Tuesday, May 31, 2011

But Aren't Modern Cities Very Different from Premodern Cities ?

This post is a kind of reply to my previous post, "Why are Premodern Cities Important Today?" If cities today are completely different from those that came before, then it is hard to make the argument that premodern cities have anything to tell us about urbanization today. I am playing devil's advocate with myself here. These are the main arguments I have found in the literature on how modern cities are very different from earlier cities. They come mostly from environmental historians.

(1) The Industrial Revolution

Environmental anthropologist Emilio Moran talks about how cities after 1800 (I assume he refers to  Europe and North America) differed greatly from earlier cities. He presents a common technological and demographic argument:

Prior to the eighteenth century, urbanization was a limited phenomenon and cities had a coupled relationship to their surrounding rural areas. Provisioning cities back then depended on a relatively proximate rural zone near the city. Cities recycled their ‘night soil’ and other urban wastes in the nearby rural areas, making them bad smelling but ecologically virtuous (Guillerme 1988; Harvey 1996). These same processes also made cities a locus of disease, pestilence, and plagues that decimated urban populations until the implementation of drainage systems, potable water supplies, and public health services. Before 1800 the ecological footprint of cities was light because they were embedded bioregionally and their size permitted provisioning by the immediate surrounding hinterland. (Moran 2008: 310).

(2) Cities and the Environment

(A)  Environmental historian John McNeill focuses on urban changes in the twentieth century:
Twentieth-century urbanization affected almost everything in human affairs and constituted a vast break with past centuries (McNeill 2000:281).

McNeill points to changes in the sizes of cities, the nature and extent of garbage and pollution, and the size of ecological footprints.

(B) In the broader sustainability literature, the great social changes of the recent period are sometimes referred to as the "Great Acceleration" and the epoch is sometimes referred to as "the Anthropocene" (Steffen et al 2007).

These and many other changes demonstrate a distinct increase in the rates of change in many human-environment interactions as a result of amplified human impact on the environment after World War II—a period that we term the “Great Acceleration. (Hibbard et al 2007).

For an up-to-date review of the environmental focus on contemporary urbanization, see Seto et al. (2010).

(3) The World Picture

For twentieth century changes in cities, urban scholars Gordon McGranahan and David Satterthwaite stress globalization and the expansion of the world capitalist economy over the strictly environmental factors discussed above:

The most important underpinning of urban change during the twentieth century was the large increase in the size of the global economy. In general, the nations with the largest cities and with the most rapid increase in their levels of urbanization are the nations with the largest increases in their economies. (McGranahan and Satterthwaite 2003: 246).

Unlike many urban scholars who rarely think beyond the modern western world, these two are clearly concerned with urbanization all over the world today (as their many fine publications indicate).

(4) An Archaeological Response

While not disagreeing with any of the observations listed above,  I think that there are still non-trivial continuities, similarities and parallels between modern and ancient cities. Indeed, this whole blog is based on this premise. But just how far can the similarities be pushed? We still need considerable comparative research to answer this question. Many of my posts in this blog illustrate my own exploration of this theme. But I am not the only archaeologist who feels this way. A number of years ago, Monica Smith (no relation!) made this observation:

Rather than seeing cities as fundamentally changed by the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the global connections of the modern world, new anthropological research suggests that both ancient and modern cities are the result of a limited range of configurations that structure human action in concentrated populations (Monica Smith 2003:2).

I heartily agree!! What do you think? I'd be interested in other opinions on this matter.


Hibbard, Kathy A., Paul J. Crutzen, Eric F. Lambin, Diana M. Liverman, Nathan J. Mantua, John R. McNeill, Bruno Messerli, and Will Steffen
2007    Group Report: Dacadal-scale Interactions of Humans and the Environment. In Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth, edited by Robert Costanza, Lisa J. Graumlich, and Will Steffen, pp. 341-375. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

McGranahan, Gordon and David Satterthwaite
2003    Urban Centers: An Assessment of Sustainability. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 28:243-274.

McNeill, John R.
2000    Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. Norton, New York.

Moran, Emilio F.
2008    Human Adaptability: An Introduction to Ecological Anthropology. 3rd ed. Westview, Boulder.

Seto, Karen C., Roberto Sánchez-Rodríguez, and Michail Fragkias
2010    The New Geography of Contemporary Urbanization and the Environment. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 35:167-194.

