter Seven, "Destruction and Reconstruction, 19141960," makes a persuasive case for the world historical significance of urban destruction in the First and Second World Wars. From the London blitz to the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo to the horrors of the first atomic weapons, 20th century aerial bombardment of cities represented an unprecedented level of destruction. Lees successfully argues that the concerted effort to rapidly rebuild was also of remarkable historical significance.

     This slim volume concludes with "Urban Decline and Urban Growth since 1950." Starting with Detroit, this chapter emphasizes the rise of the post-industrial rust-belt city. While Lees makes an excellent case for the importance of the collapse of once great manufacturing cities, the discussion of the rapid growth of many other cities is superficial. Indeed, this section repeats old clichés about Brazil's favelas (scary and big) and Beijing's air pollution (really bad). Here more could have been said about mega-cities such as Jakarta and Mexico City and high tech marvels such as Singapore and Seoul.

     Lees divides his bibliography into "General Works," "The Ancient Near East and the Ancient Mediterranean," "Asia and Africa," "Europe," "The Americas," and "Urban Cultural Life and Representation." The fact that Asia and Africa are put into one category, that there are twice as many works in the Europe section than there are in all others combined, and that there are no Asian or African titles in the thematic sections, along with Lee's decision not to engage the large and diverse body of literature on the cities of Asia, Africa, and Latin America underscores this slim volume's Eurocentrism.

     The City: A World History is not world history. It reads like attempts to turn a Western Civilization textbook into a world history textbook by merely adding a few pages here and there. Europe lies at the center of this study, receives the most coverage, and is taken as the norm to which every other culture must be compared. The book does not situate its various Western case-studies into a larger global analysis. This reviewer was surprised that the New Oxford World History series published this work. By comparison, Aran MacKinnon and Elaine McClarnand MacKinnon edited two volume series Places of Encounter: Time, Place, and Connectivity in World History is a much successful and useful world history of the city.2

Michael G. Vann is a professor of history at Sacramento State University where he teaches world history courses including introductory surveys, upper division lecture series for future teachers, and MA seminars. His research focuses on colonial urbanism in Southeast Asia and post-colonial cities in France. Vann's film "Cambodia's Other Lost City: French Colonial Phnom Penh" may be viewed at



1Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System, 1250–1350 A.D. (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

2Aran MacKinnon, and Elaine McClarnand MacKinnon, eds., Places of Encounter: Time, Place, and Connectivity in World History (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012).



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