Friday, November 23, 2012

"Connecting Past and Present:" Cities and global environmental change

"Connecting Past and Present: Lessons in Urbanization and the Environment." This is the title of a special section of three articles in the new issue of UGEC-Viewpoints. This newsletter/magazine is put out by the project, "Urbanization and Global Environmental Change," which in turn is part of a larger research network called "International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change."

These three papers lay out some of the basic arguments for why ancient cities might be relevant for understanding contemporary urbanization and its environmental impact today. The phrase "might be relevant" is important; I will return to it below.

The section starts off with my paper, "The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization."
I ask, "Why should researchers in this area pay attention to ancient cities?" and I suggest two reasons. First, the long-term perspective of archaeological data lets us look at cities that rose and fell over period of centuries and millennia. Second, ancient cities add to our sample of urban possibilities, allowing a broader perspective on the diverse ways people have designed, built, and lived in cities over the ages. These are things I've discussed quite a bit in this blog. I go on to describe our transdisciplinary urban project at Arizona State University, and then discuss two topics: low-density tropical urbanism (the theme of the other 2 papers in the special section) and research on ancient urban sustainability (drawing on my paper, Smith 2010).

We were asked by UGEC Viewpoints to say something about the policy implications of research, so I give a few opinions on that matter. Briefly, planners and policy makers don't care about ancient cities, and they are not going to look at our archaeological findings to provide clues or guidance for contemporary urban issues. But enlightened planners and policy makers do care about research on cities and urbanism in general, and if archaeologists can provide data to broaden that more general body of research, then our results might have an indirect effect on policy or planning.

The second paper in the UGEC Viewpoints special section is: Scarborough, Vernon L., Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase  (2012)  Low-Density Urbanism, Sustainability, and IHOPE-Maya: Can the Past Provide More than History?
They talk about the project IHOPE-Maya, which involves a number of specialists in Maya archaeology and some formal modelers who are examining Classic Maya society in terms of concept or resilience and sustainability. This is an exciting endeavor. The Maya had fascinating cities and distinctive urban social and cultural expressions, but most fieldwork has been very particularistic. That is, archaeologists excavate Maya sites to learn about Maya sites, without much comparative analysis and without much concern with using their results to shed light on broader questions. The authors state,

"With respect to the ancient Maya, determining the degree to which they successfully altered their environs – or regionally damaged it – within the constraints of their technologies and innovations has great potential for assessing present-day societal adaptations." (p. 20)

This is an important new direction for Maya studies. I must admit that I find some of the article puzzling. I am not sure what the authors mean by this statement:

"Perhaps our Western technologies are now finally poised to revisit a notion of urbanism reclaimed from the past." (p.21)

They go on to make a comparison between Maya and modern urbanism that seems very abstract:

"the internet and the cultivation of market-driven co-operatives based in rural settings are the loose equivalent of the roads and calendars (the internet) and resource-specialized communities (the cooperatives) of the Maya."  (p.22)

Tikal, Guatemala, one of the largest of the Classic Maya cities
In the third paper, Christian Isendahl attacks the problem of "urban essentialism" ("Investigating Urban Experiences, Deconstructing Urban Essentialism"). Urban essentialism is one of the perspectives that holds back our understanding of general patterns of modern and ancient urbanism. Isendahl shows,

"how deep-rooted the modernist perception of urban essentialism has been over the last century, dominating and streamlining how we tend to think about urbanism as a largely uniform type of social formation, even in the pre-modern past."  (p.27)

In other words, many people--both the public and scholars--have this idea that there is a single kind of urbanism and a single kind of city, when in fact there is much variation around the world and through history. Isendahl focuses on the topic of urban agriculture, and how it goes against the standard western view that rural and urban and completely different and opposed settings:

"The body of evidence indicates that agricultural production cannot comfortably be regarded as ‘the antithesis of the city’ — as common essentialist-flavored understandings of urbanity seem to suggest — but is in many cases a fully integrated urban activity, viewed at the long-term and global scales." (p.28)