Smith, Monica L.
2003    Introduction: The Social Construction of Ancient Cities. In The Social Construction of Ancient Cities, edited by Monica L. Smith, pp. 1-36. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill
2007    The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature? Ambio 36:614-621.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why are premodern cities important today?

Medieval street life
Sociology without history resembles a Hollywood set: great scenes, sometimes brilliantly painted, with nothing and nobody behind them. Seen only as the science of the present or — worse yet — of the timeless, sociology misses its vocation to fix causation in time. It thereby vitiates its vital influence on historical thinking, its influence as the study of social mechanisms operating continuously in specific times and places.
-- Charles Tilly (2008:120)

Substitute "urban studies" for sociology, and this quote from Charles Tilly nicely describes one of the reasons that premodern cities are important if we are to understanding cities and urbanism today, throughout history, and in the future. (I use the term "premodern" to include ancient cities around the world, European cities prior to the industrial revolution and world cities prior to the expansion of European imperialism).

I see at least four reasons for the continuing importance of premodern cities for understanding modern and more general processes of urbanization. Two are examples of what I call the "urban trajectory" argument: trajectories of urban change over the decades and even over centuries show us how cities work, and how they respond to and shape developments in their social contexts. The other two reasons are versions of the "sample size" argument: adding premodern cities to the list of modern cities gives us a much larger sample, which helps us in both understanding and planning/managing cities.

Kilwa (Swahili)
 1. Urban trajectory argument, A: the long perspective

The quote from Winston Churchill that I use in the description of this blog (see the right-hand column) justifies this argument: "The farther back we look, the farther ahead we can see." Archaeological data on ancient cities describe trajectories of urban expansion and retraction over long periods. Why were some cities successful for many centuries while others rose and fell within a decade or two? Why did cities initially develop in several parts of the world independently? Big urban questions like these can only be answered with the long time perspective of archaeology and history.

2. Urban trajectory argument, B: the short perspective

To understand the nature or structure of cities (or society) today, we need to know how they developed in recent decades and years. The urban past created the urban present, an argument Richard Harris has illustrated in several works (Harris and Lewis 1998; Harris and Smith 2011). Sometimes cities develop in ways that leave them little opportunity to easily change (this is called path dependence), and in other cases urban development is more flexible, allowing more options today and in the future. This second trajectory argument also applies in the past. Europeans constructed colonial cities in the New World, but those of Latin America differed from those in North America. Part of the reason for these differences is the existence of vibrant indigenous urban traditions in many parts of Latin America, but not in North America. Indigenous trajectories influenced subsequent urban development.

3. Sample size argument A:  a broader base for generalization and explanation

Many observers are struck by regularities in city form and process. All cities have neighborhoods. Nearly all cities have a civic center with prominent public buildings. Many cities have higher population densities than smaller settlements in their society. To fully appreciate the patterns of similarity and difference among cities, scholars need to draw on as large a sample of cities as possible. Most works on urban history and comparative urbanism focus wholly on the western urban tradition, which obviously biases our picture of cities (and many other social phenomena). But cities in other eras may or may not have resembled European cities. Cities in pre-European Africa and in Mesoamerica were much more dispersed than western cities, yet they shared the same urban functions (administrative roles, economic activities, religious significance, etc.). We will never be able to understand the phenomenon of urbanism unless we consider the widest possible range of cities.

4. Sample size argument, B: more choices for planners and managers to draw on

Urban growth and its affects on society and the environment is surely one of the major social problems facing us today. How can we cope with persistent poverty, crime, and overcrowding in many cities? How can we reduce the ecological footprint or the carbon footprint of our growing cities to make them more environmentally sustainable? Planners, politicians, managers (and scholars) who consider these issues need ideas. If they consider a wider range of cities and urban traditions, they may be able to come up with better solutions to today's urban issues. I am not arguing that a detailed knowledge of, say, Teotihuacan, will by itself illuminate the problems of a city like Phoenix today. But if planners are familiar with Teotihuacan, Machu Picchu, Ur, Timbuktoo, Kilwa, and other premodern cities, this may help stimulate creative thinking on how we might improve cities today.

Teotenango, Mexico. The ancient ruins are on a cliff above the modern town


Harris, Richard and Robert Lewis
1998    How the Past Matters: North American Cities in the Twentieth Century. Journal of Urban Affairs 20:159-174.

