These are some of the questions that motivate a research project I am involved in called "Urban organization through the ages: Neighborhoods, open spaces, and urban life." It is part of a series of transdisciplinary research projects at Arizona State University called "Late Lessons from Early History." One of whose goals of this program is to make comparisons between modern and past societies and try to draw lessons for modern society. If you have followed this blog, you will know one of my main purposes here is to explore connections and comparisons between premodern and modern cities. Not only do I write about both modern and ancient cities, but I often compare them or use examples from both categories to make a point.
Our research project has six principle investigators, representing the disciplines of anthropological archaeology (yours truly), sociology, geography, and political science.Our first joint article was published over the summer:
York, Abigail, Michael E. Smith, Benjamin Stanley, Barbara L. Stark, Juliana Novic, Sharon L. Harlan, George L. Cowgill, and Christopher Boone (2011) Ethnic and Class-Based Clustering Through the Ages: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Urban Social Patterns. Urban Studies 48(11):2399-2415.
I'd like to be able to say that we have solved the historical puzzles of urban social clustering and segregation, but alas, we have only made a modest contribution. We describe our transdisciplinary and comparative approach to the problem; we discuss a number of drivers or forces that contribute to social clustering at the neighborhood level, and we give a few examples of how these have played out in different historical and geographical settings. We use the term "clustering" because the word "segregation" has considerable baggage in modern parlance, with implications that limit its application to premodern cities. There was ethnic clustering in many premodern cities, for example, but the dynamics were quite different from modern racial segregation. Clustering is a more neutral term, better for comparative analysis.
One of our conclusions is that there was no single "traditional" form of social clustering. Many writers over the years have assumed that modern western cities developed out of a prior pattern of traditional cities (sometimes traditional means seems to mean medieval, sometimes early modern, sometimes Classical Greece or Rome). If we can understand the traditional situation and how it changed with modernization, this will help us understand modern cities. But there was never any single "traditional" pattern.
Another conclusion is that patterns of social clustering vary greatly, both within and between urban traditions. There is no such thing as a "typical" medieval European urban pattern; some medieval cities had homogeneous neighborhoods, some had mixed neighborhoods. There was no typical "Aztec" pattern or "Islamic" or "Chinese" pattern. Cities varied in their neighborhood organization within cultures or within urban traditions.
And a third conclusion of our paper is that there are many causes or drivers of clustering, and in any given city several of these are likely to play a role. We organize them into four broad categories, each of which has several individual drivers:
- Macro-structural forces (capitalism, globalization, etc.)
- The state (laws, policies, actions of governments)
- Local regimes and institutions (real estate markets, zoning, local elites)
- Bottom-up processes (individual choice, chain migration, neighborhood self-regulation).