Friday, January 21, 2011

The "Wide Urban World"

The phrase "wide urban world" encompasses the many manifestations of cities and urbanism on earth, from early Mesopotamia to modern Mumbai. It describes an approach to cities that is comparative and historical. A comparative perspective is necessary if one wants to draw conclusions about urban phenomena that go beyond a single city. Most comparative urban analysis in the social sciences is quite limited in scope, comparing, say Detroit and Pittsburgh, or New York and London, or perhaps Mumbai and Shanghai. But with a  historical perspective, comparisons can range back into deep history.

Does it make any sense to compare Phoenix and ancient Teotihuacan? Perhaps there are common dynamics of large cities in dry environments. How did the people (more than 100,000 of them) of Teotihuacan deal with shifting rainfall and agricultural productivity? Can this give us any ideas about the sustainability of modern Phoenix?

What about ancient Rome and modern Los Angeles? These are/were huge metropoli with great cultural and social diversity, from ethnicity to social class to occupation. Are there basic principles by which the leaders of large diverse cities have dealt with such diversity?

A broad perspective on comparison can be advantageous in several ways:
  1. Information about premodern cities may help scholars, planners, and officials better understand modern cities, and it will give them a larger inventory of cases to draw on in designing solutions for modern urban problems and issues. But this requires rigorous data on premodern cities, solid knowledge that is based on historical and archaeological research and not on speculation.
  2. Information about modern and many historical cities helps archaeologists understand ancient cities. Nearly all archaeological inferences about ancient society are based on analogy (inductive logic), which means comparisons with better-known cases. So a wide perspective helps archaeologists understand the ancient world and the first cities.
  3. The broad historical and comparative perspective of the wide urban world is necessary to address questions about cities and urbanism as general phenomena and processes. It is not scientifically defensible to look at modern U.S. cities and make conclusions about urbanism in general. One can talk about modern U.S. cities in general, but if we want to know about cities as a form of human settlement, then we simply cannot ignore the thousands of years of urban development before the Industrial Revolution.
These points give an idea of the perspective of this blog, the "Wide urban world." We will cover themes such as urban sprawl, sustainability, neighborhoods, housing, city planning, squatters, and the urban built environment.

For a more technical description of this broad perspective on urbanism, see this White Paper, submitted to NSF by members of our urban organization project:

Smith, Michael E., Christopher Boone, George L. Cowgill, Sharon L. Harlan, Alison Kohn, Barbara L. Stark and Abigail York  (2010)  An Expanded Social Scientific Perspective on Urbanism. White Paper, Future Research in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. National Science Foundation, Washington, DC.

This document is posted on the project website, and its now available on the NSF website as well.

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