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


My hope is that readers come away with two primary insights about the evolution of American city building. First, that Americans have rarely felt bound by traditional ideas about what constitutes a city. Instead, they have instinctively relied on an ancient notion—the city being a place inhabited by citizens, from the Latin civis, for citizen, and civitas, for the social body of citizens. This more general construct has produced some unprecedented environments, such as suburban spread that rankle those who define a city in a particular way, and has led to exaggerated accusations of cultural anti-urbanism.

Secondly, an inherent American idealism and optimism about a better future, has played an important and near continuous role in the creation of the metropolitan American landscape. The idealism may at times have been misguided or unwarranted, but instrumental nonetheless. It arrived with the arrivals from the old world, was fortified in concert with a body of ideals that became fundamental to the European Enlightenment, and intensified during the explosion of urban growth arriving with the Industrial Revolution.

The cities in America just taking shape, rather than old European cities needing to adapt (with considerable difficulty) to the cultural, political, and technological transformations of the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, heralded the arrival of the modern age. And even during eras of ambivalence about the large city, such as during the massive suburbanization at mid-20th century, optimism about future possibilities still characterized innovations in the built environment.

At the dawn of the third decade of the 21st-century America is home to fewer optimists, much less utopians. That inherent idealism—embodied in the Constitution with the phrase “to form a more perfect Union”—is seemingly in remission. Concerns about growing social and economic inequalities; political partisanship and resulting inaction; climate change accelerating environmental harm; and even about diminished standing around the word, are subjects of near-daily conversations from living rooms to classrooms to board rooms.

Given its long gestation in a classroom, the book was not undertaken as a call for our old aspirational angels to spring forth again. However, as the chapters introduce each pursuit at constructing more perfect unions, at least in the shaping of towns and cities, readers may conclude that a return of American idealism may be useful in mitigating present anxieties. As we increasingly become, worldwide, an urban species, additional imagination with which to manage our expanding urban footprints will be necessary.