Above, I use the phrase "might be relevant" for the role of ancient cites in contributing to our knowledge of general patterns of urbanization today. Here is the problem. While archaeologists have lots of data on issues of cities and the environment, resilience, social patterns, and so on, we have yet to analyze those data in a framework that can be used by scholars working on contemporary urbanism. Right now, about all we can do is bring up some isolated examples. So while there are some urban scholars out there who think that past cities are relevant to contemporary concerns, archaeologists have yet to get our act together to produce reliable scientific findings that those scholars could use. This is the basic theme of Smith (2010). For a broader statement of the idea that archaeological can contribute to wider social-science research, see Smith et al. (2012).

For more discussion of these issues, look over my past posts, and check out some of these papers:

Barthel, Stephan and Christian Isendahl
2012    Urban Gardens, Agriculture, and Water Management: Sources of Resilience for Long-Term Food Security in Cities. Ecological Economics ( in press; published online).

Costanza, Robert, Sander van der Leeuw, Kathy Hibbard, Steve Aulenbach, Simon Brewer, Michael Burek, Sarah Cornell, Carole Crumley, John Dearing, Carl Folke, Lisa Graumlich, Michelle Hegmon, Scott Heckbert, Stephen T. Jackson, Ida Kubiszewski, Vernon Scarborough, Paul Sinclair, Sverker Sörlin and Will Steffen  (2012)  Developing an Integrated History and future of People on Earth (IHOPE). Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 4(1):106-114.

Isendahl, Christian  2012    Investigating Urban Experiences, Deconstructing Urban Essentialism. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:25-28.

Isendahl, Christian and Michael E. Smith 2013    Sustainable Agrarian Urbanism: The Low-Density Cities of the Mayas and Aztecs. Cities 30 (in press; published online).

Scarborough, Vernon L., Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase  (2012)  Low-Density Urbanism, Sustainability, and IHOPE-Maya: Can the Past Provice More than History. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:20-24.

Scarborough, Vernon L., Nicholas P. Dunning, Kenneth B. Tankersley, Christopher Carr, Eric Weaver, Liwy Grazioso, Brian Lane, John G. Jones, Palma Buttles, Fred Valdez and David L. Lentz  (2012)  Water and sustainable land use at the ancient tropical city of Tikal, Guatemala. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:12408-12413.

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

2012    The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:15-19.

Smith, Michael E., Gary M. Feinman, Robert D. Drennan, Timothy Earle, and Ian Morris  2012    Archaeology as a Social Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:7617-7621.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cities, semi-urban places, and definitions

I periodically think about how we define terms like city and urban. There is no final and ultimate definition of terms like this. Definitions are tools. They help us solve intellectual problems and they help us understand the world. A definition that works in one context may not be helpful in another.

As I have discussed here previously (Original post on definitions), there are two major approaches to defining cities and urbanism: the demographic and the functional. Louis Wirth's influential demographic definition uses four features to define cities: permanence, high population, high density, and social diversity or complexity. The alternative functional approach says that any settlement that fulfills urban functions for a hinterland can be called urban. An urban function is an activity or institution in a settlement whose effects extend beyond the settlement. See the original post for more discussion and some references.

Role of 3 factors in definitions of city and urban
In a later post, I discuss how these and other definitions of city and urban vary in the importance they give to three factors: population, social complexity/ diversity, and influence or function. The other day I made up a diagram to illustrate this point. It is a kind of "triangular graph" that shows the relative importance of these three variables (at the 3 points). The two ellipses show how the major urban definitions rely on these three factors. Wirth's (demographic) definition relies entirely on population and complexity, so it lies far away from the functional point on the graph. The functional definition runs from the functional corner up toward the complexity corner. The reason for extending the area toward the top is that urban functions almost always require social complexity in the urban center. For example, a political capital typically requires different occupations and often different social class composition, if only to fulfill the basic operations of the government.

