Alex Krieger


On his book City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

Cover Interview of January 28, 2020

In a nutshell

The book’s primary intent is to portray the American inclination to experiment with forms of settlement, evident in both utopian and pragmatic efforts at reconceiving how and in what shape our towns, cities, and urban regions should grow. While not abandoning long-standing precedents of urban organization, Americans have commonly sought to improve upon the cities at their feet, or those from which they emigrated.

Aspirational approaches at community and city-building have served as the parallel to the political efforts to establish a republic dedicated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That post-revolutionary America expanded the frontiers of social and political institutions is widely acknowledged. That the reevaluation of old-world institutions and values would extend to how better to gather spatially in communities is less commonly understood. Each of the chapters explores an effort, cultural trend, or belief about what makes a good neighborhood, a better town, a more humane city, and about some longer consequences of proceeding to build such places. Setting out in search of utopia does not guarantee one’s arrival there.

The book ranges broadly across American history though without following a strict chronological timeline. It begins with Thomas Jefferson’s 18th-century determination to establish an egalitarian agrarian republic, and concludes with a fascination (encouraged by Google, Facebook, and other digital-world innovators) about the coming of an “e-topia.” Urban life becoming better, more palatable, even enjoyable, in “smart cities.” Cities becoming smart and smarter by the integration of informational technologies, data analytics, the “internet of things” and artificial intelligence. It is the current exemplar of a lengthy tradition of aspirational (and some would call naïve) ideas about perfecting places to live and to flourish in company with others.

Readers are welcome to proceed from the introductory chapter forward, though this is not necessary. It may be equally or even more enjoyable to enter the narrative via a particular chapter whose title, theme, or era of focus sparks that reader’s curiosity.