Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects” as Want to Read:
The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  1,285 ratings  ·  68 reviews
The city’s development from ancient times to the modern age. Winner of the National Book Award. “One of the major works of scholarship of the twentieth century” (Christian Science Monitor). Index; illustrations.
Paperback, 784 pages
Published October 23rd 1968 by Mariner Books (first published April 1961)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The City in History, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The City in History

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.10  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,285 ratings  ·  68 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects
Sep 04, 2010 added it
Shelves: urbanism
Mumford is, in many ways, a total precursor to the postmodernists. He maintains a skepticism towards Enlightenment as well as a strong respect for the subjective, vital forces of humanity. Like any good contemporary social thinker, he recognizes that the parsing of culture into numeric bits and pieces is only one among many methods of attaining knowledge.

There's a certain Eurocentrism which is to be expected for a writer from his era, but what troubles me more is what I deem "urbanocentrism." He
Bryan--Pumpkin Connoisseur
My first experience reading Lewis Mumford was a collection of his writings for The New Yorker, where he served as architecture critic, and which impressed me by exposing a way of looking at building design which I hadn't even considered before, in a way that was easy to grasp. (This 'ease' was facilitated by interest, of course--if one is immune to the charms of architecture and design, then it's doubtful his essays would appeal.) The New Yorker essays made me want to read more, and I was extrem ...more
Reviewing such a monumental book is in of itself a monumental task, one for which no one is up to task, least of all me. There are many observations that you will simply not find in here. No review, no summary, could ever substitute reading this book.

The best one sentence summary of the book is given by this sentence:
"When both the evil and the remedy are indistinguishable, one may be sure that a deep-seated process is at work." — p. 544

To give a sense of scale to each potential reader: the bo
Julie Mickens
Just a brief 650 pages! Mumford was a prolix guy who saw no need to keep his sentences short, but he knew his subject matter and wasn't shy about making sweeping evaluations of entire centuries and/or millennia. Why not? He's probably right. Here is what Louis Mumford thought about the urbanism achievements of various eras (as ever-so-SLIGHTLY simplified by me):

Neolithic villages: Underrated matriarchy!

Sumer: Underrated in importance, but overrated on the quality-of-life index. Irrigation is n
Nicholas Moryl
Jan 12, 2015 rated it did not like it
This book's importance is mainly historical. As a work of urban planning analysis and history, it is a failure.

"The City in History" was written in an era when hand-waving and appeal to "common knowledge" were acceptable ways to argue a point. There is little to no primary source information or data to support Mumford's claims about the causes or impacts of various elements in the evolution of urban design. E.g. on p. 448-9 he points to the addition of new crops to the food supply as a key force
Czarny Pies
Nov 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: People who enjoy undiscplined erudition.
Recommended to Czarny by: Everyone. It was a huge success in its day.
Shelves: political-theory
Lewis Mumford's "The City in History" is great fun to read. He provides a dazzling show of erudition moving from De Tocqueville to Gilgamesh to Frederick Law Olmsted to Proust and to Vitruvius with dazzling speed somehow always tying his eclectic stable of references into a coherent narrative history. In my case the pleasure of was greatly enhanced by the fact that my prejudices in most instances with those of Mumford which are:
1. The Urban Sprawl of the twentieth century was out of control with
Piotr Smolnicki
Jul 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
It's an obligation to read this book for every urban researcher to know what innovative thoughts are just reinventions of ones in the past. ...more
Feb 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Possibly the most valuable book I have read. An education in what a city should be.
Shreedhar Manek
This has everything. I do not want to write anything more.
Michael Holm
Jul 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Michael by: National Book Award winner
1961 Copyright Harvest Book by Harcourt, Inc 575 pages

The author describes the design of cities in Europe and the USA as a place for humans to live by periods: ancient (pre-historical Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete), classical (historical, Greece and Rome) medieval (8th to 16 centuries), baroque (16-18th centuries, the industrial revolution), suburbia and contemporary (up to 1960). His descriptions include economic, religious, military and ethnic factors that influence the development of citi
Aug 11, 2014 rated it liked it
At a basic level, the book largely consists of the ramblings of a technophobe advocating the humanization of technology (as if there were anything more eminently human than technology). Solutions to the city's woes (housing, congestion) are not provided, nor even suggested, but criticism is freely dished out.