Camp meeting
In our attempts to understand complex social phenomena (like urbanism), sometimes examples at the extremes shed light on broader patterns. For this reason, in my class on ancient cities I always cover case studies whose urban status is the subject of great debate. The European Iron Age oppida is one example (functionally urban, but not demographically), or Chaco Canyon (just about nobody besides Steve Lekson considers this settlement to be urban). These cases help students see just what urbanism is all about.

In a paper I am now revising, my coauthors and I follow a parallel logic. In order to support a larger argument that neighborhoods are universal in human settlements, we examine a group of "semi-urban settlements" to see if they have neighborhoods. (the answer is yes in all cases except disaster camps). I talk about this study in a previous post. Our paper got a judgment of "revise and resubmit" from a journal, and one complaint of the reviewers was that we didn't define the term "semi-urban" very well. So I've been thinking about how these settlements relate to the standard definitions of urbanism. I made up a second triangular graph to help me understand these settlements.
Two categories of semi-urban settlement in the definition triangle

Actually, there are two very different kinds of semi-urban settlements, each with different dynamics of change (and different neighborhood processes as well). The first category I call "voluntary camps." These are things like religious camp revival sites, festival sites (like Burning Man), RV camps, and the the various urban "Occupy" campsites from last year. I am fascinated by these settlements, and I am convinced that they can teach us much about cities and urban dynamics. In terms of defining this category, the main traits are that these are limited-purpose settlements, rapidly settled, temporary, and voluntary. On the triangular graph they lie close to the Population corner. They do not have urban functions, and they may or may not have social diversity.

Japanese-American internment camp
The second group of settlements classified as "semi-urban" are those that planner Kevin Lynch called "the city as practical machine." I've talked about these previously. This category includes things like military camps, company towns, internment camps, refugee camps and disaster camps. The key feature of these sites is their top-down design and establishment in order to fulfill a specific activity within the larger society. Their specialized activity, whether confinement, economic exploitation, or something else, can be considered an urban function, so I place these settlements at the function/influence corner of the graph.

So, it turns out what one reason we had trouble coming up with a nice succinct definition of "semi-urban settlement" is that this category actually includes two very different types of settlement. But both are urban-like in some ways but not others, and few would be classified as "cities" or "urban settlements" on their own. But they are all part of the Wide Urban World, and they can all teach us much about cities and urban processes.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The "mysterious" ruins of Machu Picchu

Why do the media insist on claiming that all ancient cities were "mysterious"? Last night I watched a TV program on PBS called "The Ghosts of Machu Picchu." This was a "Nova - National Geographic Special." Most television shows about ancient cities are full of nonsense and I generally avoid them. But with one or two exceptions, the PBS series Nova does a good job explaining archaeology and ancient topics like cities. They usually take an objective, scientific viewpoint. Most research shown on Nova is driven by questions and problems that scientists solve with objective methods. National Geographic television programs, on the other hand, usually take a sensationalist approach that combines good research and known facts with an overblown dramatic perspective. For NGS, research is driven more by dramatic discoveries made by intrepid explorers than by testing models based on research questions. For NGS, ancient ruins are inherently mysterious.

"The Ghosts of Machu Picchu," as might be expected, combines these two approaches. A number of major experts were interviewed and shown at the site and in the lab. These individual segments were fine. I particularly liked John Verano talking about the skeletal material and Kenneth Wright on the fascinating hydrology of the site. Seeing Fernando Astete (the archaeologist in charge of the site) at Machu Picchu and nearby sites was great. But I got really tired of the constant barrage of statements by the narrator (NOT by the experts!) about how mysterious the site is. A few examples:

  • Machu Picchu is "a ruin that defies explanation."
  • "Who were the mysterious people who built it?"
  • "How could a people without iron tools or the wheel have produced such a masterpiece?"
  • The site is "beautiful and baffling"
  • Scholars have "no written clues" about the site. [not true].

