Thursday, October 27, 2011

Did premodern cities have "urban issues"?

The basic premise of this blog is that cities and urbanism have been around for thousands of years, and that it is interesting and useful to take a broad perspective on these things. The "Wide Urban World" is the realm of cities from ancient Mesopotamia to the present. Consideration of premodern cities can provide insights into modern urban issues, and research on contemporary cities can help historians and archaeologists understand past cities. And consideration of both modern and past cities will allow us to understand the nature and variation of urbanism much more fully than a narrow focus on a single time period or place. Beyond this blog, my colleagues and I have made this point in a number of publications (see the list at the bottom).

There is an alternative understanding of the meaning of the term "urban," however, that is much more narrowly conceived. To some, "urban issues" are issues of contemporary cities (and perhaps their predecessors over a century or so). Either past cities did not have "urban issues," or else their "urban issues" are irrelevant to modern concerns, not worth considering. This is the viewpoint of the well-known policy institution, the Urban Institute, which features "nonpartisan economic and social policy research." This kind of "present-only" perspective on urbanism can be called "presentism." For critiques, see any of the papers below (particulalry Harris & Smith 2011).

Now there is another presentist institution, the new "Urban Portal" of the University of Chicago, billed as "a gateway to the latest in urban social science." I looked around the site and its resources, and much of it looks interesting and important. But I found no explicit acknowledgement that history or comparison are considered important for urban social science. Well, that is certainly not my view of the topic. Let me re-write their "about" section in a more accurate manner:

"The Urban Portal is an online hub designed to provide experts and non-experts easy access to current research and resources on CONTEMPORARY urban issues IN THE UNITED STATES. The Portal is a core project of the University of Chicago Urban Network, an emerging community of scholars and others that aims to spur innovation in the study of MODERN urban processes and to encourage interdisciplinary discourse in urban research, theory, and policy THAT EXCLUDES HISTORICAL OR COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES."

If you'd like to see a more formal scholarly argument for the kind of broad approach to urban studies I advocate, look at this White Paper some of us submitted to the program "Future Research in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences" at the National Science Foundation, or look around our website.

Briggs, Xavier de Souza
2004    Civilization in Color: The Multicultural City in Three Millennia. City and Community 3:311-342.

Fletcher, Roland
2009    Low-Density, Agrarian-Based Urbanism: A Comparative View. Insights (University of Durham) 2:article 4.

Grant, Jill
2001    The Dark Side of the Grid: Power and Urban Design. Planning Perspectives 16:219-241.

2004    Sustainable Urbanism in Historical Perspective. In Towards Sustainable Cities: East Asian, North American and European Perspectives on Managing Urban Regions, edited by AndrĂ© Sorensen, Peter J. Marcutullio, and Jill Grant, pp. 24-37. Ashgate, Burlington, VT.

Hakim, Besim S.
2007    Generative Processes for Revitalizing Historic Towns or Heritage Districts. Urban Design International 12:87-99.

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.
2009    Editorial: Just How Comparative is Comparative Urban Geography?: A Perspective from Archaeology. Urban Geography 30:113-117.

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

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.


  1. Very well put! I think this calls for counter action!

  2. Benjamin- Well, we can start by throwing tomatoes, grown in third-world urban gardens. Or maybe we could throw potsherds.

  3. I'm afraid you may be right that the written word is wasted on them!