Sunday, January 23, 2011

Did ancient cities have urban sprawl?

In his controversial book, Sprawl, A Compact History, Robert Bruegmann (2005) claims that urban sprawl has always been with us. Low-density, unplanned residential areas have surrounded most cities, from the Urban Revolution to the present. Bruegmann makes this claim as part of an argument that sprawl is not as bad as modern urban critics have claimed. In his view, sprawl has always surrounded cities, and rather than complaining about it or trying to get rid of it, we should just learn to deal with it.

But I am not interested here in Bruegmann’s larger arguments or his debates with the new urbanists. Rather, my concern is with Bruegmann’s claim that sprawl existed “in almost every era in urban history.” Is that the case? The only evidence he marshals is the fact that wealthy Romans had villas outside of the capital, which is certainly not adequate support for his claim. But in fact I think he may be largely correct.

How should we define urban sprawl? Definitions are important, because they shape the way we look at the world, and they define the parameters of phenomena. Some definitions of sprawl rule out the possibility that sprawl existed before the Industrial Revolution. For example, Dolores Hayden’s definition of sprawl is: “a process of large-scale real estate development resulting in low-density, scattered, discontinuous car-dependent construction, usually on the periphery of declining, older suburbs and shrinking city centers” (Hayden 2004:7-8). For premodern cities, this simply is not a useful definition.

Bruegmann, on the other hand, provides a much broader definition of sprawl that is useful for comparison. Sprawl is defined as “low-density, scattered, urban development without systematic large-scale or regional public land-use planning” (Bruegmann 2005:18)

No one has yet carried out a systematic comparative analysis of sprawl (or sprawl-like settlement) around ancient cities. But I’ve looked at lots of city maps and read lots of archaeological and historical reports on premodern cities, and I am struck at how many of these have unplanned, low-density residential zones outside of the main city area.

Urban sprawl is especially easy to identify for walled cities. Whenever cities are walled (whether ancient Chinese imperial capitals or medieval European towns or Sumerican city-state capitals), they have settlement outside the walls. The map of medieval Ipswitch shows this pretty clearly (the city wall is indicated by the red line). Many ancient low-density tropical cities (such as those of the Classic Maya, or Angkor and other ancient Khmer cities) have declining density towards their edges. Two adjacent Maya cities in Belize, Xnaheb and Nim Li Punit, show this pattern: both have declining density as one moves away from the city centers (which have temples, pyramids, and other civic structures), but Xnaheb is more “sprawling” than its neighbor (this map was redrawn from Jamison 1993).
Based on many such examples, my subjective impression is that sprawl was quite common around ancient cities. But just how common was it? Did ALL walled cities have extra-mural housing, or only some of them? Do all Maya cities exhibit sprawl like the two shown above, or only some examples? Until someone makes the effort to select a scientific sample of ancient or premodern cities, we cannot answer these questions. Anthropologists know something about sampling non-western cultures (Ember and Ember 2009), but this knowledge has yet to be applied to premodern cities.

But even if we put together a group of ancient cities that might form a reasonable sample, can we analyze the dynamics of ancient urban sprawl? Obviously the cause of ancient Maya sprawl was not the automobile. It was probably not the real estate market and certainly not government subsidies for highway construction. But perhaps transport costs played a role. Was sprawl more prominent in societies with wheeled transport (e.g., Rome, medieval Euopre) than those that lacked the wheel (e.g, the Maya or Inka)? What about the size of the city, and/or the intensity of agriculture in the urban hinterlands? I’d love to know the answer to these and other questions about the origins and patterns and dynamics of ancient urban sprawl.

I think archaeologists and urban historians now have the data to make real headway here, but until my colleagues and I put forth the conceptual and empirical effort to address such questions, we will have to be content with impressions. Will information about ancient sprawl solve the problems of modern sprawl? No, of course not. But as scholars, planners, and officials search for solutions to today's urban problems, perhaps a broader base for comparison might help generate new ideas. And adding ancient cities to our knowledge of modern sprawl (and other issues) will certainly help scholars separate universal urban traits from those traits that are particular to individual cities or regions or time periods.

To read a lengthier and more technical discussion of this issue, see Smith (2010).


Bruegmann, Robert  (2005)  Sprawl: A Compact History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Ember, Carol R. and Melvin Ember  (2009)  Cross-Cultural Research Methods. 2nd ed. AltaMira, Walnut Creek, CA.

Hayden, Dolores  (2004)  Field Guide to Sprawl. Pantheon, New York.

Jamison, Thomas R.  (1993)  Symbolic Affiliation, Architecture and Settlement Patterns in Southern Belize: Nim Li Punit and Xnaheb during the Late Classic. Ph.D. dissertation Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University at Albany, SUNY.

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