Harris, Richard and Michael E. Smith
2011    The History in Urban Studies: A Comment. Journal of Urban Affairs 33(1):99-105.

Smith, Michael E.
2010    Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.

Tilly, Charles
2008    Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Viking Urban Planning

Fig 1 - A Trelleborg fortress today
The very phrase "Viking urban planning" may strike some as an oxymoron. The Vikings are famous for raiding, conquering, and pillaging, hardly activities that resonate with the the careful design and planning of cities. Yet a group of geometrical fortresses exhibiting exacting planning were built in Denmark by the Viking king Harald Bluetooth around A.D. 980, and these give us insights into cities and planning in the Viking age. Most of my discussion here is based on Roesdahl (1987), an excellent discussion of these fascinating sites.

Fig 2 - Plans of three Trelleborg sites
At least four of these fortresses are known. They are often referred to as the "Trelleborg fortresses," after the first one to be discovered and excavated. Figure 2 shows plans of three of these settlements. These sites are clearly planned; they correspond to both of the measures of urban planning for ancient cities: standardization among cities, and coordination of buildings within cities (Smith 2007). The main features they share are: outer circular walls  with ditches; with four gates at the compass points; two axial roads that link the gates; a ring-road inside the rampart; and large standardized long-houses arranged in quadrangles (Roesdahl, p.211). Within each site, the houses are identical in size and form.

Fig 3 - Reconstruction by Holger Schmidt of Firkat
Fig 4 - Reconstruction of a house
Based on artifact dating and dendrochronology, all of the Trelleborg fortress sites were built in or close to A.D. 980, and they were only used for a very short time. Although the housing at first glance looks like soldier's barracks, excavation shows that men, women, and children lived in the sites, and that some were craftsmen. Roesdahl interprets these as "very special and very organized royal manors" (p. 217). Several reconstructions of the houses have been made (Fig. 4).

Fig 5 - Realm of Harald Bluetooth
King Harald Bluetooth ruled Denmark from around A.D. 958 - 985. His realm covered a sizable part of southern and western Scandinavia (figure 5). He was the first Viking king to convert to Christianity, and he set up elaborate rune stones at Jelling (fig. 6), in association with several large burial monuments. In case you were wondering, Harald Bluetooth provided the name for the Bluetooth wireless communication technology, developed by the Swedish company Ericsson. The Bluetooth logo consists of the runic characters for King Harald Bluetooth's name.

Fig 6 - Harald's runestone at Jelling
Fig 7 - Bluetooth runes
These circular fortresses are unique in Scandinavian urban history. They do not have clear predecessors or successors. In the interpretation of Else Roesdahl, they were built in a time of decline and crisis, "primarily to control a country ready to revolt." (p. 226). Within a few years, Harald's son, Sven Forkbeard, revolted, and Harald was killed in one of the resulting battles.

The Trelleborg fortresses are important as monuments of Harald Bluetooth's reign, and as a good example of the unusual practice of circular urban design (Smith 2007; Johnston 1983). But perhaps most importantly, their discovery and excavation overturned existing ideas of the urban accomplishments of the Vikings. In the words of Roesdahl,
[The discovery of] Trelleborg causes a sensation. Nobody had thought the barbaric Vikings able to plan, organise or construct such a sophisticated structure, and the learned world conseequently had to rethink their concept of Vikings. (p.208)


Brink, Stefan and Neil Price (editors)
2008    The Viking World. Routledge, New York.

Johnston, Norman J.
1983    Cities in the Round. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Roesdahl, Else
1987    The Danish Geometrical Viking Fortresses and their Context. Anglo-Norman Studies 9:208-226.

Smith, Michael E.
2007    Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning. Journal of Planning History 6(1):3-47.

*** ONE of my favorite historical novels is The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson, which starts with the end of Harald Bluetooth's reign and follows its Viking protagonists for several decades. According to a book review by NPR.org:   "Even though The Long Ships was first published in 1941, it remains the literary equivalent of an action-and intrigue-filled adventure movie that won't insult your intelligence...Bengtsson is an infectiously enthusiastic and surprisingly funny writer--even readers with zero interest in the Europe of a millennium ago will want to keep turning the pages." How can one not like a book whose characters have  names like Sven Forkbeard and Ragnar Hairy-Breeks?