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

The wide angle

The book is an interpretative look at the characteristic patterns of settlement and attitudes towards cities and urban life that are identified with American urbanization. It seeks to foster an understanding of the cultural processes, entrepreneurial motivations, plans, and particularly the cultural idealism that has influenced the way Americans have chosen to spread out over the North American landscape.

A vast literature exists about American urbanization, often developed from a socio-economic perspective. Fewer studies focus on the instinct to keep reconsidering forms of human settlement. Much has been written to chronicle a perceived anti-urban attitude among Americans, identified by a persisting preference (until recently) among Americans for places away from rather than amidst the buzz of the city, especially the large city or the metropolis. The title of a recent book, Americans Against the City, encapsulates this view well.

But what if Americans have instead been intrigued by cities of their imagination, rather than those at their feet? What if their ambivalence about those monstrously expanding industrial-era cities led to reformist ambitions to rethink the traditional city for a new world? What if the arrival of the modern age, associated with the discovery of the Americas, necessitated planning towns and cities for a rapidly changing world and to modernize the old? Such questions were the book’s points of departure.

Historians have chronicled the prevalence of 18th and 19th century religious and secular utopias. However, the rethinking of forms of community and settlement patterns was far more extensive and varied. Examples include the Founders’ search for an egalitarian distribution of land to all citizens; the reoccurring idealization of the small town, as for example on behalf of early suburbs claimed to be as hospitable as towns, and then as the means of recovering from generic suburbia; the optimization of places for labor in company towns often placed away from town; the Olmstedian return of nature into the heart of the city; the conquest of the West following a Manifest Destiny ideology; Henry Ford’s acceleration of an “autopia,” the car claiming to solve the problem of the city by enabling us to leave it; and other utopian conjectures such as Walt Disney’s initial EPCOT dream and the 1960s new towns movement.

The book’s genesis is a course that I have taught for over three decades at Harvard University entitled The Evolution of the American City: Civic Aspirations and Urban Form. Not a historian by training, I come to the subject of American urbanization as an architect and urban planner, who in addition to teaching has practiced professionally in multiple American and international contexts. Characteristic of an architect’s tendency, my observations are biased by a focus on the built environment, but with a fascination to unravel underlying ideals that inspired what has been built.