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.

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