As others have pointed out, Mumford was an advocate of the medieval city, and a more "organic" approach to city planning, as opposed to the more formalistic baroque, and indeed contemporary
David Eppenstein
A book definitely not meant for the casual reader. This is an understandably long and ponderous trek through the history of man's efforts at building cities. If this is a subject you're interested in then this is a fascinating journey. If it isn't your cup of tea then Uncle Mumfie, as he was affectionately called by my classmates and me, will bore you to tears. ...more
Jun 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An epic, grandiose history of human civilization. Its imperfections, generalities, Western bias and axe-grinding are easy to forgive. Mumford will have you dreaming about cities.
Daniel B-G
Sep 17, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: socsci, dnf, history
Ponderous, dull, meandering, unsubstantiated.
Louw Van
Jun 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Lewis Mumford (1895 - 1990), American writer, historian, social commentator, architectural critic, student of cities...
His book The City in History was required reading for us as students of town & regional planning planning. The book was (and still is) an intimidating tome: 576 pages of small print in hard bound format. As a student, I never read the whole book; only selected passages from it, where I then thought were the most relevant content to the essay to be submitted!
Just before Christmas
Feb 22, 2016 rated it liked it
Lewis Mumford tells us about the spiritual and cosmic origins of the city so that we can get a handle on how we can best forge the city of tomorrow. To do that, he must scope out all of Western history, denoting where the city has been and what it could possibly become. All that said, this was a long and often laborious read that has left me in many ways a bit more befuddled than illuminated. Mumford's own words often take off in poetic flights of fancy that are heroic or elegiac; they are beaut ...more
Stephen Breton
Mar 13, 2018 rated it it was ok
I gave up. His writing is so arrogant and tedious and the first chapters on ancient cities are filled with so many unfounded speculative “perhaps”es, the book was unreadable. It’s written in a dated, wannabe-British mid-century New York style of “oh I’m so amused by my own wit”, when I was looking for a historical survey. I love the history of cities, so maybe I’ll try again some day when I have more patience.
James Violand
Oct 23, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: City planners and insomniacs.
Shelves: own
For all its worth, this book is tedious. It may be appreciated by anyone who loves history but be forewarned: you will fall asleep. Never-the-less, I recommend it to architects, civil engineers and historians because it acts as the mortar to the bricks of civilization. It is so unexciting that pages turn as slow as mortar takes to dry. In the time it took me to read this one book, I would normally read six!
Edward Champion
Aug 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
My full thoughts on this incredible volume will eventually be found here:

But this is a monumentally thoughtful volume on urban developments from the beginning of time. It took me a long time to read because Mumford will point to one development of the city that is so fascinating, but that will send you down an Internet rabbit hole.
May 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Astonishing in its breadth and clarity. Although the book starts slow (and, unfortunately, with some tired-if-not-upsetting gender stereotypes), Mumford hits his stride with his description of Rome. By the end of World War II, his prose his hard to match.
Sep 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
a prosaic survey of historical development combined with an impassioned treatise rallying against the alienation and ennui engendered by an anomic urban environment devoid of community and connection. brilliant.
Rosie Tighe
Oct 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
First half is solid. Second half is what you'd expect from a white historian writing in the 1960s about urban issues. ...more
Patrick Versteckt
Jul 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Cute and Elegant. Boring as entertainment, yet enjoyable. Lots of things, and I like the way he writes them. Five stars for the first half.
Oct 18, 2019 added it
A fascinating view of the city at the time Mumford wrote the book. A 'must-read' for all city planners and, perhaps architects as well. ...more
Dec 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Fascinating and complex history.
Aug 22, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: urban studies buffs.
Shelves: sociology
After two hundred pages I wanted to give this book five stars, but after finishing it, I was almost ready to give it three stars.
This book is what it says it is, "The City in History". Starting in the neolithic era, Mumford marches through all of recorded time and place (place being limited to the Near East, Greece, Rome, Europe and America) to bring, you, the reader, his thoughts on the role and "prospects" of the city.