Yale explorer Hiram Bingham "discovered" Machu Picchu in 1911. He was mystified at this towering complex site on top of a mountain, but his research team made a number of errors and as a result the site got the "mysterious" label. Why was this site built? Who built it? Why is is to strange? Given the scanty knowledge available before 1990, perhaps the "mysterious" label made sense. But then John Rowe (1990) located a Spanish early colonial document that basically explained what Machu Piccu was: an estate of the Inca emperor Pachakuti. The Inca kings built a series of royal retreats down the Urubamba Valley from their capital, Cuzco, and this site was built for Pachakuti.

These Inca estates are a kind of settlement different from regular cities that were administrative centers of the empire. The diagram (from Susan Niles 1993) shows how this was organized. Sites like Huanuca Pampa were political capitals, and sites like Machu Piccho, Ollantaytambo, and others, were the royal estates. These were attached directly to the kings, rather than run by the empire. Niles (1993) explains this well.

So there is little that is mysterious or baffling about the site, any more than one can say that ANY ancient cities is mysterious only because we have limited evidence. The only expert in the show who even suggested that there was a "mystery" about Machu Picchu was Johan Reinhard, an explorer/archaeologists who works for the National Geographic Society. The show did not mention Rowe's insights, although they did finally mention the document.

Major segments of the modern media seem to feel they have to claim that ancient cities are "mysterious" in order for people to pay attention to their stories or shows. But rather than building up false mysteries about sites like Machu Picchu, wouldn't it be better if they played up the truly interesting and important things about these cities? In its hybrid approach, "Ghosts of Machu Picchu" did this to some extent. The hydrology is incredibly fascinating. Major efforts were put into channeling water both to, and away from, the terraces at the site. This was an engineering marvel. The show never went anywhere with its question, "How could a people without iron tools or the wheel have produced such a masterpiece?" On one level, this question is silly. The Inca clearly did build the site without iron or the wheel. Many other ancient civilizations did similar things. But on another level, this is a great question, one that could provide an entry into Inca architecture and construction. But the show only talked a bit about that topic, which was not a major focus.

Machu Picchu has lots of lessons for our understanding of processes of urbanism around the world. It shows how an urban society can have two very different types of state-built cities, each for different purposes. It shows how the urban expressions of royalty could be different from the urban expressions of imperial administration. It shows the nature of limited-purpose cities. It shows how standard patterns of stoneworking, buildings, and urban planning concepts were adapted to the individual particularities of a spectacular and precarious setting. (I was waiting for a comparison of the layout of Machu Picchu to that of Patallakta, the agricultural town shown in the show. Such a comparison is very revealing of Inca urban planning practices). Machu Picchu shows how urbanism looks in a society that has a noncommercial economy (no money, no markets, no merchants; this was a command economy). This site has many lessons for the Wide Urban World, only a few of which were touched on in "Ghosts of Machu Picchu." These are interesting topics for research, but they aren't "mysteries."

In addition to Niles and Rowe, two recent monographs have good information about Machu Picchu:

Burger, Richard L. and Lucy C. Salazar (editors)
2003    The 1912 Yale Peruvian Scientific Expedition Collections from Machu Picchu: Human and Animal Remains. Yale University Publications in Anthropology. Yale University, New Haven.

Niles, Susan
1993    The Provinces in the Heartland: Stylistic Variation and Architectural Innovation Near Inca Cuzco. In Provincial Inca:  Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Assessment of the Impact of the Inca State, edited by Michael A. Malpass, pp. 145-176. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.

Reinhard, Johan
2007    Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center. Monograph. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Los Angeles.

Rowe, John H.
1990    Machu Picchu en la luz de documentos del siglo XVI. Histórica (Lima) 14(1):139-154.

One more thing: If you ever wondered about that rope bridge in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," it is an Inca bridge, built for the film by the descendants of the Incas, who still use these bridges today.