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City on a Hill

Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

Alex Krieger

The first European settlers saw America as a paradise regained. The continent seemed to offer a God-given opportunity to start again and build the perfect community. Those messianic days are gone. But as Alex Krieger argues in City on a Hill, any attempt at deep understanding of how the country has developed must recognize the persistent and dramatic consequences of utopian dreaming. Even as ideals have changed, idealism itself has for better and worse shaped our world of bricks and mortar, macadam, parks, and farmland. As he traces this uniquely American story from the Pilgrims to the “smart city,” Krieger delivers a striking new history of our built environment.

The Puritans were the first utopians, seeking a New Jerusalem in the New England villages that still stand as models of small-town life. In the Age of Revolution, Thomas Jefferson dreamed of citizen farmers tending plots laid out across the continent in a grid of enlightened rationality. As industrialization brought urbanization, reformers answered emerging slums with a zealous crusade of grand civic architecture and designed the vast urban parks vital to so many cities today. The twentieth century brought cycles of suburban dreaming and urban renewal—one generation’s utopia forming the next one’s nightmare—and experiments as diverse as Walt Disney’s EPCOT, hippie communes, and Las Vegas.

Krieger’s compelling and richly illustrated narrative reminds us, as we formulate new ideals today, that we chase our visions surrounded by the glories and failures of dreams gone by.

Alex Krieger is Professor in Practice of Urban Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he has been honored repeatedly as one of Harvard’s most outstanding teachers. Krieger is coeditor of Mapping Boston and Towns and Town-Making Principles and coauthor of A Design Primer for Cities and Towns. He is also a Principal at NBBJ, a global firm offering services in architecture, urban design, and planning. He is a frequent advisor to mayors and their planning staffs, and has served on a number of national and regional boards and commissions, including the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.


Accessible and readable … Mr. Krieger highlights the imperative role of vision—what the pragmatic and exasperated President Bush the elder once dismissed as ‘the vision thing’—in articulating simple themes that point us as one toward a common future.” —Shlomo Angel, The Wall Street Journal

“Alex Krieger offers a lively and highly readable account of how, from the colonial era onward, Americans’ utopian dreams have shaped our cities and can today provide hope for a more just, sustainable, and beautiful future. It is a most welcome view of a persistent strain of aspiration and optimism in our national life.” —Drew Faust, President Emerita, Harvard University

Extremely readable.” The Financial Times Best Books of 2019 citation

Illuminating … Krieger’s historical analysis is perceptive and pointed, scholarly yet readable. He also speaks to the contemporary world, addressing the energy-wasting sprawl and leapfront development that plague today’s metropolitan regions.” —Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune

Carefully argued and cinematically sweeping … In a field crowded with detailed histories of this kind, the book stands out as an invigorating study, rich in the history of ideas about what American urban settlements might have been and still may become.” —Norman Weinstein, Architectural Record

“A great sweep of material, grand ideas, full of complexity and nuance … A great achievement.Times Higher Education

“With vivid, clear prose and striking and complementary images, City on a Hill is a fantastic, comprehensive account of utopian visions in American city planning.” —Frederick Steiner, University of Pennsylvania

“In City on a Hill, Krieger brilliantly demolishes the myth that the ideals of America are somehow rooted in the countryside and disconnected from our cities. He has written not just a history of American urbanism but a history of our attitudes toward cities, reminding us how profoundly our cities, for all their failings, reflect our aspirations. It is a story he tells with such richness and nuance that this book becomes, for all intents and purposes, a history of America itself.” —Paul Goldberger

Panoramic, original, and insightful, City on a Hill is a genuine achievement, and reflects and embodies Krieger’s decades-long involvement both with urban design and American urban history. This book deserves to be the most widely read comprehensive history of the American city.” —Robert Fishman, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan

City on a Hill takes us on a bold, comprehensive journey through the history of American city planning—or rather a history of the American built environment, due to the anti-urban bias that has historically been pinned to American culture. While explaining urban idealism, Krieger simultaneously generates a history of the country itself and exposes the philosophical debate that the United States has had to face since its foundation: the tug of war between civilization and nature as the United States endeavored to become the most powerful country of the world. … In a time where the future looks darker than ever, Alex Krieger reminds us of how utopian dreams once galvanized American (city planning) history, and shows that our current worries—rather than dreams—require new utopias to be imagined.” —Nicolas Valencia, ArchDaily

City on a Hill
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Published by Harvard University Press on October 29, 2019