In the beginning, it's an exhilerating ride. Mumford is not shy about advanc
Jan 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Mumford argues that cities arose as the centers of civilization because of the growth of stratified societies, where forced labor and slavery, coupled with destruction and war fueled that growth of cities. He traces the prehistoric formation of cities, the ancient shaping of cities through war and need for labor, the rise of slave societies and free citizens in Ancient Greece and market places, and survival of Roman cities, the formation of medieval cities which he seems to believe is the ideal ...more
Jun 17, 2014 rated it it was ok
First to contend with is Mumford’s pedantic tone. Sometimes I couldn’t help but imagine him as a stodgy British aristocrat ramblingly lecturing from the ample study of his prodigious manor looking for the least excuse to wax poetic about the greatness of Elizabethan England--whilst ignoring as much as possible non Western European cities. Even so, Mumford can write very beautifully when he’s not side tracked and actually zeroes in on an interesting topic. Unfortunately he's often side-tracked an ...more
Aug 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
The City in History is a work of impressive scope, presenting nothing less than the development of cities in the Western world from antiquity through the mid-twentieth century.

Overall, Mumford argues for cities based on human scale, organic development, and managed growth, with an attention to function, aesthetics, and human/environmental needs. This perspective leads him to favor medieval cities as a zenith of urban development, and often critique subsequent changes implemented during the Renai
Oct 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I found this book fascinating when I had to read it for a college course 35 years ago. Yes, it's been around for that long. (It was written in 1961.) I never thought about cities in the same way again. Mumford not only traces the development of cities, he also explains why they're integral to the functioning of society. He writes about what cities get right as well as what they get wrong and offers suggestions for making them work better. Some reviewers have said that the reading is dry, but I d ...more
« previous 1 3 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities
  • The Image of the City
  • Modern Architecture: A Critical History
  • A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction
  • Architecture: Form, Space, & Order
  • 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School
  • Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century
  • The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape
  • Architects' Data
  • Experiencing Architecture
  • Cities for People
  • Thinking Architecture
  • S, M, L, XL
  • Invisible Cities
  • Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
  • A Visual Dictionary of Architecture
  • Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time
  • The Architecture of the City
See similar books…
Lewis Mumford (October 19, 1895 – January 26, 1990) was an American historian and philosopher of technology and science. Particularly noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, he had a tremendously broad career as a writer that also included a period as an influential literary critic. Mumford was influenced by the work of Scottish theorist Sir Patrick Geddes.

News & Interviews

Need another excuse to treat yourself to a new book this week? We've got you covered with the buzziest new releases of the day. To create our...
30 likes · 10 comments
“But what one finds in the New World os not just a collection of houses and buildings, which might have had the same common ancestor in the mesolithic hamlet. One discovers, rather, a parallel collection of cultural traits: highly developed fertility ceremonies, a pantheon of cosmic deities, a magnified ruler and central authority who personifies the whole community, great temples whose forms recall such functionally different structures as the pyramid and the ziggurat, along with the same domination of a peasantry by an original hunter-warrior group, or (among the early Mayas) an even more ancient priesthood. Likewise the same division of castes and specialization of vocational groups, and the beginnings of writing, time measuring, and the calendar-including an immense extension of time perspectives among the Mayas, which surpasses in complexity and accuracy even what we know of the cosmic periods of the Babylonians and the Egyptians. These traits seem too specific to have been spontaneously repeated in a whole constellation.” 1 likes
“ seems to me plain that all the elements for the urban implosion were present and that the city, in one form or another, performed its special function-that of complex receptacle for maximizing the possibilities of human intercourse and passing on the contents of civilization.” 0 likes
More quotes…